Origin Stories: Five mostly true stories of how I got the idea for the Hillside Produce Cooperative

Where did the idea for the Hillside Produce Cooperative come from? As far as origin stories go (and really – who doesn’t love a good origin story?), the co-op has quite a few good ones. The idea was born of a need, a serious bone-crushing lack of money, a gourmet cooking addiction, a Peeping Tom, an attempt to repay the kindness of strangers, a very bad job working in Japanese animation, and a towering desire to use all the fresh produce I saw growing on the hill. Sound disorienting? Well, first let me confess that every time I’m asked where the idea for the co-op came from, I give a different answer. And though admittedly they’re all really different answers, they’re also all really true. As a life-long actress I claim my birthright to remember things free of the constraints of – shall we say – accuracy. My memory is nebulous – colorful, but nebulous. So with the preceding fact in evidence, I shall now do my best to recreate each version of how the Hillside Produce Cooperative came to be as fantastically as the fun-house mirror through which I remember it. Then perhaps like Rashomon, we shall all find truth in synthesis. But first, join me as we return to the birth time of the cooperative, in the summer of 2008…

  1. Crying Over Onions (need)
  2. Let it Roll (waste)
  3. The Bucket (substance)
  4. The Bear (community)
  5. Twenty-Two Dollars (moneylessness)

Origin Story #5: Twenty-Two Dollars (Moneylessness)

Japanese animation, also known as anime, refers to cartoon films and series produced in Japan. Anime art has a very distinctive style – characters often have large eyes and spiky hair. The numerous genres of Japanese anime (tailored to suit different tastes and ages) share certain qualities, such as a Japanese cultural perspective, the martial arts, and a recurring collection of stock characters. Anime proudly boasts an enthusiastic and enormous fan base. These legions of fans are called otaku, or “fan-boys/girls.” The otaku hordes watch and buy anime obsessively – and this means big money for anime producers. With fans all over the world, English dubs – or new recordings of the spoken sound track – are needed to meet the demands of an international market.

What I know about anime is that despite the multitudes of dollars made each year in this industry, the producers of these shows (and their English-speaking dubbing houses) pay their voice actors – of which I am one – almost nothing.

In July of 2008, I think I might have mentioned that I wasn’t working. I think I also might have mentioned that I was really worried about money. It was for this reason that I took a job in anime, dubbing Japanese voices into English through a process called Automatic Dialogue Replacement. It was a cute show, but this job would earn me less than ONE TENTH of what I usually made doing the same work for an American original animation studio.

Making matters worse (oh boy) my director really didn’t like me. He used a new directing style I’d never encountered before, known as “sit there, shut up, and do what I tell you to do.” While the Japanese clients were nice to work with, my American director did his best to make every session as unpleasant for me as possible. To add injury to his insults, I was – let me say it again – making less than ONE TENTH of what I usually made doing the same work for a more reputable studio. As amazing as it may seem, I would have made more money (and had a better time) working at Shop Mart than I was earning voicing the female lead in a twenty-six episode series for broadcast television.

Every time I worked on that show, I came home angry. I knew I shouldn’t let them treat me like a punk, but that “beggars and choosers” thing really had me over a barrel. I had no other job. And as skimpy and thankless as this one was, wasn’t any income better than no income at all?

The final straw came when the studio refused to pay me TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS for work I’d already done, recording new or adjusted lines in previously recorded episodes. As embarrassing as my Screen Actors Guild Foreign Dubbing Contract was, it did actually say that they owed me for this extra work. And this extra work would cost the studio a whopping eleven dollars per episode (horrifying, embarrassing, mortifying rate!) Yet this TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS was conspicuously missing from my paycheck.

Assuming it had been a simple over-sight, I went straight to the people in charge. But when I told them about it, the owner of the company’s terrifying assistant Tina Marie (was her name really Tina Marie? Now I can’t get the image of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island out of my head) put her index fingers on the corners of her mouth and shook her head like a giant animated baby: “oh, oh! Frowny face! We don’t have to pay you for that! Sooooo sad!”

It was one of those eyebrow-raising moments: I’m sorry, did you really just say that to me, Ginger? It was not the reaction a professional such as myself would expect to get from an employer regarding a matter of business. I walked away from her with my head hung low like an anime zombie, super-deformed to exaggerate my emotions. Quick as you can, Tina Marie and the unpaid TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS had reduced me to nothing – less than nothing – they’d reduced me to the level of the undead. I drove home in a stupor, surprised I wasn’t pulled over by the Burbank police for driving while being a cartoon ghoul.

