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The U.S. Split Over Iran Nuclear Policy

Journalist Laura Rozen discusses the philosophical split within the Bush administration on how to curb nuclear proliferation in Iran. Rozen reports on national security and foreign policy as a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and as a contributor to The Washington Monthly, the National Journal and other publications. She also writes a political blog, War and Piece.


Other segments from the episode on June 20, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 20, 2007: Interview with Laura Rozen; Interview with Russ Parsons; Review of Michael Brecker's album "Pilgrimage."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Laura Rozen of the Washington Monthly and National
Journal on the split within the Bush administration between
wanting regime change or behavioral change in Iran

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In its policy toward Iran, the Bush administration has been split between
advocates of regime change and behavior change, according to my guest Laura
Rozen. She says those who want the US military to overthrow President
Ahmadinejad are losing. The pragmatists within the Bush administration who
want to change the Iranian regime's behavior through sanctions, international
pressure and incentives are winning.

Rozen is the national security correspondent for the Washington Monthly, she's
a contributor to National Journal and a senior correspondent for The American
Prospect. I asked her how she thinks the pragmatists have become more
influential within the Bush administration.

Ms. LAURA ROZEN: Ascended a few years ago, were a group of people who
believed that you couldn't really deal with this Iranian regime, and that the
way to deal with it was to change it the way they changed Iraq. The past
year, you've seen the realization that the US is overwhelmed with its
occupation of Iraq and you've seen the pragmatists who support trying to get
this Iranian regime to change its behavior become more ascendant. And that
group is led by Condoleezza Rice and the State Department, and they're trying
to work now with the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese to pressure
Iran through economic sanctions to suspend its uranium enrichment and stop its
support for these destabilizing groups.

GROSS: You say that the regime change position within the Bush administration
has lost a lot of its power. What are some of the signs that it's lost power?

Ms. ROZEN: One is the departure of officials from the Bush administration
who had supported that position, such as John Bolton, who'd been the
ambassador to the United Nations, several people from the Pentagon, Paul
Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, who had headed a policy shop that has several people
who were brought in 2002, 2003 to work on Iran and subverting that regime.
Cheney's office itself is now considered the main sort of last vestige of the
people in the administration who are deeply skeptical that the US is going to
be able to get Iran to stop its nuclear program through diplomacy. And you've
seen much--and many reports in recent weeks that there's a kind of a hot
dispute between the Condi Rice group at the State Department and people in
Cheney's office, who are perhaps trying to sabotage her, and wait their
opportunity to seize control of the policy again.

GROSS: You said that another sign that the hard liners on Iran have lost some
of the power, some of the regime change advocates have lost some of their
power, is that a group called the Iran Theory of Policy Operations Group was
closed down. What was this group and who shut it down?

Ms. ROZEN: The lead person in the State Department doing the Iran nuclear
issues is an undersecretary of state named Nick Burns. He's the guy who Rice
sends to talk with the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese about coming up
with some united front to pressure Iran to change its behavior. And, you
know, the past year he's been leading that effort. At the same time there
have been all sorts of media reports that there's this Iran-Syria policy
operations group that was coordinating between the different agencies of the
US government in an unusual way on action to kind of poke at Iran, and the
group was little understood. Some of the people involved were clearly from
the regime change school.

I reported a year ago that there was a small Iranian directorate set up at the
Pentagon with people who'd been at the Office of Special Plans during the
run-up to the Iraq war. These people very much supported regime change in
Iran, and they were participating in this Iran Syria operations group. Junior
Senator Robert Casey on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was asking
Burns about this, and testimony a couple months back, and got a written
response back at the end of May from Burns saying, `Oh, by the way, that group
has been shut down.' So my understanding is that Burns had never liked the
group. He felt that it was leading to turf war, and the people were going to
too many meetings and nothing was getting done, and he wanted just to clean
out the process.

GROSS: Was Donald Rumsfeld one of the regime change people before he was
forced out as secretary of defense?

