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Cornucopia man

Wednesday, November 24, 2004
By MARY ANN CASTRONOVO FUSCO
FOR THE STAR-LEDGER

As we sit at our Thanksgiving tables tomorrow, tradition calls for us to be grateful for the bounty we typically take for granted. But, in truth, we don't appreciate anywhere near the half of it.

Some 15,000 species of plants have been used as food over the centuries, yet most of the world feeds on only 20, according to Stephen Facciola. Whereas the average person is aware of 50 to 100 food plants, Facciola is practically as familiar with Alaria esculenta (an algae whose fronds can be eaten fresh or dried) as he is with apples.

For the past 32 years, Facciola, 55, has made the documentation of the world's edible plants, both growing in the wild and under cultivation, his life's work. His book, "Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants" (Kampong Publications, 1998) details about 3,000 species, including fungi, algae and bacteria, and about 7,000 cultivars that can be consumed.

Its astounding appendices divide the plants into 68 categories, including alcoholic beverages, coffee substitutes, egg substitutes, food wrappers, gums, honey plants, milk substitutes, oils, vinegars and yeast hosts.

A unique integration of horticulture, botany and gastronomy, Facciola's 713-page, 3 1/2- pound tome describes what the plants look like, how they're cultivated, and how and where they're used as food. Perhaps most important, it also provides sources -- domestic, foreign, commercial and noncommercial -- for every plant named. Alan Davidson, who compiled the authoritative "Oxford Companion to Food," described "Cornucopia II" as a "uniquely rich resource and dazzling achievement."

Soft-spoken and bearing a slight resemblance to the director Steven Spielberg, Facciola is on a first-name basis with a host of horticulturalists, growers, journalists and food experts -- from chefs like Paula Wolfert to cookbook writers like Kitty Morse. Frieda Caplan, the specialty produce executive who introduced Americans to kiwifruit, gave him star treatment when he visited her headquarters in Los Alamitos, Calif. "I'm definitely a foodie. I appreciate good cooking," he said.

But common measures of success have eluded Facciola. He has rarely been out of the country, unable to afford the kind of foreign travel that one would expect him to avidly pursue. Commercial publishers passed on "Cornucopia," leaving Facciola to self-publish both the first and second editions of the book. It was printed, at his expense, by Book-Mart Press in North Bergen. He's currently at work on a third edition, but has so far been unable to attract any grant dollars to help him see his project through. "It's been a tough go," said Facciola quietly.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this man, who carries a jungle of plant information neatly organized in his head and database, is that he cultivated his expertise entirely on his own.

Facciola's father, Joseph, who passed away in June, was an electrician. His mother, Clotilda, who now lives in Toms River, worked as a seamstress while raising her son and younger daughter, Sandra. Born in Jersey City, Facciola grew up and attended public school in North Bergen, where he played basketball and rooted for the New York Yankees until he switched his allegiance from Mickey Mantle to Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants.

But the Hudson County kid had a grandfather with a house in the country, on Lake Hopatcong in Jefferson Township. Summer vacations spent in the northwest corner of Morris County with his extended Italian family taught him to appreciate the savory wealth that nature had to offer. He started out simply, picking wild berries as a child -- blackberries, huckleberries, strawberries, blueberries, Japanese wine berries. To this day, black raspberries remain one of his favorite wild foods.

While he was still a teenager, an aunt gave him a copy of "Organic Gardening" magazine featuring a column by the naturalist Euell Gibbons, and a whole new world opened up for him.

Though he studied liberal arts at Pace University in Manhattan, Facciola found his true calling by following Gibbons' footsteps in the woods surrounding Lake Hopatcong. Rather than finish college, he transplanted himself to Jefferson Township, where he foraged for wild plants and fished. "Instead of going to live at a commune, I dropped out to my grandfather's bungalow," said Facciola. "I did that for about five years." Though he lived off the land during the week, there were still macaroni dinners with the family on weekends. He supported himself by collecting the seeds of witch hazel, which grows wild in the Lake Hopatcong area, for a Montana nursery, and by working odd jobs in North Bergen during the winter.