At home I picked my plum tree and mulled the matter over.

My first reaction was that I should refuse to record any more shows until they paid me the – I’m sorry – TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS they owed me. But having spent a lifetime in show business, that horrible “show must go on” mantra kept getting in the way. It’s not just a saying; it’s really more of a religion. That’s why actors have been known to do all manner of stupid things, like go out and stomp dance on a broken foot rather than miss a single performance.

After all, wasn’t I a “trooper” (also known as an archangel in the church of “the show must go on”)? Shouldn’t I just suck it up? How could I leave that poor studio in the middle of a season?

But then, I thought, popping a sweet plum into my mouth, why couldn’t they just pay me the TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS they owed me? They did owe me; it was in the contract. By not paying me, they were essentially telling me that I wasn’t worth it– that I wasn’t worth TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS. “Go ahead,” they seemed to say to me, “sue us. See how much that costs ya.” But how could I wager my self-respect against what basically boiled down to a roll of quarters?

I’d always believed that life was about being brave. And for me, in this moment, being brave meant walking away from a terrible job, even when I had no other job or income with which to replace it. Being brave meant trusting that something else would come – a good idea, a real job, something better. Yes, once I purged this blood blister of a show, there’d be room in my life for something good again. Something better.

Grabbing a plum, I stabbed myself on a branch and sucked my finger.

The plums I was picking were delicious – and free. They were nutrient-rich, royal violet, and grew in my very own yard without price tags or stickers. They didn’t hold out on me for TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS.  They didn’t make me feel valueless; they made me feel rich and gave themselves freely, whether I made a lot of money or none.

And that’s when I thought of the produce cooperative – as a forum for giving, where it wouldn’t matter how much one gave or how much money one made. If you gave food, you got food in return. Everyone’s contribution would weigh the same, regardless of what or how much it was. The co-op would never use money and because of this, everyone in the co-op would be equal.

A heavenly sweet abundance of juice exploded in my mouth, casting a beautiful ruby tint on the world that had nothing whatsoever to do with Japanese animation.

I jumped down off the hill with my two paper bags full of sun-rich plums. I called Tina Marie and told her that I wouldn’t record any more shows until they paid me the money they owed me.

The next day the studio replaced me and I started the Hillside Produce Cooperative.

It was the best TWENTY-TWO DOLLARS I never made.

(read more Origin Stories)

Origin Story #4: The Bear (Community)

Late one July night, my usual bubbling happiness was suddenly interrupted when I saw something – or someone – outside my back gate. Whoever or whatever it was, was someplace it shouldn’t have been: right outside my door – with one flimsy screen between us. Whoever or whatever it was, was tall; which to my night-blind eyes made it either a Peeping Tom or a bear standing on its hind legs. And since the chances of its being a hind-leg-walking bear in the middle of the city were remote, I had to assume it was an intruder.

I jumped up, yelling something like “GRAH” and smashed off the lights, my hand flapping around like a fish. In the protective darkness, my fish hand floundered next for the outside lights. I wanted to illuminate the hell out of that bear, make it do a spotlight dance, and then watch it lumber away in a revelation of light. I wanted a “reasonable explanation” to curtail my fear – like the end of a Scooby Doo mystery. Look! It wasn’t a dangerous intruder after all!

It was just a broken tree limb, whose evil plan to frighten me would have succeeded, if only “[that] meddling kid[…]” hadn’t ruined everything by turning on the light.

I flicked off, on, off, on, off, on. Off, on, off, on. But it was no good. The bulbs were dead and the darkness outside stayed dark. Shit.

Only a few feet away, the Bear’s silhouette moved and its shadow crept across me.

Someone or something was definitely out there. Its figure interrupted the constant stream of light that beamed down from the house up the hill. I turned my head and listened, forcing my best sense, my hearing, to prove to me that nothing was there. I held my breath and kept quiet.

When I heard the brush rustle I ran.

I sped from room to room locking doors and windows, fish hands flopping sliding glass doors shut, slamming windows, extinguishing lights. All I could think was – this is really happening! I needed to call someone, but where was my phone?

Of course, it was back in the room with the Bear.

I dropped down on all fours. Memories about what to do during an emergency became horribly confused. “Intruder” mixed with “fire,” “earthquake” jumbled with “tornado.” Was I supposed to stop, drop, and roll? Hit the Solar plexus, Instep, Nose, and Groin? Stand in a doorway? Run to the basement? For no explicable reason, getting low to the ground seemed like the best course of action. I crawled into the room, dash-grabbed my phone, and fled.