Ms. ROZEN: I don't think I know that Rumsfeld was a regime changer on Iran
so much as his department authorized a lot of unusual things on Iran, and it
was primarily the Pentagon that was the center, with moral support, perhaps,
from Cheney's office for the regime change option. In particular, it was
people in Feith's former policy shop that were most active on trying to
explore unconventional options for overturning the Iranian regime. There were
a couple of officials who worked for Feith at the time who met with an old
arms dealer from the Iran-Contra era named Manucher Ghorbanifar. They were
authorized by the top levels of the Pentagon to go meet with Ghorbanifar in
Rome and in Paris. Ghorbanifar was asking for $20 million from the US
government to, he said, implement a coup in Tehran. And Tenet, the former CIA
director, George Tenet's book describes, you know, the CIA learning about the
Pentagon running around meeting with these Iranian oppositionists and not
being really part of the channel, which is highly unusual. And I think it
just speaks to, four years ago, how close we were to those people who wanted
to change the regime in Iran getting very close to the White House, getting
close to the White House authorizing, you know, contemplating that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, what about the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates?
Where does he stand on Iran? What's his strategy?

Ms. ROZEN: My understanding is that Gates is far more pragmatic and
moderate. He's been part of this Iraq Study Group, or he had been until he
was appointed defense secretary, that was strongly urging the Bush
administration to talk with two of Iraq's, you know, Iraq's neighbors,
including Syria and Iran, about trying to stabilize the country. He also,
last week, made a point of saying that now that there are intelligence reports
that Iranian weapons are turning up in the hands of their former enemies, the
Taliban in Afghanistan, that still the US didn't have evidence that it was the
Iranian government, per se, arming the Taliban. So he's definitely made
efforts to make public statements that seem to show an effort to moderate the

GROSS: Now in May, the US had warships doing military drills right off the
coast of Iran. How do you read that?

Ms. ROZEN: I think the US decided in December that they were going to
seriously ramp up their effort to show Iran that we were tough--that the US
was tough despite the difficulties for the US in Iraq. And so, you know, you
saw Bush in January make this very aggressive statement about sending
defensive missiles to Sunni allies in the Gulf. We were going to be sending
warships there. He had, the next day, the US detain several Iranians at a
Iranian office in the Kurdish city of Irbil. Those people are still being
detained. The US let it be leaked to The New York Times and the Washington
Post that Bush had authorized killing Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps people
acting in Iraq. So I think the US has been trying to increase its leverage
with Iran, actually in the hopes of being able to talk with Iran. I think
that it's actually they're trying to look tougher and let Iran know that the
US is not a paper tiger as it tries to seek a diplomatic solution to the

GROSS: My guest is Laura Rozen, national security correspondent for the
Washington Monthly and a contributor to National Journal. We'll talk more
about the Bush administration and Iran after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Rozen. We're talking
about Iran and the Bush administration's plans for Iran, and the split within
the Bush administration vs. regime change in Iran or just trying to change
the behavior of the regime in Iran. Rozen is the national security
correspondent for Washington Monthly and is a contributor to National Journal.

We've been talking about the advocates of regime change in Iran, and you say
that they have considerably less power in the Bush administration than they
did before. And you said that Condoleezza Rice is now a strong advocate for
behavior change in Iran. What's her strategy?

Ms. ROZEN: Her strategy is essentially an indirect one of getting the rest
of the world as much as possible to join a US-led alliance to pressure Iran
with all sorts of sanctions and diplomatic means, plus carrots: the offer
that, if Iran agrees to this they'll get all sorts of good things, for Iran to
change its behavior. That's her approach. And it's an approach that actually
the US succeeded at with North Korea just a few months ago. So I think
there's a lot of pessimism inside the US government. They're not seeing the
Iranian regime's behavior change. They say that their lives are preoccupied
with evidence that Iran is supporting insurgents killing coalition forces in
Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are trying now to get a new round, a third
round of international sanctions against Iran that may be more meaningful in
the hope that that would make the difference, that, you know, if they make the
top leaders of the regime hurt enough, that they could get, you know, them to
finally start thinking about changing their behavior.

