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Where Have All The Fish Geeks Gone?

Home AquariumI was looking back in time yesterday when I turned on the lights of my old sturdy 55 gallon fish tank. The fish had finally all died off after close to 15 years and there were just plants in the tank that didn’t need too much light so I had left the light off to save a bit of money [note, even if I left the lights on it would only cost 11¢/day] and I started to wonder where all the aquarium people had gone to?

Granted, I’ll have to take a step back in time to the 80’s and 90’s when I was involved with the San Francisco Aquarium Society. I wasn’t just involved, but I was the President for four years and on the Board of Directors for eight. The original story is linked above. Back then when I got involved with the SFAS, it when from a casual 50 members which we might get 20 to show up to over 500 members and we would be able to pack the old auditorium at the Academy of Sciences. I became known for being a fish geek. I would get calls from newspapers and local stations would have me be on a show to talk about the popularity of aquariums. I was on a trip in the 90’s to London and while walking around the London Aquarium I asked one of the workers about one of the tank set ups and after a couple of minutes was recognized and got the full behind the scenes tour of the aquarium [it’s good to be the fish geek].

Back then there were loads of aquarium stores around the city some small some huge [R.I.P. Nippon Aquarium] and you could find fish from all over the world available to you. The aquarium clubs had all the interesting fish that you’d never see anywhere else. In addition to the SFAS, there was also the Pacific Coast Cichlid Association, the Bay Area Killifish Association and the just started Bay Area Aquatic Plant Association. They’re all still around, but they aren’t as big a pull as they used to be.

Needs a little work don't it?Back then we had the true fish geeks who would have home setups that would rival some public aquariums. They would breed fish, sometimes producing strains that you hadn’t seen in the hobby. Many of these people were breeding fish that had come from collections years ago of fish that were endangered [I’ve seen more Devil’s Hole Pupfish bred in home tanks than there are in the Death Valley]. Those of us who bred fish back then could bring some into the meetings and easily leave with $100 in our pocket to spend over the weekend. My goal back then was when I retired I would breed fish and sell them at the club meetings to supplement my income. I had a friend who was importing plants and selling them to the stores around the Bay Area while he was living out of his car for awhile. He built a nice nest egg for himself and I thought I would too.

Now, that’s not so much the case. Fish I could have gotten $20-$30 for a pair are now selling for $5 for three pairs at some club meetings. The public shows such as the SFAS show at Tanforan every year is gone. It seems that people don’t think about home aquariums as much anymore. They’re easier to take care of than cats and dogs. True, they won’t curl up on your lap [unless you keep eels in a tank next to your bed. True story], but they do have personalities and a nice lush tank has been shown to lower blood pressure and give people well, warm fuzzy feelings. You can get into it as much as you want. You can start with a small 10 gallon tank and then move up to home installation if you get really into it.  The SFAS Home Shows were where people got to show off what they did with their tanks and gave the rest of us ideas to build on. There were a few people who always tried to out do everyone else. One friend who passed on had a 250 gallon coffee table with small sharks swimming around [no lasers on the sharks though].

I strongly recommend people try out aquariums at least once to see if they like them. The aquarium fish trade could use a boost and it would be great to bring it back in San Francisco.

Stonestown Farmer’s Market

I grew up with my family going to farmer’s markets on the weekend. Back then though there was only one in San Francisco out on Alemany Avenue that still is there today. Back then things were a little different from what I remember. There was pretty much only fruits and vegetables and they weren’t organic, but they were good quality. My Mom used to buy pickling cucumbers when they were in season by the crate and make Kosher dills and bread and butter pickles [those are the sliced pickles of today]. She’d also get various wax peppers and pickle them too and there was always the fresh fruit for making pies and cobbler. My Mom could cook to say the least.

Now, the farmer’s markets are focused on organic and artisanal products. Stonestown Farmer’s Market is pretty similar to other farmer’s markets around the city that you’ll see. Most of the vegetables and fruits are trucked up for the day from down South and while the fruits tend to be pretty good I can get a crate of strawberries on one of the corners from a hispanic kid selling them before the police chase them away for less. Not that I’ve had a need to purchase a crate of strawberries anytime in my life, but if I did I know where to get the cheap. Generally the fruits and vegetables are a little bit cheaper than in stores, but the vegetables tend to be lacking in quality. Our trip yesterday yielded us not too much other than some baked goods which specializes in pretzel based breads. The time before that our purchase of vegetables ended up having to be thrown out as after we got rid of the outer bits of leaves the inside tended to be molding and rotting. The potatoes we purchased were pre-bagged and were rotting when we opened them up.

That being said, there are some interesting things you can try and purchase at the farmer’s markets. Baked goods, cheeses, olive oil pretty much anything packaged will be good quality, but beware of the term artisanal in front of it. We had some cheese samples that were very good, but when you have it called artisanal cheese expect to pay a higher price. We tried an aged cheese that was washed in beer, but that meant nothing to be as I didn’t get any taste of beer from it. Another was brine washed called salty dog and while there was a hint of salt, it was a longer aged cheese which could have contributed more than the brine wash.