Even I knew I was acting out the first scene of every horror movie ever made:

INT. LOS ANGELES HOUSE – NIGHT

Through a green night-vision filter we find a young blond WOMAN. 
She is home alone. She staggers around in her darkened hallway, knowing with an almost primordial sense that unwanted eyes are upon her. Nearly desperate with fear, she drops her life-line, her cell phone, which clatters across the wooden floor. Breathlessly, she chases it, then suddenly looks up, sensing, yet not seeing he who watches her.

WOMAN

(calling out) Hello? Is – is anyone out there?

Her question is returned with eerie silence. Only we hear the eager breaths of THE BEAR, who watches her, waiting.

WOMAN

(calling out) I’m calling someone! They’ll be here any minute!

Her back is to a wall of cabinets, she sits on the floor grasping her phone and gasping for breath. The cell phone’s blue screen illuminates her face, giving it a pallid, deathly hue.

WOMAN

(to self) Oh god, who can I call?

Outside the window, we hear THE BEAR lick his lips. He sounds almost human. We watch eagerly as his victim’s panic gradually drains the strength from her body.

WOMAN

(whispered) Oh please, don’t hurt me…

My wide mascaraed eyes searched wildly through the darkness, seeing nothing. Anyone watching the film would know that something very bad was about to happen. I had my phone – but no one to call. My husband was out of town and I didn’t know my neighbors. I could call the police but what would I tell them? That a hind-leg-walking shadow bear was rustling the grass outside my door, making me act out the first scene of a horror movie?

I yelped again when I heard a crash. No, I wasn’t making this up. It was really happening. I forced my mind to work. Betsy. I could call Betsy. She was my neighbor across the street. It was late and I hardly knew her, but I had to call someone. I had to try.

Within minutes, Betsy met me in the middle of our street with the telephone held to her ear. Even in pajamas in the middle of the night, Betsy was a dead-ringer for Shirley Maclaine. I ran out the front door. It was wonderful to be out of my movie-set of a house and standing next to someone real and (aside from the Shirley Maclaine bit) not part of a bad cinema cliché.

“I can’t see anything from here,” she said craning her neck towards the back of my dark house, “but that doesn’t mean anything. Did you call the police?”

Before I could answer her, another neighbor I’d never met drove up the hill. “What’s going on?” he asked us, rolling down his window. His name was Glen and from the first time I met him, it had been really good to see him again.

I don’t remember what I told him, but I do remember what he did. He sprang into action, leaving his car wide open to the night. He made flashlights appear out of thin air, put one in my hand, and led us gallantly into the darkness of the Bear’s terrain behind my house.

The three of us searched with our flickering lights, but there was nothing there: no Peeping Tom, no evil deceiving tree limb, no Bear. By the time we got there, whatever or whoever it was had gone.

Maybe I had made it up – but suddenly that didn’t matter.

I was shocked. Not that we didn’t find anything scary in my back yard – no – I was shocked that these people, whom I barely knew had helped me when I needed help. I’d never experienced anything like it. In my life, most of which had been spent moving around big cities: Chicago, New York, L.A., I’d never known my neighbors. I’d never even known that I’d had neighbors. The word “neighbor” hardly existed in my vocabulary, except as an antiquated folksy term that defined a relationship prized by older people from an older time. I’d spent my early teenage years in a middle-sized town in Iowa, getting a track-star’s work-out running from the cops. Those “neighbors” phoned the police to protect them from dangerous threats like me. In my hometown, I was the Bear.

But here, well, this was something altogether new. This was “the kindness of strangers” I’d heard tell of; this was people from a shared geographical location coming together to help one another. The anthropological categories of us and them, in which I had always been the them, had suddenly reversed. Now I had neighbors. For the first time in my life, I was an us.

Walking back to the street with Betsy and Glen confirmed it: the understanding looks on their faces, their stories of similar moments of panic and relief. Don’t worry, they seemed to say, we’re here. We’re here for each other.

I was so humbled; I wanted to give them something in return for turning the light on my Bear and capping my horror movie with a happy ending. But they waved off the very idea. Being neighborly was a given as far as they were concerned. After all, wouldn’t I do the same for them?

I offered them sweet plums from my tree anyway. They were ripe and ready to be picked. It really was the least I could do.

