Having good genes is part of it. And doing what you need to do — in terms of eating right and getting exercise — to stay well and fit is part of it. And volunteering and giving your time and energy and doing for others is part of it, too.
Three generations of Clevelanders have grown up seeing, listening to, or reading what food expert and entrepreneur Maury Feren has to say about the health benefits of eating well, the culinary benefits of cooking creatively, and the fiscal benefits of savvy produce shopping.
During a late afternoon interviewed with the 89-year-old Maury — and that's what everyone who knows him calls him — in his sun-lit and "art"fully decorated Cleveland Heights condo, shared his thoughts on everything from being Cleveland's alimentary go-to-guy to the joys and challenges he's experiencing caring for his wife Bess, who has Alzheimer's disease.
Tell us a bit about yourself--when and where you were born and raised, where you went to school.
My father was Russian and my mother was Romanian. I was born in 1915 in New York , in Brooklyn, and we moved to Cleveland when I was 6, so I've lived here for 83 years.
There were four kids — me, my sister, Pearl , a brother Harold and the youngest brother, Asher. We were the product of an Orthodox Jewish home. The world I knew growing up was bound up in particular ways. My friends, all Jewish of course, had similar values and a comparable cultural background — up until the time I left for the army when I was 28.
My mother and father spoke Yiddish in the home, but they spoke good English, too, and my mother was a strong believer in reading. She used to tear up sports magazines and Argosy [Magazine] if she found us reading them because she didn't want us reading that kind of stuff.
She had a rule about friends, too. We had to bring them into the house to meet her. She didn't want us having friends that would be a bad influence.
I went to Patrick Henry Junior High and Glenville High School. That's where I learned bookkeeping and typing, and French — which I used in the army. I don't remember doing many extracurricular activities, though I did sing in the glee club and I ran track at Patrick Henry.
Who shaped your life the most, your mother or your father?
Both. They were very giving people. My mother took in people when she had nothing herself.
My father was a business person. He worked 6 days a week. And [laughing] we never took a vacation.
You grew up during the Depression. What was that like?
I worked from the time I was 13. I sold newspapers on the corner of Euclid and 55th. Selling a hundred papers a day, I made about 75 cents. When I got older, I was a lifeguard for the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on East 105th. At that time, it was the centerpiece of the Jewish community.
Later, I started doing office work there, too. I made $5 a week — and that went to my mother and father.
After I graduated high school, I worked and went to Cleveland College [now part of CWRU] at night for two years. I needed $2.50 a week more to be able to go on. I went to the executive director at the Center and asked for another $2.50, but he said they just didn't have it.
When people ask, "What was the Depression like?", this is an example: All I needed was the extra $2.50 a week to go to college, but it just wasn't there.
I'm surprised. I thought you had a business degree.
No, but I've been a perpetual student. Besides Cleveland College, I also went to Huntington Polytechnic Institute. And I've been going to college all my life. I've taken courses at CSU and John Carroll. And I've been taking courses at the College of Jewish Studies for about 15 years, but not for credit; I'm taking them to learn.
And I've always been a voracious reader. [Laughs] My tastes are varied. I read everything from Danielle Steele to Saul Bellow. And if I've read something good, I like to share it with others. I just reviewed a Joyce Carol Oates book — The Tattooed Girl — for my synagogue.
How did you get started in the food business?
My father was a wholesale watermelon dealer. He had good contacts at the Northern Ohio Food Terminal on East 38 th Street , but [after finishing high school] I didn't want to be in the produce business, so I ran away from home. I went to New York City , but I couldn't get a job there, so I came back home and said: Well, this is it: I'm going to be the best produce person that I can be. That was when I was about 22.
My father got me a job with the second biggest wholesaler in the area, Thomas Rini. I worked 50 to 60 hours a week for him, and I picked things up fast.
I got so good at things — not just the fruits and vegetables, other products, too — that people started asking me to lead tours at the Food Terminal, which, in the '30s, was an economic centerpiece for the whole Cleveland community. I talked to dignitaries from all over the world and local industry leaders about how distribution patterns worked and how people bought and sold produce.
By the time I was 28 I had my own business. I was putting in long hours. But that didn't matter. I was working for myself. Then I got drafted.
When was that?