GROSS: Condoleezza Rice's deputy Nicholas Burns is the main State Department
point person on Iran. He worked in the Clinton administration. He was
Clinton's ambassador to Greece, and he was a spokesperson for the State
Department under Madeleine Albright. Is he a surprise choice for the Bush

Ms. ROZEN: No. I mean, actually, there are several people who have taken
sort of key positions, especially in a second term State Department, who are
not ideologues, who are career diplomats and professionals. Chris Hill is the
diplomat who just won the agreement with North Korea a couple of months back,
is someone who served as an ambassador for Clinton to Macedonia and Poland.
And you see other career appointments of people who are not ideologues or
controversial choices, like John Bolton, who's also left the administration.

GROSS: So what has Nicholas Burns' approach been to working with allies in
creating carrots and sticks for Iran?

Ms. ROZEN: So Burns has led the process of getting UN International Security
Council resolutions. They have a chapter seven resolution on Iran, which
means that, you know, the Security Council decided that Iran was in breach of
its agreement to the International Atomic Energy Association on its nuclear
program and not in compliance. And they've managed to actually get two rounds
of sanctions through the UN Security Council. They're just not very
meaningful sanctions, and it's somewhat voluntary what countries decide to do.
So you've seen Treasury Department officials running around, even to
international banks, saying, `This is not a good thing for your shareholders,
for you all to be financing various energy projects in Iran.' So they're
trying to work through all sorts of ways of trying to get major international
companies and countries to invest less in Iran. Russia sells weapons still to
Iran. China does a lot of energy investment in Iran. So that's the

GROSS: Now, you write that there's a second tract of US policy toward Iran
promoting democracy over the long haul. Now, does this mean like covert

Ms. ROZEN: No, I actually don't think that it means covert actions. I think
that last year, largely because there was pressure coming from especially
conservatives in Congress, Rice made a big high profile announcement that the
US was going to be asking for $77 million from Congress to promote democracy
in Iran. One thing I think she was trying to do at the time was co-opt some
of the people who want to do regime change by doing some things that look a
little bit like the US is supporting regime change when, in fact, the policy
was moving very much towards, you know, traditional course of diplomacy, tough

But this program ultimately raised $66 million from Congress. I think about
50 million of that went to support US-government-funded broadcasting on Iran
on Farsi language programming, and probably only, I think, 20-million-plus
went to support actual promoting civil society and democracy in Iran, and most
of that money, my understanding is, went to two US foundations and human
rights groups that have expanded Iran programs. It's been reported that
Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, I think Amnesty International and the
National Endowment of Democracy, IRA, the International Republican and the
International Democratic Institutes also are having expanded Iran programs.
So very little of the money, as far as I can tell from my reporting, is
actually going to anyone in Iran.

The problem is is that the Iranian regime is already quite paranoid and quite
brutal. It doesn't need too much excuse to arrest dissidents and students,
women, activists, human rights activists. And lots of US talk about this
democracy promotion program has led to really incredibly serious crackdown in
Iran. The Washington Post recently described as the worst in, you know, since
revolution, 1979. And you talk to people at the State Department, and you're
like, `Is this worth it? You're not really getting that much democracy and
civil society promotion from the money.' And they say, you know, kind of
`damned if we do, damned if we don't,' that this is a real reflection of US
values to promote civil society. It is a very brutal regime. They don't
accept that the US program is what's leading to this tremendous crackdown,
that it's clear that the Iranian government is using that program as an excuse
to arrest, in particular recently, several Iranian-Americans who are
indirectly or directly associated with various think tanks that are suspected
of having US, you know, US government funding, although all signs are that
these people have nothing to do with any plans for a velvet revolution in

GROSS: Now, you know, you describe Cheney as one of the regime change hawks
left in the administration. In mid-May, he was on board the USS John Stennis,
which is an aircraft carrier that is now stationed in the Gulf. And from the
Stennis, he said, `We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining
nuclear weapons and dominating this region.' Now, when Cheney says that, it's
hard to know how to interpret it since, as you say, he is really, you know,
one of the hawks who favors regime change in Iran. So how did you interpret

Ms. ROZEN: I interpreted it as, you know, Cheney being a sort of
unapologetic, you know, hawk on Iran who's not really very easily able to be
controlled by the Bush administration. And I think that, you know, one sense
is that Condoleezza Rice as the secretary of state is always trying to make
whatever Cheney has just recently said sound like it's all part of the same
policy that she's leading and that, you know, that she sort of lets him say
what he wants to say as long as the president is listening to her and letting
her sort of take the lead on this policy.