There are also several jewelry, clothing and art retailers there that while nice wasn’t enough of an attraction. There were several food vendors that were tempting me, except we were going out to lunch so I didn’t want to spend money twice and not be able to eat all of the food I purchased. Stonestown’s Farmer’s Market also had weekly bands that aren’t blasting loud, but entertaining and seem to be enjoyed by the children when they aren’t enjoying the bouncy house at the far end. It’s every Sunday until 1pm and I definitely think you should check it out, but keep in mind that not all fruits and vegetables are in season year round.

Why Does Our Produce Suck?

If you had asked me that question 15 years ago I would have said, who cares. I didn’t eat much in the way of vegetables. You’d be lucky to see me eat a potato or have a salad. Most of that changed when I met my wife who was practically a vegan when we met and today I have to ask what happened to the quality of our produce.

I used to be proud when my in-laws came to visit. Going to a grocery store here was like walking into Saks Fifth Avenue. Their eyes would widen at all the fresh produce that was available and how nice it looked. I didn’t realize what it was like for them until I took my first trip back east to see them. The produce sections were scrawny and lettuce meant iceberg lettuce only. Iceberg is to lettuce like spam is to prime rib. It crunches, but has no flavor of its own and should be relegated to being a garnish rather than the base of a dish. I’d need another hand to count the types of lettuce we have available to us out here, but suddenly we’ve discovered a problem…it’s all turning to crap.

We’ve gone to the local grocery stores and produce markets lately and the cucumbers feel like they need a viagra to firm them up. The lettuce is wilted with brown spots inside near the heart. The tomatoes are mushy, the apples aren’t as crisp, etc, etc.

What happened? We’ve even gone to farmer’s markets where we’ve bought organic produce only to come home and find upon closer inspection that most of it is dirty and starting to rot and has to be thrown out. While California is the Golden State, it’s really packed with lots of farmers in the central valley and they grow a lot of what we consume, so why are our fruits and vegetables getting so bad? I talked with one friend of mine who has her own garden in her backyard where she grows her own produce which comes out quite well. She suggested that it’s the travel time from farm to store, but I don’t think that’s as much of a problem when it’s California grown. It could be due to the odd weather we’ve been having that’s throwing off the crops or it could be that we don’t have enough farm workers to do the job properly because the farmers don’t have the money to pay them. All I know is that the quality is getting worse.

Good thing I don’t live in a place where it has to be shipped in. I think I’ll feel sorry for my in-laws now.

Failing Easy Market

This morning there was a big hoopla in the papers and online about the opening of the new Fresh & Easy market in the Richmond District. Now I like to go to openings of things around the city, but don’t like the lines and crush of people. I figured, this is a grocery store. There shouldn’t be any problems right? WRONG!

As it turns out the people at Fresh & Easy decided not to give the newspapers or online journalists the time that they were opening up. My wife and I drove by and saw people going in and out of the store so we found a parking place not in their lot that was already filled with cars and their upstairs lot that was cordoned off and walked the couple of blocks to check out the new store.

Once we got up there we saw they had a table where they were handing out little cups of apple juice and a crowd of people standing around NOT going into the store. I walked up to a lady who was blocking the entrance and asked her if they were open. She said, no we’ll be open at 10am. We’re having a kick off breakfast right now for the staff and people from corporate. OK, here’s something Fresh & Easy needs to learn about doing business here. People in San Francisco like something called convenience in their shopping. We don’t like a store that shows off their large parking area by not letting you park in it. We don’t like that you’re posting your opening time at 8am out front only to find that you aren’t letting people in until 10am and we sure as hell don’t like it when you’ve got staff and corporate coming in and out of the store enjoying their private breakfast inside.

We were hoping to try some of their goods, but to no avail since we weren’t going to wait an hour for the store to open. I hope they get their act together since the outer Richmond district needs another grocery store after the Lucky’s closed there some time ago. It would not be a good thing if Fresh and Easy became known as Failing Easy.

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Squeezing the Cucumbers @ Parkside Farmers Market

If you live in San Francisco you learn quickly that big chain produce needs a major overhaul. Thanks to my wife who gives me a kick in the head everyone once in awhile she got us to go into some of the local produce marts in San Francisco. I’m going to just talk about one, but they’re in every part of the city and the best thing is that not only is the produce fresh, but it’s cheap.

My wife, hereby referred to as wife, one day suggested we pull over and check out the Parkside Farmers Market. It’s at 16th and Taraval. I figured we didn’t have anything else to do so why not. We’ve traveled into a fair amount of stores that we wouldn’t have normally gone into just to see if we were missing anything. This place was pretty cool. I learned a lot from our trip in there.