In December of 1943, when we had a child on the way. I went into the army in January of 1944 and took a train to Spartanburg, South Carolina. The army was culture shock. And I thought of myself as an "old man" because I was 28 and most of the other recruits were in their late teens or early 20s.
Since I had experience with food procurement, I asked to be put into the quartermaster corps, but I was trained as an anti-tank and bazooka gunner, and was part of a 7-man team.
I was shipped to England on the Queen Mary and when I got there, they needed machine gunners, so I was put into a machine gun squad. But when we got into combat, they made an announcement: Does anyone have Red Cross experience or emergency medical training? I didn't, but they gave me some training and a field kit with morphine and different kinds of bandages and I was a combat medic.
In my first battle, I learned not to stand up straight. [M]y worst experience was lying in a fox hole. I didn't move for hours because of the shelling.
In the army I learned that no one is fearless, but that you can still do what needs to be done.
I had problems eating the army rations, so when I got out of the Army in 1945, at six feet I weighed about 140 pounds.
I earned two battle stars, and a Purple Heart because I was wounded in action.
If I had to pick the one thing that I have done that I am the most proud of, it would be the time I spent as a medic in the army.
After the war, you became a major player in the food industry here in Cleveland. How did that happen?
[Laughs] I didn't plan that. I'm like a boat that went out to sea. The wind blew me where it wanted me to go.
After I got back from the army I restarted my business [M. B. Feren Produce] and because of my background, and because people were just starting to become interested in food, I was asked to do one of the first TV shows [Channel 3] on food with Maggie Burns, a home economist. We always worked live and I always worked with seasonal things. Then I went on the air with Paige Palmer [Channel 5] doing the same thing.
When the Plain Dealer's and the [Cleveland] Press's food editors were looking for someone to write about what was available in the marketplace, someone said, "Call Maury Feren." That's how I started writing for the papers.
Later on, I started doing radio presentations for Big Wilson [a talk show host] and Bill Randall at WERE. When he did public appearances and 'fairs' he'd have me do a food presentation, too. [Laughs] He's the one who made me "famous."
And I taught produce classes at Tri-C to Pick-and-Pay and Heinen's employees, and did a cooking show — on ethnic foods — for WVIZ, too.
All those things helped position me as an expert. But I wasn't doing any of it for the notoriety, I was doing it because I wanted consumers to get a product that was good.
And, you know, I'm doing the same thing with my Tai Chi class [at the JCC], too. Every Thursday morning I do a presentation with a fruit or vegetable — what to look for, where to buy, when to buy, how to use it. Only now I'm also talking about phytochemicals and micronutrients and fiber, stuff nobody even knew about back in the '50s.
What is it about you, personally, that made you so successful?
Hmmm, that's a hard question. I'm definitely an entrepreneur. No question about that.
I was innovative. In the '50s, my company came up with the idea of doing a fruit basket because we had so much excellent fruit available. Later on, we decided to "brighten up" the basket with cheeses and wine.
I had high standards — I'd get up at 4 a.m. every morning so I could be down at the food terminal when the food arrived and get the best items.
I have an innate love for people. With all my companies [M. B. Feren Produce, Feren Fruit and Gift Baskets, Maury's Meats, Fruit Baskets by Maury], the people working for me were part of my life. I owed them something...and I worked alongside them.
And I had tremendous energy, too, so that I was able to do other things besides just the work.
And I realized, early on, that I had to do other things, or I'd be consumed by the business.
When did you "retire?"
My last business, that was Fruit Baskets by Maury. I started it in 1975, when I was 58 and had left Fisher Foods [which had bought M. B. Feren Produce in 1968]. It took me three years, working with my wife, Bess — she ran the office and managed things — to rebuild the business to what it had been. I sold it in 1990, so I guess you'd say I retired in 1990, when I was 74.
Since then I've had no income-producing employment, but I've definitely been working. But all my efforts have been concentrated in giving back what I've received.
Now I take the energy that I had put into work and I put it into volunteering. And you know, [volunteering] has really become a great part of my life.
You mentioned your wife, Bess. When and where did you meet her?
My best friend, Harry Zinner, introduced me to her — at the time she was Bess Nagelbush — and we hit it off. When we were courting, on major holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kipper, Passover — I would walk to Bess's home; six miles there and six miles back.
