The Suitcase Lady


February 4, 2020, 11:24 am

If I say “Frida”, the last name “Kahlo” might pop into your mind. However, this blog is about another Frieda. She is not as well known as Frida Kahlo, but she was a trailblazing woman,  and almost every one of us has directly benefited from the fruits of her work. Literally.

Freida Rapoport Caplan, a.k.a. The Kiwi Queen, died on January 18 at the age of 96. The daughter of Russian immigrants who settled in California, she graduated from UCLA and worked as a bookkeeper in her relatives’ produce business. Wanting more flexible hours when she became a mother, Frieda took a job as a vendor at the downtown Los Angeles wholesale produce market. Her work day started at 2:00 AM and she arrived dressed in a skirt and heels. She immediately realized that breaking into the all-male, “testosterone-doused” competition would be challenging.

Freida Caplan shrewdly made a niche for herself by selling items no other vendor carried, and, in some cases, never even knew existed. She brought an Australian fruit known as the Chinese gooseberry into the American market and renamed it Kiwifruit. This was “the first commercial fruit…introduced into the United States since the banana in the 1880’s.”

With brilliant marketing, hard work and patience, she made that fuzzy brown fruit a superstar. And she didn’t stop there. In 1967, she became the first woman in America to own and operate her own produce house. Her specialty fruits and vegetables all sported eye-catching purple labels. As she tells it, brilliant purple was the only color her sign maker had on hand at the moment. That hue became her signature color for both her labels and her wardrobe.

The list of produce Frieda Kaplan has brought to American tables over the decades is huge. Examples include spaghetti squash, jicama, jackfruit, starfruit, donut peaches, alfalfa sprouts, daikon radishes, purple potatoes, sugar snap peas, blood oranges, Meyer lemons, shiitake  mushrooms and scores more. Her three criteria were taste, food value and shelf life and all her offerings were accompanied by information and recipes.

She confesses that there were some notable flops as well. In her words, “Believe me, I’ve had a couple bombs. There were the fruit-flavored fortune cookies that only dogs in Dallas wanted. And the colored walnuts.”

In 1990, Frieda turned her business over to her daughters. But she still came into the office, dressed in her purple outfits, until she was well into her nineties. Frieda’s story is an immigrant family’s story and a reminder of how much America has to gain by keeping our doors open to immigrants…..even the ones who start out poor.

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