But there's no question that there are internal disputes still within the
administration about, you know, ultimately, whether they're going to be able
to finish their term without having taken military action on Iran. At this
point, it's fairly clear from US government sources that the US is not going
to pursue regime change in Iran, that there is a sense that 10 or 12 months
from now, as the US starts to shift its posture in Iraq, if they are not
seeing Iran agree to suspend its uranium enrichments and suspend its sort of
destabilization that it's accused of doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon
and now Gaza, that those who believe the US has to do military confrontation
on Iran before the Bush administration leaves office may again have a window
of opportunity.

GROSS: Are you saying that even though regime change might not be the
immediate goal, there might be an air strike against Iran to prevent it from
getting nuclear weapons?

Ms. ROZEN: Yes.

GROSS: Like maybe an air strike against one of its nuclear facilities?

Ms. ROZEN: Yes, exactly. I've heard, you know, that that would be the
Navy's job. The goal would not be regime change, it would be, you know,
strikes on Bushehr and Nantez, and that it would be limited to the goal of
trying to degrade Iran's nuclear capabilities, not to try to overthrow the

GROSS: What are some of the consequences an air strike like that might have?

Ms. ROZEN: There's so many national security experts who think it would be a
disaster, that it wouldn't actually prevent Iran for very long from being able
to produce nuclear weapons, that Iran would almost certainly retaliate and
that it has the capability to work through groups like Hezbollah, to strike,
you know, US troops in Iraq, US allies in the region. So there are a lot of
people who think it's a disaster.

That said, there are some people who believe that even a Democratic
administration could find itself at some point in the future committed to not
letting Iran get nuclear weapons, having to confront the same choice. And
there's some talk that some people may be able to prevail upon Bush, that he's
the only person who can do this. You know, he's not running again, Cheney not
running again. Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and Iran with
nuclear weapons is a threat to the US national security interests and to that
of our allies, and if this administration or the next is not able to persuade
Iran to suspend its program, I do think it's likely in the next few years that
there will be a confrontation. I don't think that, as in North Korea, that
they will allow Iran to get nuclear weapons if they can stop it.

GROSS: Well, Laura Rozen, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ROZEN: Thank you.

GROSS: Laura Rozen is national security correspondent for the Washington
Monthly and a contributor to National Journal. I'm Terry Gross, and this is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Food and wine columnist Russ Parsons on picking the
right fruits and vegetables

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's somewhat discouraging when you pick out a beautiful looking peach or
apple that turns out to be tasteless. The new book "How to Pick a Peach," by
my guest Russ Parsons, explains how breeders have often sacrificed taste in
order to develop fruits and vegetables that can withstand the long journey
from the farm to the supermarket. Parsons' book also offers advice on
selecting, storing and preparing fruits and vegetables. He's food and wine
columnist for the LA Times.

Russ Parsons, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So what do you think is the fruit or
vegetable that has suffered the most lately as a result of being bred to
withstand long distance shipping? Let's eliminate the tomato, because we have
sung the woes of the tomato for many years now. So come up with a different

Mr. RUSS PARSON: Oh, besides--I can't do tomatoes? Well, I'd say probably,
right off the top of my head, I would say strawberries. Because the
strawberry, in its natural state, is a very, very fragile piece of fruit. But
as a fragile piece of fruit, especially when it's ripe, you can't take it in
your truck very far. And so in trying to improve the strawberry so that it
could be shipped to New York and Philadelphia and Florida, the plant breeders
have made it more and more resilient to the point now where, you know, you've
got strawberries. When you try and crush them with a fork, it'll actually
bend the fork. They're defensive strawberries.

