News & Politics » Our Town

Urban Agriculture: The Pear Angel

At the Green City Market, Oriana Kruszewski sells mind-blowing hand-tended Asian varieties at produce-stand prices.



Green City Market

When Wed and Sat, 11/11-11/22 and 12/2-12/23, 9 AM-1 PM

Where Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Dr.

Price Free

Info chicagogreencity

At the Green City market, among artisanal farm products like raw-milk butter at $15 a tub, Oriana Kruszewski's Asian pears, priced at between $1 and $1.50 per pound, are a steal.

The spherical, golden fruits--usually found in produce sections swaddled in Styrofoam netting and sometimes pushing $2.50 apiece--aren't grown much in Illinois. Kruszewski, who's Chinese, says many of the Asians who find her in the market don't believe she does. "I remember one woman was so rude. She said, 'No way. You cannot grow that.' She think I'm making this up. Walk away."

Kruszewski, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, always grew potted vegetables on her family's apartment balcony, though she didn't have the space to get more ambitious than that. But in 1974 she and her family followed a sister who'd immigrated to Chicago. She got a job as a photographer for a manufacturing firm and, borrowing money from her mother, bought a small ranch house in Skokie on a street lined with others just like it. A British engineer she'd dated in Hong Kong followed her here and they married.

She bought her particular lot because it was about twice the size of her neighbors'--more room to grow. The year she moved in she planted her first tree, a Kiefer pear, which she thought was a European variety (it's actually a Chinese-European hybrid). Kiefers are known for their hardiness and productivity, but a large cottonwood towered above it and it didn't bear fruit for 11 years.

In the late 70s Kruszewski joined the Midwest Fruit Explorers, an amateur club founded by a Hinsdale grower named Bob Kurle. When Kruszewski was growing up in Hong Kong there were only two varieties of Asian pears available, but Kurle had ten growing on his land. He taught her that it was possible to graft Asian varieties onto European and American rootstocks.

She took down the cottonwood and began planting other trees and experimenting on the Kiefer. There are a couple hundred varieties of Asian pears in the world, and by grafting many of them onto it she's learned which grow best in Illinois. She started with the tender, white-skinned Japanese varieties she'd known in Hong Kong--the Nijiseiki, Kikusui, and Yakumo--but soon learned that tougher brown-skinned ones like the Chojuro did better here.

After Kurle passed away in 1998 Kruszewski inherited his books and correspondence, and today she's the president of the club. Her Kiefer, now over 30 feet tall, bears more than 20 different varieties of Asian pear.

Unlike her neighbors' postage-stamp lawns, with their standard suburban-issue shrubbery, Kruszewski's front and back yards are crowded with exotica--28 fruit trees, including a quince, an American persimmon, a Japanese plum, a pawpaw, and something called a cornelian cherry, which is used to flavor vodka. Mostly they're Asian pears. "I only grow weird things," she says.

Under the branches of her adult trees she's squeezed about a hundred plastic pots filled with young rootstocks with new grafts. There was a time when she was experimenting with so many fruit trees she was growing them on her neighbors' property, but 11 years ago she and her husband began shopping for more land. They found a 40-acre piece in Winslow, northwest of Freeport on the Wisconsin border. There she planted about 500 pear and 100 black walnut trees, plus a few other assorted fruits on five acres, and left the rest to nature. Her husband helps out with some digging, but for the most part she works it by herself.

Back in Skokie, after a couple of early frosts, a hailstorm, and a summer of fearless, marauding squirrels, all that was left in her backyard by mid-October was a single bunch of pears. But they were world beaters--six softball-size golden fruits, the thin branch bowed to the breaking point despite the orange twine suspending it two feet above the ground. They were huge even for their name--Korean Giants--and are among the hardiest and sweetest of the varieties Kruszewski grows.

She doesn't baby her pears like the ones in the supermarket, or hide the ones that are less than perfect. They come in all shapes and sizes and occasionally appear battered by the elements or, because she doesn't spray them, pockmarked by yellow jackets and other insects. But while store-bought Asian pears are frequently tough skinned and watery, hers are finely textured and piercingly sweet. After ceremonially harvesting the year's final Korean Giants, she offered me a wedge so honeyed and bubblegummy it sent a chill from my jawbone all the way down the back of my right leg. I thought I was having a stroke.

At this point in the season all Kruszewski has left in her stores of harvested fruit are Korean Giants and Imamuras, a tough-skinned variety that makes decent wine. A few years back she sent 500 pounds to a winemaker and got a couple cases back. She likes it with goat cheese.

In her booth at the Green City Market, where many people get their first taste of Asian pears, Kruszewski uses a crack dealer's approach to build her clientele--handing out lots of free samples and selling fruits for almost half what they're going for at other booths. She offers a slice to anyone who gives her a passing glance: a pair of bike cops, a Belgian apple farmer and his wife. She has regular customers too--a pair of University of Chicago math students who'd rather be farming, a chef who's opening a restaurant in December and wants her pears and walnuts for salads.

On one of the market's last days outdoors (it moved to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum earlier this month) it was bright and cold, but there were still yellow jackets about, half a dozen buzzing her samples, ignoring the open jar of honey at the next table. "That's not fair," she said. "Come on!" A Chinese woman stopped by and they chatted about varieties. "They all look alike," she joked. "Remember how people say all Asians look alike?"

On October 11, after the temperature dropped to 27 degrees in Winslow, Kruszewski picked about 2,000 pounds of pears in three days. The freeze killed 400 to 500 pounds out of a season's yield of two-and-a-half tons. But she wasn't upset--this was her best season ever, and the first year she's sold her pears in the Green City Market. (Previously they were only available in the organic section at Oakton Market in Skokie.) Last year there was a late freeze in May and she didn't harvest anything all summer. "I happy," she says. "I don't have to deal with selling. Think positive."

Asian pears have a long shelf life--Kruszewski says hers can be refrigerated for months. After they're gone she'll still have walnuts and dehydrated pears on offer. She doesn't make much money--barely enough to cover the property taxes--but she thinks someone could make a profit. She turns 60 next year and is asking around for someone to take over.

"Right now there's no competition," she says. "I did it by myself, but I know how much work. Not many people crazy as I."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jon Randolph.

Add a comment