Oriana Kruszewski has no formal training in agriculture. The 73-year-old brought her interest in growing things with her when she emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1974. Like many people who get homesick, Kruszewski sought out the comfort of familiarity. She found it in the form of Asian pears.
“My parents were never really rich. They never buy Asian pears,” Kruszewski says. “They were always expensive. Even 20 years ago. I always loved [them]. I looked for Asian pear trees to plant and it took me 10 years to get it right. I waited a long time.”
She moved to Skokie, a Chicago suburb, in her late-20s. There she began perfecting her Asian pear with the soft, pale-covered Japanese varieties from her childhood—the Nijiseiki, Kikusui, and Yakumo. Over time, she realized the thicker-skinned brown pears like the Chojuro did better in the Midwest. Grafting, the process of fusing a young plant with rootstock, led to a new variety of tree. This led to crunchier pears than what was common in the area and requests from people wanting to purchase her trees.
While most of her neighbors' lawns contained a homogenous mix of green grass, shrubs and elm, Kruszewski grew American persimmon, quince, Japanese plum, and paw paw—one of the few fruit trees indigenous to North America. By the mid-90s, she had more than 70 trees growing on her 50-foot lot. In 1996, her husband lost his job, which pushed Kruszewski to look for farm land in order to expand her agricultural business.
“People don't take you too seriously being a woman and Asian and not having a job,” she says of the experience. About six hours west of Chicago, Kruszewski became the owner of her own land.
“It was 40 acres of horrible soil. That's what we could afford,” she says. “I was just looking for ground to put my trees to grow in. Nature selects. If it dies that means they're not supposed to live there. I can't do more than water [the trees]. Seeing what survives in that condition is so cool. I figure I have nothing to lose.”
Her simple trial-and-error approach has garnered her a cult following in the beverage industry. Her products are USDA Certified Organic. Jared Rouben, president and brewmaster of Chicago’s Moody Tongue, is one of her most ardent fans. The culinary-focused brewery serves a 12-course meal featuring king crab, seared foie gras and black truffle focaccia in its recently opened restaurant, which sits next to an equally elegant tasting room.
The first course served to diners is Maine Lobster. It comes with Périgord truffle, chawanmushi, apple squash and beer wort consomme. The dish is paired with a pressed Asian pear saison—one of the brewery’s most popular beers—made with fruit from Kruszewski’s farm. Each fall for the last five years, Rouben takes his entire staff to harvest 5,000 pounds of Asian pears. He does it as a learning exercise and for his team to hear directly from Kruszewski on her craftsmanship.
“She's been a leader in the industry for years,” Rouben says. “One of the reasons I really found myself connecting with her is because she's a perfectionist.”
Rouben’s not the only member of Kruszewski’s fan club. Goose Island, Virtue Cider and whisky-maker Koval Distillery’s brewmasters have all turned to her for their produce needs.
“Like a lot of people, I met Oriana at the [Lincoln Park] Green City Market,” Gregory Hall, founder of Virtue Cider, laughs at the memory of their first encounter. “She's quite a character. If you’ve met her, you understand it’s impossible to walk by her and not try some Asian pear or paw paw when she pulls out samples.”
In 2013, after a conversation at the farmers’ market, Hall purchased 800 pounds of her Asian pears to be pressed into a cider. The cider was served at Grant Achatz’s Next as part of its Chinese: Modern menu.
“[Her product] is distinctive,” Hall says. “She can talk about [her produce] for an hour. That's pretty cool. She is the rabbit hole. All of the farmers are like that, but she'll keep going until all the booths around her are packed up.”
In a conversation at the farmers’ market, Kruszewski mentioned her young walnuts to Sonat Birnecker, president of Koval Distillery. Impressed by her knowledge, Birnecker agree to purchase her entire harvest. The unripened nut resembles a lime, complete with a soft exterior, that Birnecker says produces an incredible flavor.
“She understands so much about her trees,” says Birnecker. “You can only harvest [the young walnut] one week a year. She told me the exact time they would be ready. It was a 100-something-degree day and she called saying ‘I’ve got your walnuts.’ It was so sweet, there was so much joy in it all, but I wasn’t going to ask her to get on a ladder in that heat again,” Birnecker says, which is why the liqueur only had one seasonal run.
Birnecker began using Kruszewski’s produce at the infancy of Koval’s operation. In 2009, the distillery known best for its whisky—which is distributed to 55 markets around the world—used Kruszewski’s paw paw in another seasonal liqueur. Paw paw is one of the few fruits indigenous to North America. It has a custard-like taste resembling a banana mango blend.
“People all over the U.S. were tracking us down trying to get it,” Birnecker remembers. “It sold out right away.”
Paw paw has also made an appearance in one of Rouben’s beers: a paw paw ale released in 2014. “[The paw paw is] only in season a couple weeks out of the year,” Rouben says. “It takes seven years to produce fruit. It’s a real labor of love if you can find it. [Oriana] is a leading expert on growing it.”
But credit is not what drives Kruszewski. “I’m so proud of myself. I haven't seen a woman as tough as me,” Kruszewski says. “Some of my friends say I'm crazy. I say ‘Yes I am.’ I'm just like a farmer. I am really a farmer. Not like before.
“My husband would say, ‘You’re only playing.’ My children say, ‘Look what mom do, it’s not cool.’ So no one was willing to help. That's the way it goes. I struggle from day one. I worked from the bottom up. I had to prove to myself [that] I could do it. I have to work twice as hard being a Chinese woman. No one was like me. It helps build character. I’m not taking a no for an answer. You take the chance or have nothing. You have nothing to lose. You put in your time and labor.”
And while Kruszewski’s work has earned respect from the alcohol industry, she’s not much of a drinker. She says she drinks a can of beer every now and then but prefers to convert her product into another liquid: vinegar.