Ripe Here, Ripe Now

Surfing the vagaries of the produce trade leads to a giddy sense of being in touch with all the world's seasons.

Eisenberg Fruit Co.
170 E. 10th St., St. Paul; 227-0634

Ever opened your refrigerator crisper to find a liquefied, black ooze of prehistoric slime where lettuce once was? Pushed aside the mayonnaise to discover a pint of strawberries fuzzy as Easter chicks? Let that perfect nectarine go all weird and leathery? Then you're intimate with the hard fact that food is fragile.

On the bright side, this fact has done much to fuel the progress of civilization. Dehydration and fermentation of grain, dairy products, and grapes is what allowed humankind to form cities. We sought out spices around the globe with nothing but sextants and leaky boats to obscure the boring tastes of that dehydrated food; then we electrified cities to permit refrigeration.

On the dark side, we ended up with Tang, Budweiser freshness-dating along with the regrettable skunky beer campaign, and snack cakes that will be edible until Hanson start cashing Social Security checks. But if you are brave enough to skate along the thin line separating the dark and light of food perishability--to dwell at the very pinnacle of ripe--you can live like a king on a pauper's salary, as long as you know the way to Eisenberg.

And Eisenberg makes it easy for you. This combination fruit market, plain-Jane grocery store, and cut-rate salvage grocer has been on the same corner on the edge of downtown St. Paul, at 10th and Jackson, since 1937, when Max Eisenberg moved his fruit store from North Minneapolis. Prices and specials change constantly, but recently asparagus was flying out the door at 99 cents a pound, bananas were going for an incredible 3 pounds for $1, and kiwis were running five for $1.

How do they do it? "Because of our long-standing history and reputation," explains Peggie Eisenberg--who runs the store with her husband Max, their son Matthew and daughter-in-law Jennifer, and Max's sister Mary--"we're the first call for help if a [produce] broker has bought more than he can sell." The Eisenbergs pick up the extra merchandise for a song, and in turn price it so low it clears out of their store posthaste.

But why would brokers be so eager to off-load perfectly good fruit and vegetables? For any number of reasons, explains Eisenberg: Sometimes stores are simply glutted with an in-season product and can't move any more than they already have. Sometimes a transportation delay will mean that fruit arrives ripe, instead of the pre-ripe way stores prefer. And a number of premium grocers have a zero-tolerance policy for bruised or damaged fruit: If they open a pallet and find one bruised peach on the top level, they may refuse the entire shipment for fear of getting a reputation as a store that accepts less-than-perfect merchandise. Other produce makes it to Eisenberg from local farmers who want to bypass the brokers--that's how the store ends up with day-fresh, local, in-season produce such as asparagus, spinach, or apples.

All of which means that recently Eisenberg was selling honeydew melons for $1.49 each, while a few miles away at Lund's the exact same melons were 99 cents a pound, or about $5 each. Bright-red hydroponic tomatoes were $1.49 a pound, while Lund's sold their equivalent for $2.99 a pound. Merely shopping for staples at Eisenberg could chop a couple hundred dollars off a family's annual food bill: Recently you could get 20 pounds of red potatoes for $1.99, a price that at Lund's would have bought you exactly a 3-pound bag. (For some reason, odd-size potatoes, known in the trade as #2s, are dramatically cheaper than potatoes that are all the same size.)

In addition to cut-price produce and salvaged staples, Eisenberg sells normally priced fresh milk, eggs, and other necessities, as well as fancy gourmet treats supermarkets have experimented with and given up on. When a Super Valu somewhere tried a French soft cheese, "Carré Président," and then decided the elegant foil-wrapped squares were taking up more refrigerator space than they were worth, Eisenberg stepped in and now sells them for 99 cents each; meanwhile they're at Lund's for $4.09. On a recent visit I found Eisenberg shelves full of Carr's shortbreads, Swedish Gille bitter-chocolate crisps, and a whole line of prepackaged Alessi risottos from Italy's Lombardia region.