And there's a funny story. Years ago, I wanted to do something the phrase "du
bois," which is kind of the original wild strawberry. They're very tiny,
they're extremely, extremely fragrant, very, very delicate. I finally found
somebody who would sell them to me, or who had them. And I called him asking
if he would sell them to me, and he said, `Well, you know, I do have them, but
no, I won't sell them to you.' And I said, `Well, you know, I'm happy to pay
for them.' And he said, `No, no, no, I can't sell them to you, because they'll
never arrive in any kind of shape if I ship them to you.' And I said, `Oh, you
know, look, I'll pay whatever the shipping costs to have them overnighted.
I'll do'--you know, we went through this long negotiation. And then finally,
I think just to get me off the phone, he said, `OK, look, I'm going to ship
them to you but I'm not going to take any responsibility for what they are
when they arrive.'

So the next day, overnighted, I got this huge box. And I opened up the box,
and inside of it was, you know, all these packing peanuts. And inside that
was another box. So I opened up the other box--it was like one of those
Russian dolls. At the very center of it, there was this little like a pint
case. I opened up the pint case, and there was the most fragrant strawberry
jam that I had ever smelled. But even with all of those protective measures,
that strawberry could not be shipped. So that's the kind of compromises that
have had to be made to ensure that people can have whatever they want whenever
they want it.

GROSS: So is there a hearty and strong but still tasty strawberry that you

Mr. PARSONS: Not really, but I think the best thing that you can say for
strawberries is that they're one of the most widely planted crops around. I
mean, they are one of the most popular farmers market fruits. And that's
generally a pretty good indication of when something has really been ruined by
commercial agriculture is that they really show up at farmers markets. And
farmers market farmers have the advantage of being able to plant strawberries
that don't need to withstand all of that shipping. You can't really blame the
farmers here in California--and California produces something like 90 percent
of all of the strawberries--but you can't really blame those farmers because
they've got customers all over the country who want their strawberries. And
so, you know, either they're going to be like my cranky guy and say, `No, I'm
sorry, I'm just not going to sell them to you,' or they begin making these
kinds of compromises. But at farmers markets, the farmers aren't constrained
by that, because they are not having to ship it across country, or even
necessarily across town. So they can grow varieties that have really high
flavor and really high perfume and not worry so much about the strawberry jam

GROSS: Now, in writing about cherries, you refer to the cherry apocalypse.
What justifies such a strong term in describing the state of cherries?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, what happened with cherries is another one of those kind
of emblematic things. At the turn of the century, New York was a major cherry
producing state. In fact, there's a famous fruit historian named U.P.
Hedrick who, I believe it was in the '20s, produced this amazing kind of an
Audobon's guide to the cherries of New York. That's actually what it's called
with all these beautiful four-color plates. I think there were 200 varieties
of sour cherries alone. But what happened was, New York's a really difficult
place to raise fruit because the summers are really hot and they're really
humid. And that leads to all kind of funguses and diseases and breakdowns.
The cherry farmers eventually moved to the eastern slopes of Washington and
Oregon, where the summers are really hot and really dry. And so they ripen
much better with much less chance of disease. But in that transition, the
possible field of cherries got narrowed. The possible field of cherry
varieties got narrowed to the point where, right now, the bing cherry, which
actually is an antique variety and it's a very good cherry when it's grown
well, accounts for more than two thirds of all the cherries that are grown in
the United States. But that's just one variety, as opposed to 300 to 400
different kinds of varieties that have fallen by the wayside.

GROSS: So if you go to a supermarket and buy cherries, it's most likely
you're buying bing?

Mr. PARSONS: If you go to the supermarket and you buy a red cherry, it's a
bing. And if you buy one of those blushing cherries, you know, the kind of
gold and red ones, it's a Rainier. So we're essentially now a two-cherry

GROSS: Now I feel guilty. I didn't let you talk about tomatoes when I asked
you about the fruit that has suffered the most because it's been bred for long
distance shipping. And I feel like we should respect the tomato and talk
about how it's changed over time for better and for worse. So, I mean, you
know, we've all tasted those cardboardy, pulpy, tasteless tomatoes. Have they
improved since then, the ones that are shipped?

