Friday, May 10, 1996
Vegetables, fruits produce a rhubarb

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eddie the produce man wonders what all the fuss is about. He was just doing the job he loves, making a display of fruits and vegetables look good.

He even won a medal for it: best of show at the 1996 Cincinnati Flower Show.

Yet, so many people are complaining about the prize-winning display, he's found himself in that most dreaded of Cincinnati nightmares, a controversy.

In his official role as Eddie Ivers, produce merchandising representative for 36 area Kroger stores, he designed the exhibit.

"We looked at pictures from English flower shows," Eddie recalls. "I sketched it out on a piece of paper from a legal pad."

The colorful medley looked like an edible blanket. Make that a heavy, edible blanket. Placed on a sturdy wooden frame, it held 500 pounds of produce.

Covering 96 square feet in greens, reds, whites, yellows and purples, it contained 47 celery stalks, 92 yellow peppers and 66 braids of garlic. Four diamond-shaped sections of cauliflowers, peppers and tomatoes were set in fields of eggplants, lettuce and parsley. Baskets of apples, lemons and avocados lined its base.

The Kroger display won the show's top award, the Silver Gilt Flora Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. It also gathered some raspberries from showgoers and competitors.

Garden of gripes

"I heard it derided as a fruit-and-vegetable stand," reports Joe Boggs, horticulture industry agent with Hamilton County's Ohio State University Extension Service.

His opinion?

"It sure pushed the envelope."

John Schmidt, president of Natorp Garden Stores, fears it might nudge his company out of the show and its competitions.

"The award caused a mild bit of controversy - to be polite," he says. "It's one reason we might not be back."

Denny McKeown, Cincinnati's most famous green thumb and garden-center owner, has been polling his customers over the flower show's results.

"They're unanimous in their outrage," he declares. "It's a flower show. It's about plants. Not fruits and vegetables. At the Kroger exhibit, there wasn't a flower in the bunch!"

Biologically, the Kroger exhibit was blooming with flowers.

"Any fruit and vegetable with seeds is the mature part of a flower," says Jerry Snider, a biology professor at the University of Cincinnati. "A cauliflower is a whole bouquet of flowers. Apples are a portion of the female part of the flower."

Warming to the role of Dr. Science, he adds: "Flowers are highly modified plant structures designed to be looked at. Fruits and vegetables are highly modified plant structures designed to be eaten."

Or put into eye-pleasing displays.

Underdog wins

Eddie the produce man is not a college-trained horticultural designer or even a gardener.

"I used to have a small garden," he says. "But I lost my wife seven years ago. It's just me. No sense having a garden."

He's a career grocer who started at age 16 as a bag boy in the Milford Kroger's. That was in 1959.

"They put me in produce on weekends," he recalls as he looks over photos of his prized display. When he turned 21, he became a produce manager.

"I love working with produce," he says, flexing his fingers as if he were stocking a display. "They ask me to do something with it; I give them 150 percent."

This year, Eddie was asked to do the flower show display. "I didn't even know we were going to be judged," he insists. "We were just told to make it look good. Lots of people were going to see it."

Every morning before the show opened, Eddie and his six-person crew would replace the fruits and vegetables that were past their prime.

Nothing was thrown away. "I work in a soup kitchen downtown. Every night, I took the produce to them."

Eddie was dishing up food at the kitchen the night the medals were handed out at the flower show. He never heard the griping when the Kroger display won.

It's been two weeks since the medals were awarded. The complaints continue. More and more, they sound like something that was not in Eddie's prize-winning produce display: sour grapes.