The produce section of most American supermarkets in the 1950s was minimal to a fault, with only a few dozen fruits and vegetables to choose from: perhaps one kind of apple, one kind of lettuce, a yellow onion, a pile of bananas. Today grocery stores routinely offer more than 100 different fruits and vegetables, many of which would be unrecognizable to time travelers from a half century ago. What changed, and how did Americans learn to embrace spaghetti squash, sugar snap peas, and kiwi? This episode, we tell the story of the woman behind this transformation: Frieda Caplan, the queen of kiwi.
In the late 1950s, when Caplan began working as a bookkeeper at a wholesale produce business owned by her husband’s aunt and uncle, she had no interest in fruit and vegetables beyond eating them. She also had no real qualifications for the job: She had studied political science at UCLA, and according to her daughter, Karen Caplan, “she got, like, a D in math.”
But that political background and love for campaigning ended up coming in handy. When her relatives went out of town on vacation a few weeks after hiring her, she found herself on the Los Angeles Produce Market floor, enthusiastically promoting a pallet of brown mushrooms that had been sitting in the corner, looking neglected. At the time, white button mushrooms were the only kind of fungi found in most grocery stores—but somehow, Karen told us, Frieda “fluff[ed] her hair and put on her lipstick,” and she succeeded in charming a supermarket buyer into purchasing the exotic brown mushrooms.