Sometimes you can hardly wedge your way close to Big B Farm's display of beautiful produce. Wildly popular, Big B Farm has been a fixture at the Hollywood Farmers Market since the market's inception.
Undoubtedly, one reason for its popularity is ringmaster, Frank Battilega, whose cheerful, self-deprecating personality and ongoing banter add to the upbeat atmosphere. And if you've lately noticed an extra sparkle in Frank's eyes, the reason for it is a woman named Catherine.
Here is the story, shortened for Local Dirt purposes, as told in separate interviews.
Frank Battilega: My wife, Joanne, passed away in December 2006. So here came the summer of '07, and I had a regular customer come up to me-probably in July--and say "You didn't tell me about Joanne." It really wasn't something I brought up with customers. I took this woman and her sister aside and told them what had happened. They had heard about Joanne's passing because they were friends with a cousin of mine and had had lunch with her. A month or two later, one of the women brought her daughter with her to the market.
Catherine Pavlakovich: My mother was a regular customer at the market. After she found out that Joanne had passed away, she kept telling me about Frank. "Oh Frank is so handsome, so charming. He's such a nice guy." And I thought "Hmm. Maybe I should check him out." So I went to the market one day and, sure enough, he is handsome. And he is charming. So I just kept coming to the market every week with my mom.
Frank: They're sizing me up, but I was clueless. I was just trying to make it through the year. But one conversation leads to another-we're always teasing customers-and toward the end of the market in '07, the daughter said that she wanted a 25-pound bag of small beets for canning.
Catherine: In October, I told him I wanted to buy some beets for pickling. But just small beets. So he said, "What, you expect me to go out to the fields and just pick small beets?" I said, "Well, yes, I'm the customer, and isn't the customer always right?" Sure enough, next week he had this bag of beets for me.
Frank: So it was the end of October, the last day of the market season that year. I told her I had her bag of beets and called to one of my nephews to carry the beets to her car. "Oh no"," she said. "I want you to carry the bag for me."
Catherine: At this point he doesn't even know my name. He rushes to the parking lot with this bag of beets, he put the beets in the trunk, and he starts to turn around. I said "Stop. Would you slow down for a minute. I think we've become friends." And I handed him my business card."
Frank: As I'm leaving the parking lot, she handed me her business card. She works in the tax-trust division of a bank. I said, "Look, if you think I have money to put in your bank, you're sadly mistaken. I'm just a simple-minded farmer in a complex world and I don't make that kind of money."
Catherine: And I said, "No. Turn it over." I had written my home phone and my cell phone numbers on the back of the card. "In the off-season," I said, "why don't you give me a call. I'd like to know how the boys are doing in school, how things are going on the farm..." He had kind of a deer-in-the-headlights look and practically ran back to his booth.
Frank: There was going to be one more market the weekend before Thanksgiving. I told the market manager we'd be there unless we got frozen out. Well, it got cold and we did get frozen out. So here I was telling people we'd be back November 17th, but we didn't make it to the 17th. That morning I got a call from a fellow named Emilio, who said he had brought a pan of lasagna for me and my family-and we weren't at the market to get it. And then at 1 in the afternoon, I got a call from Catherine. She said, "You didn't come back to the market. I brought you some pickled beets." And I said, "That's it? Pickled beets? Emilio brought me a pan of lasagna and you brought me a lousy jar of pickled beets?" I think if she could have reached through the phone, she would have choked me.
Catherine: When my mother and I went to the market the weekend before Thanksgiving, Big B wasn't there. So I looked up his phone number and called him. I told him that I'd been at the market and wanted to give him a jar of pickled beets. He said, "Well, Emilio had a pan of lasagna for me." And I said, "What? His pan of lasagna trumps my pickled beets?"
Frank: After we hung up, I never talked to her again until the next market of '08. The whole summer of '08 goes by and the summer of '08 finishes. Here comes the season of '09. We're getting into our third year that she's been coming to the market. Summer of '09 comes, summer of '09 finishes.
Catherine: We had typical customer interaction at the market-teasing and idle chitchat-but from October 2008 to May 2009, he never called me and I never called him.
Frank: Then in 2009, she sent me a card at Thanksgiving time and said she had gone to the market during October and November and the market just wasn't the same without Big B there and all the laughter.
Catherine: After the market ended in 2009, I sent him a Thanksgiving card and said that I hoped his family had a nice Thanksgiving. Then I sent him a card at Christmas.
Frank: When someone sends me a Christmas card, I send a Christmas card back. I called her to thank her for the card. A snowstorm hit Portland a few days after Christmas, and I called her again to find out if she was doing okay.
Catherine: On December 28 or 29, he called me. He said, "Hello, Catherine. It's Frank." I almost passed out. Idle chitchat. Eventually he said, "What are you doing for New Year's?" I told him. It was family stuff with my parents that we usually did every year. Then I asked, "What are you doing for New Year's Eve?" He said he was probably just going to his cousin's house. And then there's this pregnant pause in the conversation.
Frank: There's dead silence in the phone conversation. It seemed like an eternity. And then I said, "Hey, if you're not doing much for New Year's, do you want to go along with me to my cousin's house?"
Catherine: You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Frank: And then she said, and I quote, "You tell me the time and the place and whether it's formal or casual, and I'll be there."
Frank cooked ravioli for Catherine on New Year's Eve. Their wedding will be at the end of October. We wish them many, many joyful years together.