Why I Cook: Karen Caplan’s Life with Produce
Her mom introduced more than 200 fruits and vegetables to U.S. supermarkets during her career—including the kiwifruit! Karen Caplan carries on her legacy with a love of amazing and unusual fresh foods.
Saleswoman, bookkeeper, recipe developer and now CEO, Karen Caplan has played just about every role at Frieda’s Specialty Produce, a wholesaler known for its delightfully different offerings. When her mother, Frieda Rapoport Caplan, founded the company in 1962, she was a trailblazer in the industry, and Karen, even in her youth, was happy to follow suit.
Taste of Home: Your mother was the first woman to own and operate a produce company on the LA Wholesale Produce Market. Is she who inspired you in your career path?
Karen Caplan: Yes, that was my summer job, working for her. It’s an early morning business, so work started at 2 AM. I would go into work with Mom—she’d leave the house at 1:30 AM. In the early mornings, I did sales, so I stood on the market floor, where the buyers would walk by, and I would sell things. After that part was over, I would take inventory, standing in the refrigerated cooler. And in the afternoon, I would work in the accounting department. As a business owner, my mom didn’t leave after 8 hours, so I often would take a nap on the couch in her office, and we would leave at about four or five in the afternoon.
One thing led to another, and not by her recommendation, invitation or choice, I decided I really loved sales, and I loved the produce business, and so I called her and said, “Can I come work with you after college?” I got to know every food editor in America personally. I remember speaking at IACP [International Association of Culinary Professionals] conferences, at food editor conferences, about this weird produce that no one even knew.
There was no Internet, there was no readily available sources of information, so we were the source of information. You know, my mom introduced the kiwifruit to America—that’s our big claim to fame—and people in the media were just fascinated and confused.
TOH: What’s your most valuable lesson from your mother?
COURTESY FRIEDA’S SPECIALTY PRODUCE
KC: I would say, how important it was to be nice to everyone. The buyer from Safeway could come by, or it could be the USDA inspector, or it could be a food writer. You just never knew who was coming up to talk to you. Being warm and friendly and helpful no matter what really helped. I now have two daughters, they’re 26 and 31, and I always told them to be nice to everybody…the person helping me with my bags at a hotel or a server at a restaurant, a customer or whatever. I learned it from my mom, and I taught it to them. To this day, they’ll tell you it’s one of the most important—and first—lessons they learned.
TOH: Do you like to cook? How often do you use Frieda’s Specialty Produce in your recipes, and what do you like to use?
KC: I do love to cook. My mother did not cook—she did not like to cook—so I was the family cook. My partner now, thankfully, he loves my cooking, and he loves whatever crazy recipe I’m gonna come up with.
If I’m going to have a dinner party or a brunch or something, I love to cut up our tropical fruits. I might cut up dragonfruit and put some rambutan on the plate—it’s always a conversation starter. I don’t cook a lot with jackfruit, because it’s a serious time commitment to cut a jackfruit!
One of my favorite vegetables is fennel—I love using fennel in salads. And, of course, our Stokes Purple Sweet Potato, which we exclusively sell in the United States. It has the firmer texture of a regular potato, but it’s a sweet potato, and it’s fluorescent purple inside. If you come to my house for Thanksgiving—well, I’m going to make regular mashed potatoes, but I’m also going to make a purple sweet potato salad. Chunked, cubed purple sweet potatoes—my mouth is watering just talking about it—with a chipotle vinaigrette.
I was teaching a cooking class [on Zoom] for some friends last month, and I wanted to show them how to make a purple sweet potato pie—it’s made with coconut milk, and a little bit of cinnamon and nutmeg and an egg. And Jack, my partner, will try anything, and I said, “OK, ladies, we’re going to see what Jack thinks!” He takes a bite of it, and he can’t stop eating it. He had a piece of that pie every day for a week until [it was gone]. You look at something purple, and you’re like, “Seriously? You want me to eat this?” And then, people taste it, and it’s really fun.
TOH: What recipes did you grow up with? What is your favorite recipe?
KC: So, I’m going to tell you my first food memory. I remember back when I was under ten, we had artichokes. My mom used to give us big, brown grocery bags, and we all had one next to our chair. We’d pull off the leaf of the artichoke, scrape it on our teeth, and throw the leaf in the bag. I’m still in contact with a lot of the friends I grew up with; one of my girlfriends that I went through junior high and high school with said to me, “I remember going over to your house, and you always had the weirdest food!”
TOH: What was it like growing up with your mother, and did she influence your taste and what you like to cook?