I set off to deliver them the next day, but something remarkable happened when I tried to drop them off. My neighbors had each left an unexpected gift outside their doors for me: a bowl of home-grown tomatoes and peaches awaited me at Glen’s house, a basket of oranges at Betsy’s. Not knowing what else to do, I retraced my steps, divvied up all the fruit and gave some to each of us. Plums, peaches, oranges, and tomatoes. By the time I’d finished, we all had fruit bowls full to brimming with neighborhood produce. With a pen from my glove box I scratched out a couple of notes. “Thank you so much for helping me,” they read. “Please consider this the first delivery of the Hillside Produce Cooperative.”

(read more Origin Stories)

Origin Story #3: The Bucket (Substance)

June 13, 2008

Dear NPR,

I hope it’s not too late to send this. I heard your request for listeners to send in tales of how they are coping with the down economy and I realized that I have something to tell you.

You may find this surprising, but for me, a generation-x homeowner living in Los Angeles, the down economy feels more like a gift than a detriment. I’d even go so far as to call it wish fulfillment for those of us who’ve been longing for something more substantive than tv ads telling us to go out and buy things we don’t want with money we don’t have. The downturn in the economy has been like something we didn’t even know we’d been craving, but something that’s been part of us ever since our grandparents told us fantastic stories about saving bacon grease and “making do with nothing” during the Depression.

Now, in 2008, once again there’s no money to spend on frivolous things and it’s such a relief. We can finally return to Depression-era thinking – even though none of us experientially knows what that means anymore. The decade of the 1930s (a time compared to our own with more and more frequency) seems almost mythological to those of us born between 1960 and 1980. But now, with most of our grandparents and great grandparents gone, we can only guess how we’re supposed to act.

I act by fixing things that break. I sew holes. I drive less and coast more. I got rid of my TV. I cook at home and freeze the leftovers. I plant herbs and tomatoes in pots. My friends come over to play cards. What advertisers courting our demographic would be surprised to learn is that doing these things gives us such an incredible sense of peace. We’re “making do” – with less at least, if not with “nothing.” And it’s hardly coping. It’s wonderful.

As my last act of conservation, I use an old bucket to collect the water that runs down the drain of my shower while I wait for the temperature to warm. Doing this saves two to three gallons of water per shower. During a drought, it only makes sense. Yet my radio urges me to go out and spend hundreds of dollars I don’t have on a new hot-water-system.

Instead I look through my rose-colored Depression glasses and stick a bucket under my shower. I collect the water, slosh it outside, and use it to water my tomatoes. That old bucket makes me feel connected to something; something real; something that will feed me as I feed it. And now I can’t believe how rich I am.

Hynden Walch
Los Angeles, CA

(read more Origin Stories)

Origin Story #2: Let It Roll (Waste)

In this version of the story, it’s actually not hot in L.A. July of 2008. In fact it’s unseasonably cool, making it possible for me to walk every day on my beloved hillside, which rises from my front door like a twisted concrete hiking trail.

It was summer and I was enjoying my July like a restful wilderness retreat in my own back yard. Every morning I woke up with the sunlight speckling through the blinds. I stretched as succulently as Snow White waking to the kiss of her pastel prince. A quick splash of water on my face and I was out the door. With a keen eye out for the beauty of nature, I took it easy and danced my way up the hill. I had no reason to run. I was in no hurry at all.

The sky glinted dark blue, a spectrum of Southern California sapphire. The breeze shuffled shades of chartreuse and forest green leaves, palm fronds flashed their silver undersides, and hill-holding vines swelled like jade beads. How lucky I was to live here! – smack in the middle of urban L.A., but feeling as free as a bee in the country. The ecstatic flora and fauna of my neighborhood even managed to distract me from the Five Freeway which ran twentyfourseven below. With a stubbornly sylvan bent, my mind turned the Five into the “babbling brook” that completed my pastoral vision.

I followed the narrow road as it corkscrewed upwards, swinging my arms and talking to the birds: what beautiful day!

Rounding the first corner, I found one of my neighbors wielding a rake. She was an elderly Filipino woman who shook her head as she worked. I didn’t really know her, although we’d exchanged smiles a few times.

“Bad,” she said to me – but not about me. She made little jabbing motions with her rake until I followed her eyes down to where I saw what she, like Sisyphus, had been raking: lemons; rotting lemons; hundreds of rotting lemons. They were all over the road, her yard, her neighbor’s yard, her driveway. They were everywhere – battered and bruised, most had been reduced to pulp. A question crossed my face.