The Parkside Farmer’s Market has in addition to produce a lot of rarely seen Mediterranian fare, Russian fare and some Asian fare [Irving street is better for Asian fare]. For those of you familiar with a candy called Aplets and Cotlets, they actually come from a candy called Turkish Delights. If you like them, then you need to go here as they are better and cheaper. You can also find lavash bread which is used in making wraps and shawarmas and pita bread and god knows how many types of feta cheese.

Then as you travel down the aisles you’ll find odd spices and grains that I had no idea what they were, but the people working there had no problem explaining to me how to use them. This was one of the places that turned me on to cacahuates, those Mexican candy coated peanuts dusted with chili powder. I learned about pickled turnips and how actually while the name doesn’t sound so good they’re pretty tasty.

Now wife is a stickler for fresh produce since I brought her out here from back east. When she sends me out to the store for produce I receive proper instructions on how to check if the produce I’d getting is fresh. This is a big point when it comes to cucumbers since it’s a food our daughter loves. I have learned that you have to squeeze the cucumbers to make sure they’re good and hard. A cucumber that isn’t is kind of squishy when you eat it and you don’t get the crunch. So I walk in and head to the cucumbers, specifically the smaller persian cucumbers and pick one up and start squeezing it. As I’m standing there squeeze the cucumber I suddenly hear a woman’s voice, can I help you? This is one of those points where you realize that you’re standing there squeezing a cucumber when a woman walks up and you start hearing this 70’s waka-waka music [Let’s Get it On, by Marvin Gaye if you need some help] in your head and think you’re in a really bad porn movie. I replied, no just checking that the cucumbers were fresh. To which I received in reply, our cucumbers are fresh and hard. No need to worry. OK, cue the waka-waka music again. [I’ve been really tryin’, baby. Tryin’ to hold back this feelin’ for so long]

I was able to shake off the fact that my mind was telling me that Larry Flynt was in charge of directing this portion of my life for a minute and got to continue shopping. Persian cucumbers, like regular cucumbers are best when they are fresh and hard, all jokes aside. I bought ten of them for about $1.69. I also picked up some of the finest English peas at $1.29/lb that were huge and also fresh. The Parkside Farmers Market only takes credit cards if you are buying more than $10 and it’s been hard for us to reach that amount sometimes.

If you get a chance to drive out to the Sunset definitely check this place out and make sure that even though it’s a small store to take your time to look up and down. You’ll be surprised at some of the things you’ll run across….and now I have to go wash out my brain with soap.

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Andronico’s: The Foodie’s Grocery Store

I’ve always said that some day I want to have a job where I can make enough money that I could shop only at Andronico’s. That doesn’t mean I would only shop there, but this is the store that has the biggest selection of foods that you won’t find at your local Safeway or Lucky’s and to top it off the quality of their foods are much higher than at regular chain grocers.

The outside is fairly plain and unassuming, but when you walk in from the street you get this kind of heaven’s opening, angel’s singing kind of feeling and you’re just looking at the produce, but the way it looks even a die hard carnivore would want to dive into it.

Make a right turn and you get to see their serve it yourself take out area where they have the usually comfort foods of fried chicken and mashed potatoes mixed in with ribs, thai curries, indian curries, soup and more. Whoever planned this layout deserves a medal because the smell of food that surrounds you just makes you salivate and want to eat.

They have a special cheese section across from the wonderful deli where a cheese specialist can match you up with the right cheese for any occasion. The deli is no slouch either. They’ve to top shelf deli meats, handmade sandwiches on ciabatta rolls and caviar out on display. Yep, this will cost you. Not in a Whole Foods kind of way, but it’s still a couple of bucks more than the major chains.

I have to say though that it’s worth it. I’ve been to Molly Stone’s and Whole Foods and while they’re nice, they’re small and usually crowded with hipsters. Andronico’s is big so they get to carry a lot of stuff and when you’re walking around the aisles it’s kind of like a treasure hunt to see what new you’ll find there. They have what seems like hundreds of different types of olive oil as well as other oils I never knew existed [cold pressed organic avocado oil anyone?] Expect to see labels with words like organic, artisinal, free range all over the place.

The spices and sauces aisles are mind boggling. I didn’t know there were that many different types of salt. I knew about french grey salt, hawaiian salt, but I stopped counting after finding salts from over 15 different countries. If you like hot sauces you’ve got a huge selection with Ass in Space being an interesting name for a hot sauce.

So what do you get for this higher price? Space. No one’s pushing you around or the people at my local store who I want to scream WALK DON’T BLOCK at who need ten minutes to decide which can of condensed milk they want to buy. You get top quality meats and produce [which the produce lately at the major chains has been severely lacking.] You get clerks and checkers that remember you and that English is a first language. Every time I go in there Bobby in the meat department still remembers me when I had hair down to my waist and he always asks how Becca is doing. The people are friendly who work there without the smugness that they work in a gourmet food center like two other places I’ve mentioned.

Andronico’s is one of the few markets where I can casually walk around at ease without feeling like I’m in a Soviet era store where people are fighting over the food. Check them out please and be sure to tell them I sent you.

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