Boston's Green Underbelly

For a Saturday morning, it was far too early for a college student to be awake. And it was far
By Christian A. Stayner

For a Saturday morning, it was far too early for a college student to be awake. And it was far to early to be lost while driving the streets of Chelsea. Keep in mind, this was not fashionable Chelsea in Manhattan with its brasseries and trendy art galleries, but Chelsea, Mass.—a bleak section of Boston, just north of Logan Airport, facing Somerville across the Mystic River.

More than anything else, Chelsea is just plain ugly. For the third time, I passed the Exxon oil tanks looming above the river’s grayish water, having circled the highway rotaries countless times. The colors here were from brightly hued flags flying above Chelsea’s numerous Italian grocery stores.

My destination, the New England Produce Center (NEPC), finally appeared, just after a seedy motel. The NEPC is the main wholesale market for Boston, so there’s a good chance last night’s dinner came from here. Said to be the port of entry for the majority of New England’s fruits and vegetables, it’s a bastion of healthiness for Boston, or at least a formidable defense against a mass outbreak of scurvy.

I had imagined something a bit more picturesque. Something out of an eighteenth century etching, maybe—numerous overflowing baskets of glistening fruits and vegetables arriving in clipper ships from all corners of the globe, hawked by costumed vendors from various nations.

The reality was far more industrial. Four large concrete buildings, flanked on both sides by loading docks, were surrounded by big-rig trucks. Names such as “A. Sarno & Co.,” “D’Arrigo Brothers” and “Marco Tomato” were the only decorative flourishes. Getting out of the car, I stepped into a pile of lychees that had seen better, fresher days. The stench of rotting tomatoes that littered the ground nearby was, shall we say, aromatic.

As the sun rose, many of the industrial garage doors along the loading dock began to close, signalling the end of the business day. At 9 a.m., “J. Bonafede and Sons” was still open and seemed like a good place to start.

“The colder it gets here in Boston, the further away the stuff comes from,” says Peter Bonafede, who was manning the desk. His main item of the day seemed to be avocados. There were boxes upon boxes of them, but bizarrely, little else. Was this Boston’s avocado king?

According to Bonafede, roughly 40 percent of New England’s produce comes through Chelsea. The end of summer means the end of produce-growing season in New England, so for the next six months, Boston will survive thanks to farmers in California and Mexico, New Zealand and Florida. Not to mention the truck drivers, merchant marines, train workers, and airplane pilots that bring all of it here. I came across several large airline cargo containers from overseas: our dinners have clearly become globalized.

I stopped into the restaurant in Building A, convinced this would be my definitive culinary experience—the equivalent of a lobster shack on the Maine coast. A hand-lettered sign informed me that the restaurant was open from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The place was not heavy on ambiance, but it was at least warm inside.

I was disappointed, however, to find that it was all but shut down. Donna, who operates the restaurant, suggested that I come back and visit between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. Monday, the busiest time of the week, for the full produce experience. Alas, I doubt will take her up on the offer.

“They’re yelling and screaming,” she says of the anxious buyers. “It’s very tense.”

Donna bragged that she’d had customers from all over the world, from Morocco to Mexico. There were even engineers from New Zealand, who came to train Bostonians how to use a multi-million-dollar salad-making machine that I had seen washing and chopping spinach earlier in building B. As a result, she had a multi-ethnic menu of meals she’d learned from her customers.

With the sun up in the sky and the market all but closed down, it was time to head back to Cambridge, and, more specifically, to bed. I pulled my car out past the guard house, barely avoiding a Shaw’s supermarket semi that was pulling away from Building C full of potatoes and red onions. Honestly, I was a bit hungry.