“See,” she said pointing at the monster lemon tree growing a few houses up-slope. The tree was easily three stories high, an industrial-sized lemon making factory, absolutely burgeoning with over-ripe yellow fruit. The lemons on that tree could have fed an army, but instead they lay dead on the road. This wasn’t part of my pastoral vision.

My neighbor picked one of the black-bruised rotten blobs from the prongs of her rake and held it up to my face. “No pick,” she said, dropping the fruit. It mushed as it hit the pile. She shook her head again.

This was terrible – a massacre! Why hadn’t anyone eaten these lemons?

My neighbor and I shrugged at each other. “I don’t know” I said loudly and clearly, answering the question she hadn’t asked: “why?” We stood together looking for a moment. I shifted my weight uncomfortably. Since I had no other answers, I gave her a tight smile and waved quietly good bye.

Back on the trail, I quickened my pace. While I greatly admired my neighbor’s work ethic and particularly her great economy of speech, I had no intention of letting decomposing fruit corpses ruin my drunk-on-nature morning hike. After all, the day was still beautiful and the air was full of flowers! Magenta ones grew from tall drinking-glass-shaped trees and smelled like candy. Lacy white jasmine flowers puffed the scent of Chinatown tea. Sticky clumping blues, elegant whites, and open-handed pinks all stood together like hopeful bridesmaids.

But –

I couldn’t stop thinking about the goddamn lemons.

I felt like I’d just witnessed a crime and fled the scene. Instead of wedding-party flowers,

I pictured red siren lights and blue uniformed officers waving-off by-standers, police tape outlining the remains of each tiny, yellow body.

It really was the most wasteful display.

I mean, besides slapping nature in the face, how could anybody let perfectly usable lemons go to waste like that? I sped up, working myself into a full-metal rant – and the mess they made! That poor woman certainly had better things to do with the strength of her back and the hours of her day than to spend them cleaning up an ankle-deep citrus mess. And ugh, do rats eat lemons? Ugh; rats.

All around me hawks rode the currents and mockingbirds did professional impressions – but I’d been knocked out of my metaphors.

How much do lemons cost anyway? I wondered pragmatically, running now. Even at fifty cents a pop that meant that at least two- hundred dollars was lying out there on the road. Two-hundred dollars? Were we really so rich – that we could let good food just …die?

Waste, waste, waste, chanted each footfall as it hit the pavement.

Fully riled and out of breath, I stopped. I’d run all the way to the other side of the hill and gasped when I saw what lay on the ground. At my feet, a party of avocados had been decimated – the victims of a hit and run. Surrounding their bone-crushed pits, their creamy flesh smeared, a mess of browning green and gold oxidizing on the asphalt.

Now this was really too much. I mean lemons were one thing, but letting delicious, perfect, expensive California avocados rot and roll down the hill like this – well, it was the very definition of careless.

I’d witnessed another crime, yet where was the police tape?

I turned and ran towards home, my nature walk a thing of the past.

But what could I do to stop this waste? I supposed I could steal the fruit before it fell, if I was of a surreptitious mind… But then what would I do with it?  Even in a cooking frenzy, I wouldn’t be able to use the sheer tonnage of lemons I’d just seen on the road.

On I ran, until I realized that if I really wanted to stop the waste of food on my hill, all I had to do was all the work.

Wow. That was it.

I just had to do all the work. Just like my Filipino neighbor worked to clean up the mess…

Maybe if she’d spent her energy picking the lemons when they were ripe instead of waiting until they’d fallen on the ground, someone might have been able to use them. All I had to do was get these negligent tree owners to pick their fruit! Hell, I knew where to find them. Then we – all of us on the hill – could use this “windfall” of food to cook with, eat, and enjoy, and nothing would be wasted!

Yes, yes, I’d create a monthly swap, a collective, a cooperative! And once a month, these food-producing tree owners could bring their unwanted bounty to my house before it fell on the ground and trade it for some of someone else’s. It was the simplest idea in the world. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before? Waste wasn’t garbage. Waste had value! I skipped.

As I rounded the corner for home I felt all of nature come back into focus and celebrate – trees whistled, citrus sang, and flowers clapped their multi-colored hands.

I let my idea roll over the hill via email as soon as I got home.

(read more Origin Stories)

Origin Story #1: Crying Over Onions (Need)

It was hot in Southern California in July of 2008. Very hot. And making the heat even hotter, the entire state (read: the entire world) seemed to be on fire. Wildfires swept out of control throughout California. We citizens of Los Angeles were imprisoned inside our respective dwellings, glued to our central air, our window units, or at worst – our fans. During the smoky heat of day we did as the local news advised and tried not to breathe. We didn’t exercise. We shut our doors and windows; we drew our curtains and pulled our blinds, waiting out each day for the sun to set. With heavy hearts and asthmatic sighs, we waited for summer to burn itself out.