KC: As a young person, it was a challenge that my mom wasn’t the one who got me up in the morning and picked me up after school. If you remember back in the ’60s, not a lot of women were working outside the home. My mom passed away in January of this year at the age of 96, and what was amazing, especially at her memorial, was to hear how…everyone, everyone said, “She always made me feel like I was the most important person in the room.” Even though my mom wasn’t around the normal amount of hours that most moms are, I had a direct line to her office. There were five lines at the office—my sister and I would call her on line two and Mom would always pick up, she was always available to us.
Because she didn’t cook—literally, I don’t know if she knew how to boil water—I learned to cook. And because she started selling all kinds of unusual things, it forced me to experiment. So the first spaghetti squash recipe that was developed anywhere in the United States, I developed in my kitchen based on the ingredients I had there that day. I shredded some zucchini, spaghetti squash and added tomato sauce and spices, cheese—I made a little casserole.
TOH: How do you balance your own home life with the hectic day-to-day of running your own produce company?
KC: It is a challenge. I like to exercise. My partner and I, when it’s sunny out, we go for hikes and walks, and I love to get on the Peloton, or the rower or go swimming, and [finding the time] is hard. The best advice I can give—and this comes from my partner—is put it on your calendar. I have to calendar-time every day to keep that balance. It’s very intense!
TOH: When it comes to stocking up on produce for your own kitchen, where do you like to shop? Do you get all of your produce from Frieda’s Specialty Produce?
COURTESY FRIEDA’S SPECIALTY PRODUCE
KC: So we’re a produce wholesaler, and I learned from my mom—she never brought anything home from the office. She said, “I always want to support my customers and go to the grocery store to shop.” So, I do the same thing. I shop at every single grocery store—I try to buy fresh produce every other day—just so I can get a feel and see, well, “What does our produce look like?” It’s an advantage to have that in-store look at our products.
TOH: How many grocery stores in the US carry Frieda’s Specialty Produce?
KC: You can find our products in 80% or 90% of all grocery stores in America. We have pretty wide distribution. It’s so funny—I call it produce geography—if someone tells me where they live, I can tell them their grocery store, which always amazes people! They always ask, “How do you know that?” and I say, “Well, that’s my business.”
TOH: What advice would you give to a parent introducing new fruits and vegetables to a picky eater?
KC: When my youngest daughter was in second grade, she was a Brownie, and the [troop] leader asked me to teach a class on fruits and vegetables. I got a mix of produce—both weird and regular—and one of my girlfriends says, “Karen, [my daughter] is a really picky eater. I know you’ve gone to all this trouble, but I want to warn you; she is not going to eat anything.” And I said, “OK, that’s fine! Trust me on this one.”
So, I made it fun. “What’s this? Let’s cut a cucumber! Let’s see what it’s like if we peel it or don’t peel it. Let’s look at the jicama.” I made it kind of a game, as opposed to, “Here’s your spinach, eat it.” I also talked about how important it is to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and I told them they should go to the grocery store with their parents, and they should pick out the fruits and vegetables that they like.
That night, my friend calls me up and says, “I have no idea what you did, but my picky eater wants to go to the store with me so she can pick out her fruits and vegetables.” It was because I wasn’t telling the kids what to do, I made it fun.
I was part of a pilot program called the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snacking Program that came out of funding from the federal government—this was probably 18 years ago. They found if kids get a chance to eat a healthy snack when they’re hungry it improves their learning, it improves their behavior, and it changes their future eating habits, and when they go home, they’re more likely to try a fruit or vegetable they tried at school. People were skeptical, but they found that if kids got the choice themselves—do they want tomatoes, or do they want strawberries? Do they want cucumber, or do they want broccoli?—it changed children’s eating habits for life.
TOH: What’s your favorite thing about cooking? What’s the “why” of why you cook?
KC: I am a 100% extrovert, and I love being around people, and the thing I love about cooking the most is having people around. I love to cook for others! That’s the best part for me. I love to entertain, so cooking is a vehicle for entertaining for me.
Try one of Karen’s favorite recipes: Passion Fruit Mojito!
Courtesy friEda’s specialty produce
- 6 fresh mint leaves
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 oz. lime juice
- 3 oz. club soda
- 2 oz. passion fruit (pulp and seeds)
- 1 oz. white or light rum
- Mint sprig, for garnish
In a tall glass, muddle the mint leaves, sugar and lime juice. Stir in club soda, passion fruit and rum. Add ice, and garnish with a mint sprig. Makes 1 serving.