Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Purple Radish Badge of Honor

Behold, the Purple Radish Badge of Honor. Wait, shh, don’t say anything yet. Just pause for a moment and regard it in all its handmade, purple-stitched glory. I will explain soon enough. But first, a prelude:

For a while now, Erin and I have talked about adding a new feature to the blog in which we interview different weird vegetable people—farmers, farmers’ market workers, home gardeners, earthy souls who see the world through veggie-hued glasses. My friend who dressed up as an artichoke appeared on these virtual pages as Livi Yoshi-choke-a in an earlier, organic incarnation of this idea, but here now I present you with the first official stranger I was able to lure into talking with me in the name of vegetable blogo-journalism (with a new tag in the vegroll column: veggie people).

To speak the squeaky-clean truth, Nik at Happy Boy Farms isn’t a complete stranger since he was already used to seeing me at the Noe Valley farmers’ market most sunny Saturdays, sidling up to their salad greens, fondling the fennel, and squeezing the squash. Happy Boy is one of my favorite local vegetable purveyors and is especially known for their salad mixes topped with brightly colored, edible flowers. I also take delight in their many varieties of potato and their cartoon vegetable signs.


Owner Greg Beccio named his California Central Coast operation Happy Boy out of the sense of relief and elation he felt after separating from a larger partnership with Earthbound Farm (see his vendor’s statement). Earthbound was notoriously singled out by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a case study in the uneasy compromise known as “Big Organic,” which refers to organic farms that have grown so large they must turn to harvesting and distribution techniques that move them out of the local farmers’ market niche and closer to the industrial food chain (Earthbound’s salad mixes are available in 75% of U.S. supermarkets according to their website, including what might be termed mega-markets like Costco and Wal-Mart).

Pollan does a good job of highlighting the limitations of Big Organic’s capitulation to a large-scale, fossil-fuel driven system while also conceding the nevertheless positive environmental impact of liberating thousands of acres of land from pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers, as well as the effect of more accessibly priced food, the ethical Achilles’ heel of the Slow Food crowd. The Pollan excerpt I’m referring to is here (thanks Google Books!, with more on the issue from the Organic Consumers Association. At the same time, I'd say that Happy Boy has been able to maintain pretty reasonable prices considering its smaller operation and the consistently high quality of its produce ($4 for a large bag of salad greens that can sometimes last me two weeks and still stay perky.).


Let’s return to the weird vegetable at hand. One overcast market morning, I asked a Happy Boy worker about the funny purple radish patch on her black hoodie, and she directed me to Nik as its original owner. From there I uncovered one offshoot of the shadowy network that forms the labyrinthine lore surrounding the Purple Radish Badge of Honor.

The winter season of ’08 was particularly rough for the good people at Happy Boy, and at the end of it all, interim market manager Ora presented the Purple Radish to those who had been wounded in service during that January through April period.

The following excerpt from the award certificate that she wrote up and lovingly bedecked with shiny superstar stickers further explains the radish's symbolism:

This winter at Happy Boy the crew provided its strength and dedication through a long and iced-filled season. Thanks so much to everyone who worked so hard, and, although many were injured in the line of duty, proved that nothing could stop the Boy. Thanks to everyone who suffered, scraped ice, and wept at the thought of a warm summer day while being able to say "look! you can see my breath" all day long.


Winter is always rugged here for marketers, and several folks were wounded in battle. The lift gates jammed, it rained, it froze and our equipment generally revolted. You know it's winter at Happy Boy when hanging out in the walk-in cooler feels like a warm tropical paradise at 5:00 am. The purple heart is too played out (and too military fascisty), although not a poor color choice. Enclosed are this season's winners of the coveted Purple Radish Badge of Honor.

Of the four or five purple radishes that were given out, Nik admits that his radish-worthy trials were “the least intense,” at least physically, though perhaps the most entertaining. To give you a point of reference, another radish recipient was co-worker Kitten Fox, who suffered near-disaster when the delivery truck he was driving back to the farm on Highway 101 suddenly lost the ability to steer and who also broke his wrist that season. Chris fell dramatically ill and was later attacked by umbrellas in the back of the storage shed.


