March 14, 2012
Arguably the most undesigned dessert I ever received in a restaurant was at Chez Panisse—the legendary eatery built upon Alice Waters’ youthful revelation in 1960s France that American food could be *so much better*.
The bowl that was set down before us was small, and in it were a cluster of Black Sphinx dates and two Pixie tangerines. The dates were not whipped into a pudding or baked into a cake; the citrus was not candied or even peeled. It looked more like a still life than haute cuisine.
Reactions to this adamant culinary simplicity vary, but as food critic Kim Severson puts it in her book Spoon Fed, describing a meal at Chez Panisse, “The first time can be underwhelming. You sit down to a few nuts…move into a plate of raw halibut and then a pile of greens…The meal ends with a little dish of peach ice milk and the bill is $95…For some people, the only reasonable response is, ‘What the hell?’”
Of course, that’s not the end of the thought. Her own incredulity gave way to admiration for Waters’ boldness in presenting naked ingredients to her diners and letting them find their own way to nirvana. “[When I] peeled a little Pixie tangerine from the Ojai Valley, its perfume exactly what you might think sunshine smelled like, my brain adjusted itself,” Severson recalls.
It’s the same kind of revelatory tale told by early devotees of minimalist design—overcoming the disorientation of a structure as seemingly plain as a Mies van der Rohe house or a Donald Judd sculpture, and discovering something profound in the lack of superfluous embellishment.
It’s no accident that Pixie was the variety Severson and I both tasted on our visits to Chez Panisse, nor that California’s Ojai Valley was explicitly named as its provenance. “Ojai is legendary as a place where good citrus is grown,” says Jim Churchill (aka Tangerine Man), co-owner of Churchill orchard. “They used to ship Ojai oranges to the White House.”
The way Churchill tells it, his Pixies owe their [niche] celebrity status to Chez Panisse—or rather, to the market that has long supplied much of the restaurant’s produce. He further posits that the Pixie paved the way for today’s massive seedless mandarin market. (Pixies are usually marketed as tangerines, but are botanically in the mandarin family Reticulata Blanco.) “When I first started trying to sell Ojai Pixies, I literally couldn’t give them away,” he says, “I couldn’t get 10 cents a pound. The reason was they didn’t get ripe during the tangerine season. After January nobody would buy them. That was 1987.”
It’s hard to remember a time when citrus was considered a wintertime-only treat, but early spring—“late season” in grower terms—marked the end of consumer expectation and demand for oranges and mandarins. The Pixie, released by UC Riverside‘s citrus breeding program in 1965, was suboptimal in terms of maturation and skin color. Churchill considers it a lucky misjudgment that when he planted his first trees in 1980, he didn’t know enough about commercial viability to doubt himself. What he knew was that the fruit tasted remarkable.
Fortunately, Bill Fujimoto, then owner and manager of Monterey Market in Berkeley, didn’t mold his inventory to the mass market—he created demand by peddling new discoveries. “Bill had a nose and eye for good stuff and he just started buying the Pixies. He always had chefs hanging around in the back room and Lindsey Shere, the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse, found them there. She put them on the menu and called them by name.”
Twenty-five years later, the Pixie is still the restaurant’s favored object lesson on simple pleasure. While numerous mandarin varieties have been developed and deployed in the interim, Chez Panisse sticks with the one that traces a personal story, from the unadorned bowl to the market down the road, to the optimistic farmer whose naivete opened the door for an unmarketable fruit to succeed. “We’re a tiny dot on the back of the elephant of late season tangerine sales now,” says Churchill. “The Pixie is not the world’s most attractive tangerine, but if you shop with your mouth, with your tongue, you’ll be happy.”
In most supermarkets, you can’t shop by taste, which is why the varieties that fly off the shelves are the ones that have the best-looking skin, the brightest packaging. Paying $8.50 for a few ounces of unmanipulated fruit at a high-end restaurant might be called an act of elitism. Or it might be construed like museum admission—a fee for the favorable “brain adjustment” that results from accepting the unexpected. On the other hand, rarefied air is not a prerequisite for a change of perspective. Good minimalist design, no matter the medium, is a just combination of simple materials and real intention.
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