Mr. PARSONS: You know, actually I think they have, and this is just over
maybe even the last five years. Tomatoes are almost like a poster child for
what can go right with produce. And to illustrate that, you know, you think
back to maybe 10 years ago, the kinds of tomatoes that you found in the
market. You found the mature green, you found the vine ripe, and you probably
had cherry tomatoes. So there's like three tomatoes that are in the produce
department. This summer, if you walk into any kind of produce department, any
kind of upscale high end produce department, there will be 25 different kinds
of tomatoes that are available for--you know, there'll be different varieties
of heirlooms, there'll be different stages of ripenesses, there'll be
different colors, different shapes, all different kinds of tomatoes. Now, I'm
not going to say that these tomatoes are going to be as good as that backyard
tomato that you remember picking from the plant ad dead ripeness and eating on
your back step. That can't be reproduced very easily in commercial
agriculture. You can get those sometimes at farmers markets, but even at
farmers markets, not always.

The really surprising thing about all of these changes in tomatoes, though, is
that this tomato revolution was started by the Dutch and by Canadians. And
the thing that really broke that kind of the tomato Antarctic was when the
Dutch began importing different varieties of tomatoes into the United States
in the early '90s and people went berserk for them, because there were
greenhouse tomatoes, there were different varieties, different shapes,
sometimes there were the tomatoes that grow, you know, that they clip and they
sell the entire vine with it that gives you that really wonderful tomato smell
even if it doesn't translate, necessarily, to the tomato. And people went
crazy for them. And the American tomato growers went into basically almost a
decade-long slump trying to recover.

GROSS: So what changed? Why are there more varieties of, you know, mass
grown American tomatoes?

Mr. PARSONS: Supermarkets, for all of their faults, are an incredibly
competitive industry. I mean, these guys work on like a 1 1/2 percent profit
margin. And the produce department is one of the main magnets for a
supermarket. When people decide which supermarket they're going to go to,
it's the produce department often that determines which one they're going to
go to. And the produce managers found that, you know, oddly enough, people
like having choices. And the funny thing is, when they would offer, you know,
eight or nine different kinds of tomatoes at the beginning, when they were
getting their toes wet, all of those tomatoes might not have sold out. But
overall sales of tomatoes increased. So people like going someplace and
feeling like they're having choices and that they're being able to--they like
to feel like they're seeing exotic things or different things. It builds
interest, it builds excitement. And so the produce managers were very quick
to jump on the bandwagon.

GROSS: My guest is Russ Parsons. His new book is called "How to Pick a
Peach." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Russ Parson. He's a food and
wine columnist for the LA Times. His new book is called "How to Pick a Peach:
The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table."

Let me ask you about something that I think has gone wrong. I have found that
I frequently buy bananas that never ripen. I mean, you can keep them out for
however you want, and they'll turn maybe to this kind of like unconvincing
shade of yellow, not a full yellow. And, you know...

Mr. PARSONS: A reluctant yellow.

GROSS: A reluctant yellow. Yeah, and like they're just never going to taste
good. And at the best, instead of tasting kind of sweet, they'll taste kind
of like earthy and a little bitter.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: What is going on?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, bananas are what botanists call climacteric fruits, and
it's along with tomatoes, with peaches. These are fruits that will continue
ripening after they have been picked. But it's important to remember that
there's a difference between maturity and ripeness. Maturity is what happens
on the tree when the plant is gathering all of the nutrients and all of the
sugars and all of that stuff that is going to make the building blocks for
flavor. Ripeness can also happen off of the tree with climacteric fruits, and
it's all of those things that turn something from being simply sweet and sour
to complex and flavorful. And there's physical softening that is involved in
it, and the physical softening leads to the building of more complex flavors
and aromas and all of the deliciousness.

But if something is picked before it's fully mature, it's never going to ripen
to any kind of satisfactory state. And I think that's what's happening with
those bananas. They keep pushing them earlier and earlier and earlier, and
from the farmer's point of view, you know, being the "let's look at both sides
of the story" kind of guy, from the farmer's point of view, every time a piece
of fruit is left hanging on the tree, every day that it's left hanging, is an
opportunity for something bad to happen. Something good happens because it's
developing flavor, but that good thing doesn't quite translate as much to the
farmer as the risk of losing a crop because something bad happens. So they
keep pushing the harvests earlier and earlier and earlier, hoping that, you
know, just kind of for safety's sake. And I think that a lot of times they
push them to the point where the fruit never ripens to any kind of
satisfactory state.

