A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, June 22, 2009

Eat At Bill's

(Above: Judy and Bill Fujimoto)

One day many years ago, I was complaining to a friend that I would never buy another tomato again because I was tired of tomatoes that taste like soggy cardboard. And she replied, "Haven't you heard of the Monterey Market?"
Everybody in Berkeley has their own variation of this story. The Monterey Market was our introduction to seasonal, organic, locally grown fresh food.
It gave birth to a movement that changed the world. California cuisine, neighborhood farmer's markets and every natural food store, from Whole Foods to the Berkeley Bowl - all trace their origins back to the Monterey Market and the man who has run it for the past 31 years, Bill Fujimoto, one of the nicest guys on the planet.
There are two kinds of ways to run a business. One is the paranoid model, in which you do unto others before they do it to you. That means squeezing the highest price out of your customers and paying as little as possible to your suppliers and employees.
That wasn't Bill's style. He took the long view and insisted on paying his farmers a decent price for their produce, keeping them afloat financially until they could get their business on a firm footing.
And if they had more than he could sell, he'd buy their entire crop anyway and eat the loss himself.
"I want you to be in business next year," he'd explain.
He also paid his employees a living wage and kept his prices as low as possible, far less than you'd pay at the supermarket.
If a customer asked him if the pears were ripe, he'd whip out his knife, cut one in half, and say, "Why ask me? Here, have a taste."
Longtime customer Teresa Wong remembers one time when she was about to buy the most expensive peaches in the store.
"Bill came rushing up to me and said, 'No, no, no, Teresa! You don't want to get those! These over here are cheaper and are really good!'"
Among his most loyal customers are the Bay Area's finest restaurants, including Chez Panisse, Eccolo and Bay Wolf.
"We've been shopping at Monterey Market since we opened in 1975," says Bay Wolf co-owner Larry Goldman. "To have someone like Bill, who can talk with our chefs with the same knowledge and passion that they have for the produce and the growers, has been incredibly exciting."
It's been a win-win-win situation all around. Bill created a community between the people who produce food and the people who consume it. And in the process, he started a revolution.
But, unfortunately, this golden age is coming to an end. Monterey Market is a family business - it was founded by his mom and dad, Mary and Tom Fujimoto - and two weeks ago Bill was forced out in a coup d'etat.
Customers and growers are both outraged, and many are threatening boycott. But, characteristically, Bill is taking the high road.
"I'm a Buddhist," he says. "Nothing lasts forever."
There will be a community celebration from 2 to 5 p.m. on June 28 at King School Park, near the corner of Hopkins and Colusa, to honor Bill and his wife, Judy. Considering all they've done, both for Berkeley and the food community, it will be a privilege and pleasure to say thanks.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kittens By Rosie

(Above: Rosie cleaning one of her kittens)

Looking for the perfect kitten? (Or better yet, a pair of kittens?) Call Rosie the golden retriever.
Rosie, who is a little over a year and a half, raises homeless kittens for Island Cat Resources and Adoption in Alameda, California.
If she's in a calm mood, she'll lie down and let them climb all over her and play with her feet.
If she's in a playful mood, she'll gently roll them across the floor with her nose.
If they get too rambunctious and start nipping or scratching, she'll look up at her owner, Gail Churchill, with a look that says, "Mommy, help!" But she still lets them do it.
It all started a few months ago, when Churchill, who fosters homeless kittens for ICRA, had a litter that was so young, they had to be bottle-fed.
"Rosie was absolutely mesmerized and would sit by my lap while I was feeding them. As babies do, they got messy faces, and I knew mommy kitties clean their babies with their tongue. So I got the idea of holding the baby kitty up to Rosie, and she started cleaning its face.
"This went on for weeks. As they grew and started running around on the floor, she would corral them and keep them where I could see them. If one ever got out of my sight, I'd just go look for Rosie because I knew that's where the baby was."
Before embarking on her career as a kitten raiser, Rosie used to sleep every night right beside Churchill and her husband Jim's bed.
"But now she insists on sleeping in the kitchen, right beside the big kitty condo where the kittens sleep at night, so she can keep an eye on them."
Currently, Rosie is working on her third litter, with no end in sight.
"The number of homeless kittens is exploding this year, and the rate doesn't show any sign of slowing down," says Churchill. "I'm fostering 15 babies right now, and so are many of our other volunteers."
Some news reports say the problem is growing because cats are being abandoned by owners whose homes have been foreclosed, but Churchill says they're only a tiny fraction of the homeless cat population.
"We've seen a few abandoned pets showing up, but the kittens are coming from people not spaying or neutering their own pets or the strays showing up in their back yards."
ICRA has no shelter - which, paradoxically, is an advantage. All the kittens are raised in foster homes instead of shelter cages, so they get highly socialized.
Rosie's kittens are not only dog-friendly, they think of themselves as tiny golden retrievers and act accordingly. They do well in homes that already have a family dog.
Another ICRA volunteer, DeAnne Jarvis, has a very large male cat named Smokey Joe. Although he dislikes adult cats, he's crazy about kittens.
"She puts her kittens in the room with Smokey Joe, and they all nuzzle up and sleep with him, and he loves them and acts like an uncle kitty," says Churchill. "His kittens do great in homes that already have other cats."
Several ICRA foster homes have kids under 14, so their kittens fit right into homes with children.
ICRA exhibits cats and kittens ready for adoption every Saturday at Petco in Alameda from Noon to 4 p.m., as well as on its website, www.icraeastbay.org. Donations to ICRA can be mailed to P.O. Box 1093, Alameda CA 94501.
One of the reasons Rosie gets along so well with kittens is that she herself was raised by cats: the Churchill family felines Howdy, Jackie, Jenny, Yoshi and Jacques.
One day, when Rosie was four months old, Churchill came home and found her standing on top of the kitchen counter.
The look on her face said it all: "What's the problem? The cats do it, don’t they?"