As a jazz musician, is it weird to cite the guy who sold me a bunch of cantaloupes as a bigger influence on my career than Duke Ellington? If you look at it that way then of course. As you might expect, though, there is a bit more nuance in here – Ted Xenelis and the crew at the Middlesex Fruitery have driven home the lesson of what it means to be a master practitioner.

The Middlesex Fruitery has been a community landmark here in Middletown, CT since the 1920s. Ted took over his father’s business and continued the wonderful if (in his own words) archaic practice of offering full-service produce. That is, you go into the Fruitery and once you make it to the front of the line, someone helps you. Quite often that someone is Ted or his wife Mary, or possibly his longtime employee Brendi.

What does “helping you” entail, exactly? I mean, don’t you just grab a couple peaches and an eggplant, pay and get out of there? Well, no. You can’t actually touch the fruit or vegetables. This is the part of the explanation where neophytes are often put off or at the very least confused . . . until I explain further. Would you rather have a tomato that 15 other customers have fondled or one that has only been touched, gently, by the staff?

Never mind that, but let’s get real – go to the supermarket and grab a peach and you are essentially playing roulette. Comparatively low-stakes (depending on how much you need that peach) but with all due respect to the hard-working folks in the produce departments at Stop and Shop or Price Chopper, you’re not likely to get a heck of a lot of guidance. Go to the Fruitery and ask for a peach (keeping your grubby mitts off, of course) and here are some likely responses:

“When do you expect to eat it?”

“Would you like a taste of one?”

“The weather in Georgia has been rough this month – I think you should really try the nectarines this week, they’re spectacular.”

For the last 15 years this routine has been part of my existence and rather fundamental to my civic pride here. I keep speaking in the present tense as I describe this, but as of Saturday Ted and Mary will begin their hard-earned transition to retirement and Kate and I and others will begin our own transitions back to hunting down a worthwhile peach with the rest of the poor saps who walk the aisles of Whole Foods or C-Town or wherever it may be, making at best semi-educated guesses about the melons and green beans.

Now, anybody who knows me (or uses the recently-neglected recipes section on this blog) is aware that healthy food is central to my existence. So a big part of my disorientation as we anticipate this transition is the straightforward and relatively mundane question of finding the best fruit and vegetables we can, a quandary that I recognize is one of privilege. Not everybody has access to such things even under ideal circumstances.

Really, though, the biggest thing for me is that I have never before found buying food to be a soulful, educational and life-affirming process and frankly, I don’t expect to find that again.

What I find myself reflecting on is the care and attention to detail that was so clear whenever I walked in the door there, and the epicenter of all that is the notion of a job well done. I now realize that all my experiences at the Middlesex Fruitery galvanized my determination to embody that in my own career. In a world where “good enough” is the standard, commitment to excellence is all the more conspicuous.

I have always valued this notion, but Ted has been a vital mentor in that regard. My father was widely respected in the architectural world for his comprehensive mastery of the specific sub-specialty in which he chose to specialize, and reflecting on his life that stands out as one of the most resonant lessons he passed on. But, frankly, I’m just not that interested in architecture and while (like computer science and road paving) it impacts me, the specifics are just over my head. Conversely, I think of some of my jazz instructors’ high standards, something that affected me profoundly. But that was trade school, and I interpreted it as learning what the wider world’s expectations were and how one could “compete” in a crowded field – I didn’t think much about how it translated to life beyond.

Yet watching Ted in action has driven home how a life and career can be built from a core sense of expecting to provide something exceptional to people. I’m no idiot, and I know that caring that much is at best inconvenient and at worst impractical. Owning a business like that, there’s no “overtime pay” for the 4am trips to the market and for the long work days on purported days off. I don’t know how to quantify how these high standards translated to profit, but I’m pretty confident that this is beside the point anyway. As far as I can tell, this kind of excellence and attention to detail come from an inner sense of integrity and determination to serve both other people and the ideals of your field (whether music or fruit). I sometimes think of Ted when I’m rewriting a composition for the third time or doing that extra bit of research to corroborate a detail or listening to multiple examples of a tune to offer the most relevant example of something for students. In most cases I could get away with not doing that, but that feels irrelevant – sometimes pragmatism demands that you do the best you can and move on, my sense of duty is not governed by what I can get away with.

In the end, though, so many of us need to have this in our lives. Any adult who has a really trusted attorney, accountant or car mechanic knows what it feels like to put something important in the trusted hands of another and also knows how that feeling contrasts with the sense of “geez, I HOPE this works out.” Fruit may on the one hand seem more trivial than taxes or car maintenance – I could argue that food is more fundamental than any of that, but that’s ultimately not my point. My point is that commitment to deep knowledge, hard work and excellence may be on some level impractical, yet it’s so vitally necessary. This is true on both ends. As the consumer, that sense that wisdom is out there and someone will care enough to dispense it for our benefit is a vital source of security. As the purveyor, our personal growth is at a certain point tied in with our ability to commit to something in that way (whether it be a profession, parenthood, training for kayak races or whatever else).

If all this sounds like a big deal to make over a produce vendor, then I’m sorry you did not get to visit the Middlesex Fruitery. However, it is far from too late to embrace these principles in our own lives and to cherish those in our communities who bring this sort of love and commitment to their work. In the meantime, bravo and thank you Ted and Mary.

3 Responses

  • Biff Shaw

    Noah:
    That is quite wonderful. Few folks in attendance on Saturday will have a longer experience with the Fruitery than Jean and I …each having gone there for over 80 years. And we have watched the transformation of a good store with excellent product emerge to a great store, not only for the product but more for the ambience, the comradery of Ted and Mary and more recently Brendi …but the many friends known before the Fruiterey or gained at the Fruitery. We won’t get that in the aisles 0f Stop and Shop or even Trader Joe’s … where they know service but can’t match ambience.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    See you on the street this Saturday.

  • Noah,
    Splendid words. While I may not match Mr and Mrs. Shaw for length of time shopping at The Fruitery, the X’s and, in my case, the G’s, are connected early on when Ted’s dad, Gus, owned the store. The man for who I am named, my Grandfather Richard Gurland (hence, the G’s), owned a wholesale fruit and produce company on Sumner Street, a long-since-torn down area near the YMCA. After my Grandfather passed (long before I was born), my Uncles Harold and Irving owned the business (into the mid-50s). Gus and my Uncles did not do lots of business but enough to be friendly. My Father, who became the owner of The Bottle Shop in 1947, always spoke highly of the Xenelis family and told me (once I became his apprentice) that The Fruitery was how you should run a “local” business and conduct yourself in the greater community (Gus did have his curmudgeonly ways but never failed to be good to young folk.)
    No 2 ways about it – Mary and Ted will be missed and, as you have pointed out so eloquently, not just for how they handled the fruit. ‘Tis rare to find such dedicated people nowadays in our 24/7 economy – it’s always been worth the wait at The Fruitery!

  • Andy Szegedy-Maszak

    All I can do is echo the words of my friends Biff and Richard, and Noah of course. When I first moved to Middletown, some 40 years ago, Main Street was still the site of a functioning movie theater, a couple of department stores, some small shops [remember Zagoren’s Deli?], a few restaurants and bars [remember the White Eagle?]. Then many of the businesses gradually disappeared, except for The Fruitery, which was always a haven: beautiful produce, warm and friendly personnel, and usually a friend or two in line with you. As Main Street has revived, The Fruitery has continued to be a kind of oasis. Thanks and more thanks to Ted and Mary and Brendi and all the folks who have worked there. As Noah says so well, you set the standard very high.

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