Fear of Fruits and Vegetables

Everyone has an Achilles heel. For me it’s the proper and accurate identification of fruits and vegetables. At fifty-one, I break into hives if someone casually asks me to pick up watercress at the supermarket.

Parents and relatives considered me a bright child with promise until the strawberry incident. At four, I had the vocabulary of an eight-year old. “She’s a genius!” “Start saving for Harvard Medical School.” I received excellent grades at Montessori School for my artwork, ability to interact well with others, and keep my pants dry. Then, Mrs. B., changed all that when she called my mom for a teacher-parent conference.

Expecting good news, my mom was excited to meet Mrs. B. Then, she could back to her favorite sport: shopping. Instead she got this:

“I’m concerned about your daughter. She doesn’t know the difference between a strawberry and a postman.” (In my defense, I think our postman had acne and I was just being creative).  “And, she confuses piano with banana.” I guess I don’t have to save for medical school, my mom thought.

This story became family lore. Or, something my sister could tease me about until I am ninety-six. I accept this story as part of who I am and why my family will always be concerned about me.  But, I have always wondered how did my teacher figure this out?

“Class, take a look at your workbooks, what is on page 10?”

“Strawberry”

“Strawberry”

“Strawberry”

“Strawberry”

“Postman”

Or, the teacher asked the class, “What did you have for breakfast?”

“Froot Loops”

“Eggs”

“Fruit”

“Pancakes topped with postman.”

On the teacher’s advice, my mother took me for a drive and pointed to every single object and identified it.   “This is a fire hydrant; this is rock; this is a car; this is a potato. . . .”

After these drives, my mother was no longer called in about my deficiency in fruit identification. While my inadequate knowledge of fruit did not bring anymore teacher-parent meetings, this problem was a ticking tomato ready to explode.

And, so it did, when I got a job at Pathmark. I was nineteen years old, just finished my freshman year at college. I did not think I would have any problems as I was assigned to the coveted pharmacy. Nobody is buying strawberries or bananas from a pharmacy. After my training, however, my supervisor told me “by the way, you need to be trained for the front end, too. So, you have to go through that training too” Here’s the kicker, you are required to take a test on produce. Quitting seemed like a perfect option.

I heard rumors about the test. Approximately, twenty test-takers sit at a round table. Meanwhile, the proctor holds up a piece of produce for twenty seconds (that’s it, no, “can I see the stem, please”) and the employees write down the name of the greengrocery. Complete silence; you can hear a spinach leaf drop. Last year, according to gossip, the examiner held up different kinds of oranges, in a row. I mean really who can tell the difference between a clementine, tangerine, or regular navel orange?

I couldn’t sleep. When I did, instead of having visions of sugar plum fairies, I dreamt I was being chased by massive heads of lettuce. Why? Do you know how many kinds of lettuce exist? Too many. Red leaf, and of course green leaf which despite their names look very similar, iceberg and bibb (which is also known as boston; would I get credit for either I wondered), and romaine. And, of course, there is lettuce-like produce, endive, arugula, chicory, and escarole. Who buys this stuff anyway? I had an idea for management: every fruit and vegetable should cost the same. My rationale — Pathmark’s pricing was discriminatory. Who are we to say one piece of produce is better than another? Aren’t they all from this earth?

Whenever I got the chance, I strolled through the produce aisle and studied. What the hell is that orange thing, a persimmon? I never heard of a persimmon pie. And, who eats these? I am sure just a handful of people. They should shop at specialty stores or be shot. In order to prepare myself for the test, I put my hand over the name of the produce and guessed. Overripe celery? No, damn, it’s rhubarb. Everything was about fruit and produce. Did you ever notice that the fruit of the loom guys are an apple and not one, not two, but three kinds of grapes?

I was living at home at the time. My family — even the cat – was always in a good mood because no matter how bad their day was the thought of my taking a produce test cheered them up. At dinner, it became custom that my sister held up a strawberry and said “What’s this? A postman?” I pretended as if it did not matter. But secretly, I was seriously nervous that I might fail. Then, what? Would I get fired? Would Mrs. Baumgarten say “I told you so”? What if the tester held up parsley? Would I confuse it with watercress? What if the tester held up a big potato and I wrote down yam? I wanted to go on a crusade to limit produce.

I studied more than I did for the SATs. I started feeling confident about my ability to tell the difference between macintosh, rome, and red apples. In honor of the test, I had a vegetarian dinner before the big day, and I had cereal with strawberries the morning before the exam.

At the test, the proctor showed us easy produce: iceberg lettuce (the easiest of the lettuces), red apple, peach, grapes, and a turnip. I was kind of disappointed. After all my studying, I was looking forward to being able to identify and spell radicchio correctly.

I passed the test. Out of all my accomplishments, this ranked number one.

Ironically, now supermarkets put numbered stickers on produce to identify it. The first time I saw this I felt vindicated. We shall overcome. So, I guess produce tests are now obsolete. Or, are they? I was in the supermarket the other day and I bought a piece of fruit that did not have a sticker on it.

“What is this?” asked the cashier.

“Bosc Pear.” I said with pride.

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