And while it's true that you can find some duds along the crowded corridors--stale fancy teas, potted herbs that are well past saving--there's a quality of urban foraging that electrifies the proceedings more than any mere price-comparing can explain. When you come upon a tray of individually tissue-wrapped spring-yellow Japanese pears and set them on top of your cheaper-than-dirt potatoes, when you walk out into the sunlight with an armful of star fruit, you feel like Cinderella with the golden chariot: How did I get this? It just fell into my lap.

Surfing the vagaries of the produce trade also leads to a giddy sense of being in touch with all the world's seasons. Some February Saturday when pineapples are virtually free, you get a sense that it's harvest season somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. When cucumbers are five for $1 at Christmas, you abruptly realize it's merely late summer in California. The bargains then inspire you to cook as though things were in season when they're not particularly: A recent bumper crop of fresh sweet marjoram had me vinaigretting everything in sight and provided an unsought, but much appreciated, lesson in the sweet, slightly licoricey, barely minty oregano flavors of the herb.

Some families have less of an oh-golly relationship with the store and regularly travel in from as far away as Iowa to shop for bargain fruit and vegetables--especially around canning time, when one might save $200 on a hundred pounds of peaches. These customers are greeted by a handful of staff, some of whom have worked at the store for more than 20 years. While they stack shrink-wrapped trays of beans or pears, staffers will usually offer a friendly "Beautiful beans, ladies," or "Don't forget oranges!" All in all, it makes you feel like you're in the middle of one of those parables about how every problem is just an opportunity seen from a different angle: These bright ripe strawberries, glowing mangoes, and odd-size potatoes might be headaches for a series of food-business middlemen. But they're a windfall for penny-pinchers and surplus-surfers willing to dwell in the moment of ripe.

TABLEHOPPING

PEACHY: Peach season is approaching, or so says my foodie calendar, which lists June 13 as the date of the Austin, Texas, Sweet Peach Festival. I'm all ready for those fuzzy nectarous beauties zooming up I-35 and into my hot little hands--particularly because I'm always chasing the dragon for a peach pie like the one I had in Clearwater, Florida, made by my friend Lisa's aunt Bud. There's a bunch of peach-pie options on the ultrafast and pretty useful Sierra On-Line site--they're the people that brought you computer gimcrackery like those famous After Dark screensavers and the You Don't Know Jack trivia game.

Sierra (www.sierra.com) really has got a handle on recipe management--the database is fast, clearly organized, copious, and did I say fast? The only barrier is Sierra's bizarre categorization of cooking and gardening as "Home Productivity." Clearly they've never spent all summer ministering to a fussy rosebush for maybe $8 worth of roses, never spent all day slaving over a pie that could have been gotten far more easily and much more cheaply in your grocer's freezer. It's not about the productivity, it's about the pleasure. You'd think people who make their money flying toasters across people's darkened screens would realize that.

Granny's Peaches and Cream Cobbler

Filling:

* 1 cup sugar

* 2 eggs

* 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

* 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

* 4 to 6 fresh peaches or two 16-ounce packages

sliced frozen peaches (4 cups)

Topping:

* 11/2 cups all-purpose flour

* 2 tablespoons sugar

* 1 teaspoon baking powder

* 1/2 teaspoon salt

* 1/3cup butter or margarine, softened

* 1 egg, lightly beaten

* 3 tablespoons milk

* 3 tablespoons sugar

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and slice peaches. (The easiest way to peel peaches is to dunk them for 30 seconds in boiling water--the skin then slides right off.) In a large bowl, stir together all filling ingredients except peaches. Add the peaches. Pour mixture into a 13-by-9-inch pan.

In a medium bowl, stir together all topping ingredients except butter, egg, and milk. Cut in butter until crumbly. Stir in egg and milk until just moistened. Crumble mixture over peaches; sprinkle with three tablespoons sugar. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbly around edges. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Makes eight servings.

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