FallEdible BostonComment

The Tomato Queen

FallEdible BostonComment

tomatoqueen

by Barbara Houle

When Fran (Frances) Schivick of Oxford says “I’m not a morning person,” you have to laugh because the feisty, blond dynamo has trucked in produce to the GreaterWorcester FarmersMarket for 25 years without missing a beat.

“I’m not kidding when I say I hate getting up at 4 a.m.,” Fran recently told a customer, handing her a bag of bright red, medium-sized tomatoes. “Hey, I’m 72. I’m supposed to be winding down.”

It will be a sad day when Fran decides to retire, said Andrew K. O’Keefe, managing director of the Greater Worcester Farmers Market, who in his spring bulletin to Friends of the FarmersMarket wrote, “This year, we honor Fran Schivick, ‘TheTomato Queen,’ for 25 years of service to the market and her many faithful customers.”

“The Tomato Queen?” You bet.Fran is the vendor who brings the first crop of tomatoes to theWorcester markets. Home cooks and professional chefs eagerly await the greenhouse tomatoes, which arrive months before local tomatoes ripen in the fields.

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And, on any given market day, you will find Fran sporting a white or colorful T-shirt complete with a tomato logo. “I’m totally into farmers markets. One of my daughters ordered the T-shirts. I have one for each day of the week. Customers love when I wear them.”

“When I first started with the farmers markets I was the corn queen because I brought in so much corn,” recalls Fran. “Jeff Cole of Silvermine Farm in Sutton was the corn king.” Cole is now the executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets.

The skinny on Fran: She and her husband, Raymond, grow crops on 12 of their 23 acres of land. They operate six greenhouses and a small farm stand on their Oxford property.

“I’m not from a family of farmers,” Fran said. “My husband and I always had a garden. With five kids, we had to. When Raymond got laid off from a job he had worked at for 27 years, we decided to farm full time. We had the land. I was 48 years old; Raymond was 49. He has the green thumb, and he’s a hard worker. He tied the business together. You know, I think we’ve outlived some of the younger growers around us. It’s a tough business.

“All the kids at one time or another have pitched in to help us during the growing season,” Fran said.

The Schivicks celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary in August along with their children and three grandchildren.

“This was the season from hell,” she added. “The hail in Oxford the day before Memorial Day lasted 15 minutes. We lost summer squash and zucchini. You name it. My hostas [plants] were shredded to pieces.”

“So we replanted. Been there, done that.”

And then there was the invasion of the slugs. Or, “the year of the slugs,” according to Fran, who said a shopper suggested she use beer traps to get rid of the slug problem. “Are you kidding? I would have had to own a brewery to supply me with enough beer to get rid of them all.

“If it’s not the deer nibbling on plants, it’s the crows pulling up the corn. It can be a losing battle, but you learn to live with it.’’

This summer, Fran sold her produce at six different farmers markets in and aroundWorcester and she is a person who likes to schmooze. She has a special affection for her customers who through the years have not only shared their family stories, but also recipes and gardening tips.

A few years ago, a new customer asked her, “Do you remember me?” The customer told her that when she was a youngster she accompanied her mother to one of theWorcester markets. “Now, she’s bringing her daughter.”

When a customer goes on vacation, or out of town, Fran always follows up when they get back. “I like to keep track of them,” she said. “Some customers are like family.”

At home, the Tomato Queen likes to cook. She’s not a great cook, she said, but one who in the summer makes “gallons” of spaghetti sauce to freeze. She also has her own version of V8 vegetable juice. She uses her father’s recipe to make great half-sour pickles and makes a terrific pie. Her favorite tomato recipe is a simple one: Fresh mozzarella tomato salad with basil and extra-virgin olive oil.

“When I got married I didn’t know how to cook even so much as a hot dog. No kidding. My husband is the cook in the family. A really good cook.”

Fran grinned when we asked her if she would return to the Greater Worcester Farmers Market next spring? “No comment,” she said.What we do know is Fran has worked diligently with other vendors to help educate consumers about local food, farms and farmers markets. Food on the table starts on the farm, she said.

And, Fran smiles no matter what. Even when shoppers ask in early June if the corn is ready yet.

Barbara M. Houle is the “semi-retired” food editor of the Telegram & Gazette inWorcester. She writes a weekly column, Table Hoppin, and food articles for itsWorcester Living magazine.Ms. Houle is on the advisory
board for the culinary department at Worcester Vocational School and on the committee for Taste of the Nation in Worcester. She holds memberships in local and national culinary associations. She can be reached at bhoulefood@gmail.com.