GROSS: Now, how am I supposed to know which bananas were picked prematurely
and will never satisfactorily ripen?

Mr. PARSONS: Bananas are really, really hard. I don't think there is a
really satisfactory answer for it. Bananas are one of those--the story of the
banana is one of those amazing produce legends, because bananas don't grow
commercially in the United States, but the banana is the number one produce
item in terms of quantities sold. So all of our bananas are imported, most of
them from Central America, and, you know, it's probably one of those things
that--I hate to say it, but it's probably one of those things that, in a
perfect world, we wouldn't be eating.

GROSS: Don't say that.

Mr. PARSONS: I eat them. I think, you know, if you have consistent bad luck
with bananas at one store, it may be time to change stores.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the world of apples. Now, when I was
growing up, I don't know, there was like the MacIntosh apple and the golden
delicious apple and, you know, a couple other kinds of apples. But now, like,
God, there's just like dozens of them, and...

Mr. PARSONS: And all these new names! It's like there's this long running
television series and they killed off all the regulars and there's a
completely new cast, you know? Sounds like maybe a David Chase series or
something like that.

GROSS: No, there's like the Jonah golden, the pink lady and the Fuji and the
gala. I mean, I never heard of these growing up.

Mr. PARSONS: No, in fact most of these were introduced from the mid-'70s on,
and even into the '80s. What happened was that the American apple industry,
which is mainly in Washington and, to a certain extent in Oregon, had really
concentrated on a few varieties, primarily red and golden delicious. Red
delicious had been bred to the point where it was no longer delicious. In
fact, it was no longer even really acceptable. It's this funny thing. The
thing that makes red delicious red, the pigment on the skin, also makes it
bitter. And so they kept trying to breed the fruit to be redder and redder
and redder, because, you know, people loved to buy red apples, but the redder
they got it, the more bitter the apple became, until finally people just said
to heck with, you know? `I'm not eating these anymore.'

At the same time, they had really pushed to sell fruit in Asia, and they were
really not having much success with these varieties. So they started planting
test plots of varieties that had been developed in the southern hemisphere or
in Asia, so hence the names like "Fuji." And to sell in the Asian market,
because the Asian market has been a huge motivator for produce sales in the
last 20 years, because there's so much money to be made there. What...

GROSS: So are our Fuji apples now coming from Asia, or have Americans started
growing Fujis?

Mr. PARSONS: No, they were developed in Asia, and they planted them in
America to sell back to Asia. What they found was that these were actually
really good apples, and so when they would have extras, they would sell them
on the American market, and people were happy to get them. There was a
welcome change from the old red delicious. Now, golden delicious is an old
American variety, and when that's harvested right, that can be a really good
apple. But it's important to remember that a golden delicious is actually
golden, it's not green. Almost all the time you see them green in the market.

GROSS: You have a lot of advice regarding what kind of foods to refrigerate
and what fruit and produce to never refrigerate. What are some of the fruits
and vegetables that you should just never refrigerate?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, I never refrigerate--remember the old rhyme, you never
refrigerate bananas. Don't put your bananas in a refrigerator. They won't
ripen. Potatoes are a weird one. Like if you refrigerate a potato, the
enzymes in the potato begin converting the starch to sugar because it's just a
plant getting ready to produce new shoots, and that happens at various rates
with different varieties. But honestly, if you put a baking potato in the
refrigerator for two or three days, when you bake it it's got this weird sweet
quality to it that's really odd.

Probably the single biggest mistake that people make, though, is tomatoes.
You should never refrigerate a tomato. Refrigerating a tomato drastically
reduces the flavor of the tomato. It'll really ruin it. And at no time
should you refrigerate a tomato. I mean, if you've got a tomato that's on the
counter and it's ready to turn into a, you know, that kind of tomato puddle
thing, then you've got to refrigerate it, obviously, because otherwise you're
going to throw it away, but you have to recognize that you're going to really
affect the flavor of it.

