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Hunting and Gathering: The Cult of the Purple-Mulberry Eaters 

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IT WAS LIKE OPENING DAY AT DODGER STADIUM. MULBERRIES WERE BACK at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Chefs, hippies and foodies started lining up at the Circle C Ranch stand Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. while Kim and Clarence Blaine delicately peeled scraps of cloth off plastic bowls of the forbidden fruit. The uninitiated walked by and wondered what all the fuss was about, but for anyone who has tasted the intensely sweet-flavored purple fruit, there was no containing the excitement -- and tension. There's never enough to go around.

"Persian mulberries are the best-tasting thing at the market," says Fred Eric, owner of Fred 62 and Vida restaurants. "If you had to pick one thing, it would be the mulberries."

The season is barely a month long, and the berries are so delicate they can be neither shipped nor stored for very long. They're a mess to grow, and few people want to deal with their incredible staining power. Kim picks them by hand and, wearing surgical gloves, doles them out one basket at a time. Depending on the supply, you can buy one, maybe two, small boxes, about a half-pint each, for a hefty $10 a pop. No wonder the regulars try to curry Kim's favor. Hopefuls bring her gifts (last year a customer gave her a sunbonnet). Regulars are sometimes rewarded with a special peach, cherry or apricot -- also among the best at the market -- from Kim's private stash under the counter.

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A steely Korean woman perhaps in her late 60s, Kim is no pushover. Ask her if the figs are sweet, and she will answer wryly, "No, bitter." It definitely helps your cause if she recognizes you. Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard remembers waiting in line for the first time after she moved here from New York nine years ago. "Kim didn't want to have anything to do with me. I asked for 5 pounds [of mulberries], and she said 'No.' Now she's like part of my extended family."

As the line gets longer, waiting for the horn signaling the opening of the market, other chefs appear in the "backroom," the rear of the Circle C van. Civilians in line eye the chefs with a mixture of apprehension and envy, fearful that there won't be enough mulberries to go around. "People see us in the back picking up our stuff, and they think we're more privileged than we are," says Yard. "It's the same stuff they can get if they get here early."

Still, there is an air of anxiety as the devotees wait their turn. First in line is a 35-year-old ex-punker dressed all in black. She affects a New York cool about the scene. "Hey, I've done heroin, I'm not going to freak out about mulberries."

A screenwriter from Santa Monica says he used to get anxious about the chefs getting stuff before him; now he uses the opportunity to find out what they're making.

With a whisk hanging out of the pocket of her jean jacket, Yard looks ready to whip up something on the spot. One of her favorite things is poaching figs in mulberry juice and Syrah wine, then spooning the sauce and mulberries over a tart shell filled with ginger cream. Josiah Citrin from Mélisse might use them in a fromage blanc mousse or with foie gras. But most of the regulars prefer to eat them raw with their fingers.

The line crawls. People kill time talking about recipes and swapping favorite mulberry stories. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a very skinny woman who told Kim she was pregnant and needed to get an extra box to satisfy her craving. When Kim refused, the woman stormed off to the market manager, telling her that the health of her unborn was at stake.

A musician in a leather jacket waits cheerfully; he has been coming here every week for five years. He's from Armenia, where, he says, the mulberries are even bigger and sweeter than California's. "But these are the closest to the real thing. For me, eating them is like a meditative experience; the flavor reminds me of my childhood."

An Asian woman from Hawaii says she has tried berries in France and Sweden, and these are the best in the world. "I remember growing up reading fairy tales and imagining what berries should taste like. This is it."

Not everyone here is a convert. A first-timer, brought along as a subterfuge by his girlfriend so he can buy an extra box, is unconvinced. "These people must have a lot of time on their hands," he marvels. "It looks like a cult."

There is something of the religious experience about the ritual. People get up early and assemble every week, greeting their fellow seekers with good cheer. If, as Sherry Yard says, "the market is our church," then the mulberries must be heaven on earth.

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