Eventually he moved to Montana to work for the seed firm, but tired of the severe winters. In 1977, he continued west to Davis, Calif., where he read as much as he could about botany in the University of California's extensive agriculture library. About a year later, he moved down to Vista, outside San Diego, and found work at local nurseries, eventually landing a position as a propagator at Exotica Rare Fruit Nursery. While working there, assignments to find rare but marketable plants took him to Hawaii and Ecuador. On one outing, he was so preoccupied with his plant hunting that he nearly walked off an Andean cliff.

On a recent jaunt in the hills of Jefferson Township, there was no such danger. The only peril was from the occasional car speeding down the roadways. An old black walnut tree marked the approach to a bird hunting area locally known as the sand pits. Carefully stepping into the brush, Facciola pointed out vitamin C-rich rose hips, which can be used to brew tea.

Crossing back over the intersection of Minnisink and Berkshire Valley roads, Facciola homed in on a wide assortment of plants, practically composing a menu from a jumble of leaves, branches and roots. There was pokeweed, which sends up an asparagus-like shoot in spring; the juicy, mildly bitter sheep sorrel, ideal for salad; wild garlic; naturalized day lilies, whose dried flower buds are cooked in Chinese soups and whose shoots and underground parts are entirely edible; Galinsoga parviflora, commonly called Gallant solider, whose leaves, stems, and flowering shoots are eaten as a potherb and, in Colombia, dried and ground into a powder used for flavoring chicken soups and stews; peppery spring cress; the orange-yellow sassafras shrub, whose inner root has a root beer scent and whose leaves flavor Creole cooking; the rhubarb-like Japanese knotweed, which Facciola fancies in pies and crumbles; the dandelion-like sow thistle, a popular food among the Maori people; tulip tree, a favorite of bees and one of the best native honey plants. All were growing wild in the woods of New Jersey; all are described in Facciola's "Cornucopia."

Even at a bus stop near his aunt's home in Little Falls, Facciola spotted a cluster of dainty honey mushrooms at the base of an oak tree. A ways down the road near a strip mall, he assessed the health of a towering but bare black walnut.

Though he prefers the climate of southern California, where he lives most of the year, Facciola returns east for an extended stay at least once each year to visit family and scour the gourmet, health food and ethnic markets of Paterson, Iselin, Edison, Newark, Manhattan and Queens, searching for rare foods and foods made from exotic or common yet overlooked ingredients, ever more fodder for "Cornucopia III." "I do too much sitting in California," said Facciola, who has given up driving, and relies on public transportation and an occasional ride from family and friends to get where he needs to go.

His most recent forays yielded such tasty treasures as bitter balls, tiny round red eggplants that resemble cherry peppers, from DeWolf Farm in New Egypt; tepache, a juice made from pineapple shells; chaga, a mushroom that grows in New York and Siberia and that's an ingredient in Cosmonaut tea from Russia; a variety of luscious dates from the Date Experiment Station in Indio, California; Bashkirian honey from Bashkortostan Republic, considered the world's finest; shakar para, Central Asian dried white apricots, whose name means "piece of sugar," and seedless black Kishmish, raisins from Uzbekistan that taste far more of the grape than their California cousins.

A mushroom hunt in Jefferson Township led him to milk caps, red chanterelles, hedgehogs, hen of the woods and gypsy mushrooms. Near his mother's home, Facciola found fairy ring mushrooms as well. His soft eyes light up as he talks about the characteristics, applications, and potential of each.

"I want people to know about these things, to preserve them," he said. "I don't want people to eat at McDonald's. I want them to eat these thousands of plants that are out there. I don't want to see everything go extinct. I like to know where food comes from, just from an intellectual standpoint. I'm curious. And if you're curious about something, you want to know where it comes from." His reward for his efforts, he said, is "just the satisfaction of knowing that I'm doing good work."

Facciola plans to head back west after the holiday. But Thanksgiving Day will find him with his family, enjoying an Italian-American feast of antipasto followed by escarole soup with pork and sausage, pasta, turkey and the traditional trimmings. For dessert, Facciola hopes to bake a raisin pie -- made with Afghan green raisins and Uzbek black raisins. That is, if he can get out to his favorite ethnic markets in Flushing and Rego Park in time.



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