We got engaged when we were 23. Our parents were so involved with the ritual and tradition of a marriage — arranging for a ceremony and a reception at the Sterling Hotel — that one day I said: If we leave it up to them, we will never get married. Let's elope.
We took a bus to Covington, Kentucky , and found a rabbi there. He married us in the back of a grocery store on November 14th, 1938. When we came back, our parents made a reception for us. And we got our deposit back from the Sterling, too.
We have two kids: a son, Alan (61), who's a physician in San Francisco , and a daughter, Rochelle (64), who's a retired teacher.
When did you and Bess learn she had Alzheimer's ?
Five years ago. We went to [University Hospital 's] Foley ElderHealth Center at Fairhill where she had a series of tests done by a gerontologist, Dr. Matthew Wayne. He diagnosed Alzheimer's, and said that it had begun years before.
Today she can't walk. She can't talk. She can't eat by herself.
I'm caring for her at home. That's the choice I have made.
What do you think are the challenges and the rewards of being a caregiver?
The challenges: to make her life better.
The rewards are that she's still a part of my life.
But I'm not looking for rewards. This is a labor of love. I want her to be as happy as I can possibly make her. We have been married for 66 years and we didn't just have a good marriage, we had a wonderful marriage. Bess stood by me when I had two coronary bypass surgeries — one 20 years ago and one seven years ago — so I know that if I were in her place she'd do exactly the same for me.
I'm not dismissing what nursing homes do, but this way I'm with her as much as possible.
But it's not all positive. Sometimes when I'm with her, I want to cry.
How do you balance caregiving and other activities?
I make it a point to get out every day because I realized that there is another part to my life and that I needed to get out and be part of it, that I should be doing things.
I am taking a class at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies on Mondays.
And I do my show [WERE 1300 AM radio], Maury's Market, on Thursday. It's always live. I interview authors usually, but if there isn't an author, then I'll use the show to talk about food. I keep up in the food industry, so if anything new comes out, I'm going to be talking about it.
And I'm doing some volunteering, but not the amount I used to.
I'm active with the Glenville Development Corporation in my old neighborhood [Glenville]. And I'm doing some unpaid consulting — on heirloom vegetables — with the Culinary Vegetable Institute, a farmer/grower organization out in Milan. I'm teaching a nutrition class every Thursday morning at the JCC. And I'm a greeter from time to time at Park Synagogue, and I'll do the odd mitzvah [good deed] when it's possible for me to do so. And I'm doing some "mentoring" with the Jewish Family Service Association.
When someone needs help with planning their future or making a transition into a job that has some connection to the food industry, they send them to me...I don't just listen to their story, I follow up with them.
I think that they respect me because I'm older and I'm experienced.
Did you think you'd be doing all this volunteering when you retired ?
No. I thought when I retired that I'd just be doing some writing. But then, I started doing it, and — well — I saw what I could do, and that there was so much out there that needed doing.
You took up sculpting 12 years ago. What got you interested in that?
A friend, Hal Moses, was taking a sculpting class at Tri-C. He told me I'd love it, but I kept putting him off. Finally — after maybe two years — I finally took a class.
That was in 1992, and he was right...I ordered some stone and tools, and over the years I've developed my own style.
It's like a balm for my head. I spend a lot of time doing it. I keep some pieces at home, but most have been given to institutions that I love.
You are very fit. How do you stay in shape?
[Laughs] I stay in shape by working out five days a week. And I work out hard.
When I was younger, I was generally athletic... later on I jogged. I did that for 35 years and I ran several jogging clinics. Now I swim and I do Tai Chi. There is a lot of cardiovascular benefit and muscle toning with the Tai Chi, plus I like its holistic approach: It combines mind, body and spirit.
I work out at the JCC. I come in at 7 a.m. and I'm back home by 10:30.
Food wise, I cook and eat healthy, and I haven't had a piece of red meat for 25 years.
What is your criteria for successful aging?
That's hard to say. Having good genes is part of it. And doing what you need to do — in terms of eating right and getting exercise — to stay well and fit is part of it. And volunteering and giving your time and energy and doing for others is part of it, too.
And, though I hate to say this, forgetting the monetary aspects that come along with aging is part of it, too. When you can do that, you have a certain kind of emotional freedom.
Maury Feren passed away February 20, 2016 at the age of 100. Read his obituary.