Last Thursday, I made my way to Piccino, a small new pizza restaurant occupying a street corner in Dogpatch, to participate in an interesting new San Francisco ritual. I looked for the minivan full of vegetables, handed over $25 for a giant box of produce, and then sat down to eat dinner with some friends, side-by-side with other food lovers or food industry folks who were also at Piccino to purchase a "Mystery Box."
The Mystery Box was chock full of enough vegetables to feed a family of four for at least a week, and was grown by the farmers at Mariquita Farm, a well-known organic farm in Watsonville. Until March, Mariquita was a popular booth at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market on Saturdays.
When Mariquita's owners, husband and wife team Andy Griffin and Julia Wiley, decided to pull out of the market, a roar went up among customers who had been shopping at their market booth for many years. "We stopped going because our restaurant deliveries and CSA were successful enough that we didn't have to go to the Ferry Plaza, but we had customers who were having complete withdrawals and not dealing with it very gracefully," says Julia.
Thus was born the Mystery Box. Julia has a goal of eating at every restaurant that is a customer of Mariquita Farm, and decided to combine this goal with a trip to the city twice a month this summer, parking outside one of the restaurants and selling Mystery Boxes to customers who pre-ordered on the Internet. So far, she has conducted Thursday night box sales at Nopa, Zuppa, and Piccino.
"It's great cross-promotion for the restaurants," Julia told me on the phone on Monday. Many customers pick up their produce and stay at the restaurant to eat dinner. Additionally, the Mystery Box is a great way for the farm to add some extra income and off-load some of their surplus during the high season. Farmer Andy Griffin picked the produce for the Mystery Boxes on Thursday afternoon, and Julia printed up the ingredients list five minutes before driving to San Francisco, giving the farm ultimate flexibility in giving box-buyers the freshest produce that the farm had to offer.
This box contains a massive amount of food -- next time I will be splitting the box with a friend. This week, however, my friend Jeanne and I bought individual boxes. I talked to her last night about yet another recipe to use up some of the produce. "How long," I asked, "do you think you and I have spent on the phone this week talking about strategy to use up our produce boxes?" It was probably at least two hours since last Thursday.
This week the box contained: Godzilla fingerling potatoes, chives, rosemary, basil, Amsterdam cutting celery, erbette chard, Egyptian beets, spigariello, green and white cucumbers, mixed summer squash, poblano peppers, pimiento de padron peppers, purple and white bell peppers, carrots, and fennel. I was delighted to find several things in the box that I have never used before, and have been having fun this week planning new recipes for my produce.
If you don't participate in a CSA, this is a great way to have the benefits of a CSA this summer on a casual, as desired, basis.
One tip: Take along a few canvas bags, as Julia likes to take the boxes back -- they are expensive for the farm, and she'd rather they not go home with us. You can then transfer all your box goodies to your own bags.
The next Mystery Box drop-off will be on Thursday, August 16 at Slow Club.