In my house things were bad. I’d just finished a quick course in culinary school – my attempt to distract myself from a sudden and sorry state of unemployment. I’d always been one of those lucky actors who actually worked – and often – but in July of 2008, just like the rest of the country, I was sweating in my sleep over my financial future. The bank market collapse was only weeks away and seemed as inevitable and dangerous as the wildfires, which crept onward, consuming both homes and chaparral like so much cash.

Unemployed, hot, and miserable, I spent the long summer days in my kitchen cooking, trying to escape my mind. Cooking was the only thing that made me happy. It used all my senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, even sound. And with all those functions firing, it was easy – well, easier – to forget my money problems. Cooking was a joyful-and-creative-in-the-face-of disaster way to fight back. I escaped my fears about paying the mortgage and the taxes through food! Had anyone ever thought of such a marvel?

In the kitchen I cooked Creole. I fought fiery heat with spicy heat and dreamed myself all the way to Louisiana. I made heady jambalayas with homemade chicken stock and burnt almond brown roux, Monday red beans and rice, rich okra gumbos, and etouffees. I put my whole body into my biscuit dough, then dropped and baked until each pillow-soft spoonful came out wrapped in a golden crunch. I saw every dish through from beginning to end and it felt wonderful to have at least the illusion of control over some aspect of my life.

But sadly, as all well-intended distractions from reality are destined, mine eventually landed me back smack in the center of my problems. The more I worried about money, the more I longed to escape; the more I longed to escape, the more I escaped into cooking; the more I escaped into cooking, the more I needed to buy groceries to cook with, which – uh oh — cost money… I had landed myself in a vicious cycle. I felt myself sharing the bond of addiction with my similarly afflicted brethren and sistern (sic.) in the world of substance abuse. Is there a multistep program for unemployed escapism-junkies addicted to gourmet cooking? Would I pose in my mug shot alone or with the saffron I would have had no choice but to steal? The vanilla pods? The local organic garlic? (Do you know how expensive saffron is?)

I took my concerns to the cutting board. Images haunted me: bar-codes cackled, price tags taunted. I pictured my poor forlorn checkbook, carrying fewer ones and zeroes than I’d ever asked it to before. I imagined the cost-dizzying farmers’ market that only took cash and the whole-paycheck grocery chain. Even the Super A at the bottom of the hill wouldn’t trade me fresh produce for – for what? A song? An old pair of socks? A handful of leaves?

I felt that telltale choke beginning to rattle the back of my throat, playing my uvula like a bagpipe. All at once the kitchen light seemed too bright. The heat reached a new high. I hung my head and fought the flood. Not being much of a crier, I took swift action and grabbed an onion from the fridge. Should anyone (like, say, my husband) find me here, a sad sack of human debris hunched over a scratched wooden cutting board, well, I wasn’t crying; I was just chopping onions.

Holding my knife and one scraggily yellow bargain-bin onion with fingers arched like a concert pianist, I sliced and let all the lovely propanethiol S-oxide rise right into my eyes. It burned and I imagined myself chopping every onion in the world: red onions, green onions, white onions, sweet onions, any onions I could think of. I chopped, sliced, minced, diced, chunked, cubed, and grated those onions – both real and imagined. And what a relief it was! My tears covered the cutting board and mingled with the mince. And so what if they did? Chopping onions legitimized my tears.

I let all the worry drain out of me. With the help of the onion’s enzyme, it seeped out like rain. And that’s when it hit me. Like a bolt of lightning, like the moment Michael Corleone first sees the fair Appolonia, like the thunderbolt – I knew where I could get fresh food for free!

Clearing my eyes with the back of my hand, I leaned on the sink and squinted through the window at the hill outside. There. Right there. Glorious fresh food was growing everywhere I looked. In my own yard were lemons, kumquats, apricots, tangerines, and plums – always in different stages of ripeness and readiness throughout the year – but they were there! Heck, everything grew on the hill – I’d seen it growing there. And maybe, like me, my neighbors weren’t using everything that they grew either. And maybe, like me, someone else on the hill had just cried their guts out over onions and would love to trade some of what I have, for some of what they have – for free? Yes – no money necessary! And maybe, just maybe, I could find a whole lot of people on the hill who might be worried about buying groceries right now and have a gourmet cooking addiction to feed – well, maybe not that second part so much – but, who doesn’t love free food? Free local organic food. Right here.

