RABBIT RAMBLINGS: David ‘Mas’ Masumoto, you’re a peach!

I had the great good fortune to attend a surprise birthday party for David “Mas” Masumoto, his 60th. It was held at the University of California, Berkeley campus Alumni House, his alma mater. As his daughter, Nikiko, related, the hardest part was keeping it a secret. They managed to pull it off, so, “Surprise!” really was a surprise to him and much fun was made of the elaborate ruses that were used to make sure that no one gave it away.

Mas is a special Nikkei. His decision, after getting a degree in sociology at Berkeley and a master’s in community development at UC Davis, was to return to the family farm in Del Rey (in Fresno County) and take over the growing of fruits like peaches, nectarines and grapes for raisins. As someone who left a farm, I know that most kids who grew up on farms (and I’m speaking of Nikkei) have left for the city and other jobs, so for Mas to make this choice was unusual. But what he did with his farmer’s life is quite unique.

Now, there was a time when the foodie culture hardly existed in California, if you can imagine that. Farmers were interested in producing fruit that had shelf life, that could be shipped long distances and remain good looking. The breeding was for looks, color, uniformity and hardiness. One of the last qualities considered was taste.

So, Mas had a variety of peaches on his farm called the Suncrest. This variety was beautiful to look at and very tasty, juicy, luscious and fragrant — in other words, all that one would want in a perfect peach. But the wholesalers refused to buy them because they were considered too perishable. So, Mas reluctantly decided to pull up all the trees. But first, he wanted to express his sorrow about the situation and he wrote a book called “Epitaph for a Peach” in 1996. And as they say, the rest is history.

This book went on to fame for Mas, reviewed in the New York Times and other prestigious publications, and I also wrote a review for the International Examiner in Seattle and had the opportunity to meet him there. Since then, Mas has written “Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land,” “Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil,” “Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring,” and (with Doug Hansen) “Letters to the Valley,” “Heirlooms: Letters from a Peach Farmer,” and “Country Voices: The Oral History of a Japanese American Family Farm Community.”

His latest is a cookbook-story book, “The Perfect Peach.”

My sister Emiko featured him in “Ripe For Change,” a documentary about farming in California. Mas won a Julia Child cookbook award, was a finalist for the 1996 James Beard Foundation Food Writing Award, he was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts, and he’s on the board of the Irvine Foundation, etc., etc. Too many activities to list. Well, I said that he’s a special person.

And he’s still growing peaches in Del Rey, with a program for folks to “adopt” a peach tree, your very own for the season and you can go and pick all the peaches on your own tree in August. Peaches never had such an eloquent advocate.

Beyond this return to the land, he is a passionate advocate of organic farming, an idea he developed very early in his career as a farmer. So he’s a visionary and a crusader, but with a sense of humor and fun. The party was one big feel good rumpus with great food and lovely wine, Mas’ daughter and wife Marcy presiding over the festivities. Another remarkable feature of Mas’s farm is that his daughter Nikiko is going to continue the farm, making her the fourth generation Masumoto to tend the peaches. And his peaches are so good they live up to my memories of the drippy, juicy peaches I ate as a kid. You should look for them at Berkeley Bowl in season.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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