Food Network chef Lynn Crawford visits Merced fig orchard for show

Lynn Crawford is supposed to get dirty. The grimier, the better.

Triple-digit heat? No problem. Sticky, syrupy fruit and stinging insects? Bring 'em on. A tough-as-nails taskmaster overseeing the work? Piece of cake.

It makes great television, after all. Crawford, a chef for Food Network Canada, was visiting Merced's Passion Fruit Farms over the weekend to shoot an episode of her show, "Pitchin' In." The show gives a new meaning to the term "back-to-the-land," as Crawford, a former executive chef at Four Seasons hotels in Toronto and New York, visits the places where her meals originate.

The job has taken the Toronto native all over North America, to locations including a crawfish farm in Louisiana, a cranberry bog in Massachusetts and a lobster boat in Nova Scotia.

Saturday's triple-digit heat offered Crawford and her crew a real Merced summer welcome.

"All these Canadians aren't used to this heat," said Tonetta Gladwin, a third-generation fig grower who operates Passion Fruit Farms on the east end of Olive Avenue. "This is tough heat, even for us. I think she's amazing. I was melting, saying I needed to go back into my air-conditioned office. She was a trooper."

Gladwin and her family hosted Crawford and her crew for the five days of shooting.

Because of the recent wacky weather in the Central Valley, the harvest season for black mission figs was shortened to 10 days from about 19 days, Gladwin said. She was grateful to have extra hands for the harvest, even if it meant performing in front of television cameras.

She put the celebrity chef to work right away. Armed with a ladder, a bucket and a hook, Crawford picked black mission figs as the cameras rolled and Gladwin barked orders in the early-afternoon heat. She later moved on to scrubbing the thick, sugary fig syrup from the bottoms of picking totes while bees swarmed around. She finished her day working in the dry yard, where overripe figs bake in the sun to dry out.

On Monday, it was Crawford's turn to teach Merced's "fig lady" a thing or two. The chef used Gladwin's figs to create a gourmet meal, starting with a bruschetta appetizer with buffalo mozzarella, grilled figs, pine nuts and prosciutto. For lunch, they enjoyed barbecued kabobs using lamb and figs on rosemary skewers, and for dessert, she served baked fig quarters stuffed with a mixture of honey and nuts.

"We deal with figs each year, and her cooking with our figs gave us a new appreciation for what we do," Gladwin said. "We always look at them as the raw product. It's such a treat for someone to make art out of our raw product."

The show will air in Canada in March but it doesn't have a home on U.S. airwaves, so Merced viewers will have to wait to view clips on the Internet. However, Gladwin said there's a chance that the show could be made available for public viewing in Merced.

Gladwin said she's happy to be able to help build brand awareness of California figs in Canada, where about 80 percent of her product is shipped. But don't count on her getting in front of the cameras again anytime soon: "It's quite the experience, but I think I'll stick to farming."

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