by Kevin Coupe
One of the more extraordinary people I've ever met in my career is Frieda Caplan, who in the 1960's began a career that revolutionized the fresh produce business, bringing to stores and consumers a vast selection of exotic fruits and vegetables and in the process expanding the American palate.
So, it is with enormous admiration that I report to you that a documentary about Frieda Caplan's life has been produced and currently is available on, among other places, iTunes. Fear No Fruit, written and directed by Mark Brian Smith, is an affectionate look at a woman who became a powerhouse businesswoman in the "Mad Men" era and who many people see as being on par with Julia Child in changing the American culinary landscape.
I didn't realize until I saw Fear No Fruit, for example, that until Frieda brought the New Zealand Kiwifruit to America in 1962, no new fruit had found its way into US stores since the banana in the late 1800's. There's a wonderful segment in the film in which there is a "crawl" listing all the various products that Frieda and her namesake company. Frieda's Finest, has introduced ... as Frieda and her daughters try to name them all from memory. (They can't.)
As impressive as Frieda's contribution to American gastronomy has been, perhaps even more impressive is the story the film tells about her family, and how her daughters Karen and Jackie now run the business, and how her granddaughter Alex not only is in the business, but also lives with Frieda. (Alex seems not just to like the living arrangements, but also to really like her grandmother.) As powerful an influence as Frieda has been, she gives Karen much of the credit for the business's success, noting that when Karen became president in 1986, the company’s sales volume more than doubled in less than 5 years.
Here's the thing I found most heartening - at age 91, Frieda still goes to work every day, showing enormous energy and passion for the business. And she's also ever-present at Santa Monica's legendary Farmer's Market, testing new items, looking for opportunities, and always, always learning. (I also know that Frieda knows her way around the internet ... I don't think she'd mind if I mentioned here that I get emails from her from time to time, reacting to something I've written or suggesting something to which I should pay more attention.)
Fear No Fruit is one of those movies that ought to be required viewing for anyone in the fresh produce business ... or for anyone in the food retail business, for that matter. It provides insight and context about an important part of the American food experience, and shines a well-deserved light on one of the industry's most interesting and influential personalities, and nobody deserves it more.
Fear No Fruit is available on-demand on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu and XBOX.