Peaches are somewhat like that, actually. If you've ever bitten into a peach
and it was kind of mealy and dry, and it looked great but there was just no
flavor, that's probably chill damage. And it's this very weird thing that
happens between like 35 and 45 degrees. They can be kept colder than that and
they'll be fine; they can be kept warmer than that and they'll be fine. But
if you refrigerate an unripe peach between those two temperatures, it
completely ruins the texture and the flavor. So with peaches and nectarines,
you want to leave them on the counter until they begin to ripen, you know,
that thing of--the difference between ripening and maturing. So they're
beginning to soften, they're beginning to smell really good, then you can put
them in the refrigerator and they'll be fine. But if you put them in too
early, you're ruining that peach.

GROSS: Is summer your favorite eating season?

Mr. PARSONS: Oh, you know, the thing is, all of them are. So often when
people talk about eating seasonally, it's in fact it's a proscription or it's
a punishment, or it's something that you're doing for the good of the planet
or because, you know, for various ideological reasons. For me, eating with
the season is kind of a way of not getting bored. You know, you go from
winter with great winter squashes and citrus and greens and cooking greens and
that kind of thing, go to spring with artichokes and strawberries and
asparagus, then to summer with peaches and tomatoes and eggplants and peppers
and, you know, in fall--each season has its stars. And part of the fun of
eating, for me, is that kind of--part of is delayed gratification. You know,
sometimes you think, `Oh, I'd really like to have a peach now.' You think,
`Well, you know, I could have an adequate peach now or a barely adequate peach
now, or I can have a great piece of citrus, or I can have a great tangerine or
a grapefruit or something like that.' So part of it's the--when they really
come in, they taste so great, it's amazing.

But part of it, also, is, that you know, it's a big, wide world that we live
in and especially in produce, and it's full of pleasures. And I think we
ought to kind of explore as many of them as possible and not kind of get
narrowed down to the two or three things that we really like.

GROSS: Well, Russ Parsons, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. PARSONS: Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: Russ Parsons is the author of the new book "How to Pick a Peach." He's
a food and wine columnist for the LA Times. You can read an excerpt of his
book on our Web site,

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new posthumously released CD by
saxophonist Michael Brecker. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Kevin Whitehead on the posthumously released jazz album
from saxophonist Michael Brecker

Jazz musician Michael Brecker passed away in January after a long and public
bout with leukemia. Brecker was arguably the most influential saxophonist
since the death of John Coltrane 40 years ago, and among the most widely heard
modern jazz musicians owing to pop sessions he recorded with Paul Simon, Joni
Mitchell, James Taylor, Yoko Ono and dozens more.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Brecker's just-released final album.

(Soundbite of "Loose Threads")

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Michael Brecker's typically tricky composition "Loose
Threads." The tenor saxophonist had blossomed in the jazz-rock fusion movement
in the 1970s, notably with the Brecker Brothers, a band co-led by his
trumpeter sibling Randy. Fusion's penchant for complex writing, aggressive
rhythms and a forceful sound stayed with Michael Brecker ever after.

On his final album "Pilgrimage," recorded last August, five months before his
death, the sound is as steely, pitiless and exacting as ever, even on the
quiet ballads.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Herbie Hancock on piano.

Michael Brecker is one of the most analyzed saxophonists of all time. His
solos are the stuff of music school study sessions and dissertations precisely
because they're so analyze-able: intricately plotted out five steps ahead
like chess moves.

Brecker loved to practice. Even his pretty tunes can sound a little like
practice exercises. But his real forte was up-tempo steeplechases, where he
could show off the fancy stuff he'd figured out and gotten under his fingers.
On the album "Pilgrimage," he gets plenty of push from a cracker jack all-star
band: guitarist Pat Metheny, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist John Patitucci
and, on this tune, Brad Mehldau on piano. Check out the raucous way they back
his solo on "Anagram."

(Soundbite of "Anagram")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Michael Brecker's influence on other saxophonists has been
huge. You can hear echoes of his style even in such strong and divergent
tenors as Norway's ethereal Jan Garbarek and Baltimore's funky Gary Thomas.
Brecker has also spawned dozens of outright imitators. They graduate from
college jazz programs every year. But "Pilgrimage" reminds us that the
original had it all over the wannabes. This is one posthumous album that
needs no special pleading. Michael Brecker sounded strong to the end.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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