Nik’s winter ’08 adventures occurred in three major episodes that form a kind of three-ring sideshow that earned him the nickname: The Circus Master. Already in a fragile mental and physical state from working 35 hours per week making deliveries and working multiple markets while also taking a full load of classes during his senior year at UC Santa Cruz, this exhausted boy experienced twisted and bizarre inflations of the ego punctured in the end by a vicious pallet and bruised foot. [painting credit]

Episode One: The Market Clown

Everyone likes to have a secret admirer once in awhile, and Happy Boy has a large following of fans, one of whom left a unicorn on a pile of Nik’s things one morning in Noe Valley with a note that read, “For Happy Boy employees. I couldn’t live without your sweet mix.” That was sweet, we both agreed. But the mix gets a little creepier whenever a clown gets caught up in it, especially one with knife skills. This one was a vegetable-loving clown who declared her attraction to Nik through a series of Missed Connections posts on Craigslist that featured photos of produce-shaped body parts: a heart-shaped tomato, then a watermelon radish head with carved out eyes.

When he left the stand for a couple weeks to take a break, the clown passed him a mix CD by unwittingly handing it to his then girlfriend, who also worked there. Despite its musical merit, the mix got thrown out the car window during an angry moment on a subsequent trip to L.A. When I asked what kind of clown high jinks his admirer engaged in, Nik answered, “Charlie Chaplin kind of stuff, but she does some scary stuff too.” My fear was too great to pry for further details on what counts as "scary" for a clown beyond merely dressing up as one. [happy and sad clown photo credits]

Episode Two: Grizzly Bear Tricks

The clown incident was largely benign, though it may have caused some friction for the couple, but the next episode involved a more forceful expression of appreciation for this hard-working farm boy, one that did not ultimately result in friendship. On the very same day that Kit Fox lost steering power in his truck, Nik was also driving a delivery truck down Hwy 101 back to the Happy Boy farm in Watsonville when a man in a pickup truck pulled up next to his vehicle and started waving. Nik waves back, reflects upon the friendliness of strangers in this sometimes harsh world, and speeds up gradually. The other driver, a burly man in his mid-thirties, bald with a giant beard and big, furry arms laid bare by a leather vest over a tank top—in short, a grizzly bear of a man—pulls up flush again and holds up a sign with Sharpie writing that says, "Pull over and I’ll—" followed by a short proposal of dubious pleasure that I won’t repeat in this vegetable forum. [grizzly bear photo credit]

[Me: "How were you able to read the sign? It must have been really big."
Nik: "I have really good eyesight."]

So Grizzly Bear shouts, “Follow me!” and veers into the lane in front of Nik's truck, revealing a bumper sticker on his back window that reads, “A boner is a terrible thing to waste.” (Yes, "boner" made it past the blog's PG-13 censors.) The beastly man takes the next exit, and when Nik doesn’t follow, he immediately veers back onto the highway and drives up behind the delivery truck, honking and shouting while making rude gestures. Nik’s shrugging reply: “Got to go to work! Sorry!” A measured response worthy of the best handler in the business.

Episode Three: Pallet Stuntman

photo credits: stunt, pallets

At this point in the season Nik was barely getting enough rest, at times ending up in sixteen-hour sleeping binges between classes and markets as clowns and grizzly bears skipped idly through his dreamworld. Though it was already March, the weather took an icy turn, and sleet fell hard on the Happy Boy crew. One Saturday night, a zombie-eyed Nik was helping unload and load pallets of produce to prepare for the next day’s market when the pallet jack slipped off the lift gate (whatever that means) and the pallet landed on his foot. “I did a giant hop off the back of the truck, kind of fell down, and just ... screamed,” he remembers. To add to the circus drama, let’s imagine he snuck in a tight cannonball-style, backwards double flip before landing. The injury to his foot didn't prevent him from working the next day, but “that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and he took some much-needed time off after that.


Nik has been with Happy Boy Farms for almost two years now, and while he wears his radish patch mostly because he likes it, he doesn’t feel that he has clocked significantly more hours of suffering than others. He acknowledges that “farmers’ market work is really hard, no matter what you do. Everyone that works there knows that everyone else has a really hard time.” You can try to sneak a peek at Nik's Purple Radish Badge of Honor at the Happy Boy stand at the Saturday Berkeley Farmers’ Market, where he'll be for a few more weeks before leaving to begin a master's program in African American Studies at Columbia in August. The tightrope-walking vegetables will miss him for sure.


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