I put down my chef’s knife and let loose a huge sigh of relief. But I didn’t get much past the inhale before getting caught in a hacking cough. I’d forgotten the wildfires and their requisite protocol. The local news had warned me not to breathe. It was foolish to even attempt to sigh with relief. I laughed and coughed and laughed again – from the smoke and the onions and the ease I finally felt, until I rolled myself into a little ball and hugged my knees to my chest like a kid.

(read more Origin Stories)

poor hynden’s collard greens

10273765_372540126219873_6238172430486261064_nWhat’s better than a big boiling pot of greens?

Rinse garden fresh collards from the co-op and roll up like you’re making Cuban cigars.

Make a cut every inch or so to make green strips, or strips of greens.

Cut up:

1-2 spring onions – from the co-op

a few garlic chives – from the co-op (supplement plain ole garlic and onions as needed)

2 pieces of high quality bacon (See below!)

Sizzle the bacon in your big old pot. Add the onion and garlic along with a wee drizzle of EVO.

Throw in some red pepper flakes. How many?  How hot do you want it?

Add coarse salt and black pepper – from the co-op.

Now add the collards and stir like it’s going out of style.

Finally add the tiniest spoon of vinegar. Probably don’t use anything flavored. (shudder.)

Now add the liquid –

I use water.  And just enough to cover.

If you want to – add a ham hock here (see meat link below!) – and the tiniest spoon of sugar.

Simmer for a good time.  Or – for a good time, simmer.

Check and add liquid as needed.  Oh, the lovely pot liquor you will have at the end!

perfect rosemary french fries

peel 1 sweet potato and 1 russet potato.

cut them into uniform French fry shapes.

fine chop a big sprig or 2 of fresh  rosemary from the co-op.

toss potatoes with a swirl to a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

season with chopped rosemary, kosher salt, and black pepper from the co-op.

Bake seasoned fries on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for 19 minutes until golden brown and barely crunchy. Mmmm…

candied tangerine peel

Dear co-op, thank you so much for the delicious tangerine orange juice I made this morning.  It made me think you might like this recipe for candied citrus peel.  It tastes like Christmas!

182640_10150115810391305_473872_nBoil/simmer lots of intact citrus peels for 30-45 minutes.  Longer for thick skinned citrus, less time for dainty skinned citrus.
Drain and cool cooked peels.  Scrape out insides.
Slice into 1/4 inch strips.
Make simple syrup on the stove with water, a TON of sugar (a cup? more?), and a splash of triple sec or cointreau. 
Add the peel strips to the syrup.
Cook down to a thick syrup.
Drain peel and put on greased baking sheet.
Bake at about 150 degrees til you think it’s done. (Not that long)
Cool peel on wax paper and store in fridge.
Tastes like Christmas!

how to start a produce cooperative (or let’s eat our way to a new social paradigm – it’s easy and fun!)

By Hynden Walch of the Hillside Produce Cooperative

I was asked to write an article about how to start a produce cooperative, but maybe I should start by explaining a little bit about mine.

The Hillside Produce Cooperative is a once-a-month FREE exchange of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in North East Los Angeles. My objective in starting this project was to feed everyone on my hill for FREE with all the gorgeous local organic produce we grow in our yards that would otherwise go to waste.

Here’s how it works: once a month I send out an email asking who among our 250 or so members is interested in participating in the next exchange. If they are, they RSVP by email, letting me know roughly what they will have to contribute food-wise, or if they’d like to volunteer to bag or deliver. Once the tallies are in, I put my energies towards higher mathematics (!) and discern how many volunteers we’ll need versus how much food we’ll have to go around. Once that’s done, I cross my fingers and send out an email with the final details.

The final details are always the same: First, the exchange is always on a SATURDAY and takes place at my house ( – I was given use of the neighborhood community center at one point, but quickly realized the exchange needed to be held in a place to which I had the keys. )

On the chosen SATURDAY, food contributors drop off their grapefruits and rosemary, their apples and avocados, their tomatoes and bay leaves, spring onions, beets, and celery, their lemons and lemon verbena and lemon curd, their homemade bread and jam, their persimmons and kale, their Thai chili peppers, their burning sage, &tc before NOON. When I open my door Saturday morning it’s like Christmas – my steps are covered in bags and boxes of this incredible fresh food – smelling like a spicy feast of citrus, earth, herbs, and generosity. Wow. It always takes my breath away.

