Large, chain supermarkets have no smell. Even in the produce aisle, where piping sprays water over cucumbers and lettuces in a vain attempt to make them look dew-kissed, the only scent you might catch is a faint chlorine tang — possibly from the floor, possible from the misters. The apples might as well be made of wax instead of just coated with it.
Monterey Market in Berkeley is a symphony of lemon zest and mushroom fug and cilantro. It smells like fresh food, like a farmers market would if it were held indoors. Which at Monterey Market, it essentially is. Owner Bill Fujimoto has singlehandedly helped hundreds of small farmers transition from one-on-one cash consumers to wholesale customers.
One of them, tangerine grower Lisa Brenneis, has made a loveletter of a movie, called "Eat at Bill's," about Fujimoto and his heroic efforts to sell regional produce at its peak of ripeness. I haven't yet seen it — I hope to tomorrow — but I hear from two supposed cynics who have that it's quite inspiring. In this teaser clip, you can watch Fujimoto talk customers into trying a plate-sized mushroom, buy arugula from the back of a station wagon, and then offer $5 per pound in an attempt to procure a bag of some Italian pole beans destined for restaurants. Chez Panisse buys from Monterey Market, as do other discerning area restaurants; they get to shop from a special section in the back we never see.
Brenneis has written an accompanying article for Edible East Bay that explains why Fujimoto's willingness to nurture small farmers is so rare, in an industry that prefers consolidation, as well as so precious in helping farms develop strong roots. "Compare the labor involved in selling a single 1,000-pound order with the 500 transactions required to sell that same 1,000 pounds by two pounds at a time to 500 customers," she writes. "It's not practical for most farmers to sell their entire crop two pounds at a time."
As much as I love farmers markets, I know that the supermarket as a one-stop food-shopping destination is not going to disappear. Monterey Market is almost alone in its commitment to buying as much as possible locally, and may be unique in its combination of Fujimoto's indefatigable drive and the fertile soil of the Berkeley foodie culture. We need more like it if farmers are ever to make a viable enough living for it to be attractive to future generations.
I don't shop there as often as I should; my excuse is Berkeley Bowl is on the way home from work — but its produce section, while awesome, is not as awesome.
"Eat at Bill's" will be screened tomorrow, Friday the 17th, with Fujimoto and Brenneis in attendance, at 8 p.m. at Eighth St Studio, 2525 8th St. in Berkeley. Tickets are $10, with proceeds going to the Center for Ecoliteracy. There's another screening Thursday, March 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley with tickets for $5. Edible East Bay would like people to RSVP for these showings by e-mail to i...@edibleeastbay.com or by phone (510) 654-5492.
The DVD of the movie is also for sale for $20.
(Hat tip to Bruce Cole at Edible Nation for the initial heads-up about the film…)