At NOON the bagging volunteers arrive. I’ve found that about seven volunteers can easily sort and bag the contributions of 25-40 participants. First, we bring everything inside: herbs go in the living room, “hard foods” like oranges and pumpkins go in the dining room, “non-edibles” like flowers and lavender go in the office, and once, we had so much food that we had to use my bedroom to sort the leafy greens (don’t tell my husband.)

Once all the food has been sorted, it’s counted and divided by the number bags we have to fill (one for each participant.) Again, more higher mathematics (!) and the house is filled with the voices of volunteers loudly counting different things, while sharpies squeak out totals like “122 tangerines,” “59 grapefruit” and “6 squash.” My bright red calculator chirps away, dividing all those totals by the number of bags (aka “the magic number”), and somehow, everyone ends up with the same amount.

Of course there are always deficits. In those cases, I try to give every bag at least one special thing – a jar of homemade loquat jam or a book on LA Restaurants or a bunch of daisies. This is the “playing God” part of the exchange: “Hmm… I they didn’t get an artichoke so I’ll give them some asparagus… They didn’t get a brownie, so I’ll give them the extra blood oranges…”

Everyone’s empty cloth bags line up and down my hallway awaiting fulfillment, with a “shopping list” of what is soon-to-be-inside taped to the wall above each one. When someone fills a bag with its quota of lemons, they check “lemons” off the list. This is our attempt to keep track of what’s going on with a wild ton of fabulous food being hurtled around, out of bags and into other bags. It’s actually really fun.

Meanwhile, in the living room the herbs are divided equally and wrapped up in newspaper cones like gorgeous bouquets of culinary flowers. The fantastic-smelling herb bouquets are then added to the bags along with the “non-edible” and “salad green” bundles. Believe it or not, all this bundling and counting and wrapping and sorting only takes a little more than an hour.

Finally at 2:30 the 3-5 delivery volunteers pick up the bags and deliver them to the door of each participant. With planning, I [try really, really hard to] make sure each volunteer’s deliveries are all in the same neighborhood and rarely does anyone deliver more than five bags.

It’s astonishing just how much food we see in our bags each month, not to mention the variety. The contents of our bags looks like we just dropped about $65 at a really great farmers’ market. But instead all the food is FREE. – You might notice, I’m very big on FREE. I could tell you why – but then this would be an article on my personal idealism, my disenchantment with the agribusiness leviathan, and my desire change the social paradigm by simply implementing that old-timey tradition of sharing excess garden wealth, while adding a little 21st century organizational spin of my own.

I know! I was supposed to write about how to start a co-op, but really, that part is easy. Just get the email addresses of interested people in your neighborhood and start. Or if that seems daunting just get oneemail address from one person you think might be interested in exchanging their excess produce,or email me – I bet I have the names of a lot of people in your neighborhood who would love to start an exchange with you.

So, to start a co-op, you’ll need a space to have it – a small space, an outside space (the Ventura chapter sets up tables outside), reallyany space will work – , a few organizational skills, and some positive energy. Do you have to be a master gardener? No! My heavens no! I was born with a black thumb. All my fruit trees just grow by themselves, bless them. – Then write ONE email about the produce exchange you plan to host THIS SATURDAY (always best to act now) and send it to someone. Sell them on the concept: no waste and shared food; free means free. Oh, and feel free to plagiarize:

“Dear neighbor, [My New] Produce Cooperative is a free neighborhood monthly exchange of all the FRUITS, VEGETABLES, HERBS and FLOWERS we grow in our yards; a collective in which we all get to enjoy some of what everyone grows in exchange for contributing what we don’t want or won’t use ourselves. Then no food is wasted and we all get a variety of fresh local produce to eat for FREE.”

Then that person will forward it to someone else and by Friday you’ll have a co-op. On Saturday just follow the steps above. You probably won’t even need any helpers until you have more than ten participants, but of course it’s always nice to have company. I started this way: with a big idea and one email to my neighbor Betsy. By the end of the day my email had come back to me after having been forwarded again and again and again. Our first exchange had five members. And even then I felt lucky and grateful for all the incredible food we had and the incredible people I met who grew it. A year and a half later, we have close to 300 members and 6 chapters.

Would you like to start a co-op? I’ll be happy to help you any way I can, just write me at hillsideproducecoop@gmail.com or visit our website: hillsideproducecooperative.org. I would love to link to [your new] chapter or post your email address so potential members can find you.

Let’s change the way people get and eat food in this country. We can, you know. As I say at the end of each co-op email, who’s in?