Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dyingof the light.
— Dylan Thomas
Earl Fultz is not going gentle into any good night. A few years ago, when he was 88, the Greenport resident started bottling jars of cHarissa, a cumin-and-olive-oil-based, Moroccan-inspired condiment that was the specialty of his wife, Gloria. Soon after he began selling it at a farmers market in 2013, Gloria died.
That's when Fultz, now 91, shifted into higher gear, determined to make cHarissa a kitchen staple. And he's off to an impressive start. In September, Fultz was named one of five winners (out of 3,600 applicants nationwide) of the Wells Fargo Works Project contest and won a $25,000 small business grant. Two weeks later, he fell and broke his hip and was laid up for a month. But he's back on his feet now and still determined to make cHarissa as ubiquitous as ketchup and mustard.
Currently, it's on the shelves in 50 or so shops on Long Island and in Manhattan. The "authentic Moroccan seasoning" is also available online at charissa.biz/products. (A 9-ounce jar of either the "original" or spicy "with a kick" version costs $12, plus shipping.)
CHarissa is schmeared on lamb burgers at the Mohegan Sun sports bar in Yankee Stadium, and Fultz is in talks with Queens-based burger chain Bareburger to feature cHarissa at all 20 of its locations.
Gloria was the love of Fultz's life. "A fascinating woman, a good person, a helluva cook," is how he describes her. "And even though we were born 6,000 miles apart, it was 'mektub' — that's Arabic for 'destiny' — that we be together." Since losing her, cHarissa has become equal parts diversion and commemoration for Fultz. "We had 50 glorious years," he said, "but I'm not one to stick in the past. Her memorial is cHarissa, and I'd like to push it as far as I can in her name."
A post-frontier childhood
Fultz was born in 1923, delivered by his father on a "hardscrabble farm" in Montana. "Until I was 7, we had no electricity or running water," he said. He joined the United States Army Air Forces, but poor eyesight kept him grounded, working in the public relations office. Later, he moved to New York to study creative writing with novelist Paul Gallico at Columbia University.
It dawned on Fultz that "writing is very close to selling," and that selling was far more remunerative. Combining his literary flair with his organizational skills and showmanship, he started producing sales conferences for clients such as IBM and General Foods. "I did the meeting where Coke introduced the swirl," the undulating stripe below the brand name, he recalled. "We projected images onto 120-foot screens, and the musical director was Marvin Hamlisch."
Fultz met Gloria in the early '50s, when they were wed to other people, but after those marriages ended, they reconnected and exchanged vows in 1964. Gloria Elmaleh was the daughter of Moroccan Jews who emigrated to Brooklyn during World War II. Her father was an almond merchant; her mother was a gifted cook who passed her talent and recipes on to Gloria.
A spread is born
In 1968, the Fultzes bought a weekend place in Peconic, added a huge deck, and, on weekends, would entertain on a grand scale. A fixture of the meal, which featured a whole lamb, was harissa, a spicy condiment that Gloria's family made with jalapeño peppers, tomato, cardamom, turmeric and olive oil.
Fultz found it too spicy, however, and gradually Gloria decreased the jalapeños and added cumin. Then the turmeric and cardamom disappeared, as did the peppers, replaced by Spanish paprika. The stuff had no name; it was just "this Moroccan thing," Fultz recalled.
Between them, the Fultzes had four children who begat seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The extended family spread out all over the country, and in 2002 Fultz and his wife moved to Peconic Landing, a retirement community in Greenport, but every summer they'd gather everyone for a feast.
Four or five years ago, Earl suggested, "Put that Moroccan thing in a jar, give it out to everyone, and remind them that they came from Morocco." It was a hit, and Fultz began to think that Gloria's concoction "had legs." He named it "cHarissa" to honor both its Moroccan heritage and the primacy of cumin, a spice he endows with almost supernatural qualities. "It's universally deployed, and completely undersung," he says. "It's there in curries and chilies, but cHarissa allows cumin to be cumin."
Gloria, a smoker, had been diagnosed with emphysema in the 1980s and wound up outlasting by years her doctor's prognosis she'd be gone before 2005. By 2012, however, the couple knew her time was limited and she began to nudge her husband about turning cHarissa into a commercial product. Gloria knew that her absence would create a void, Fultz said, "and she thought that the business would fill it. She had faith in the product."
In late 2012, Earl approached Jeri Woodhouse, owner of A Taste of the North Fork specialty market in Southold and North Fork Specialty Kitchen in Cutchogue that produces custom sauces, dressings and jams for many East End wineries and farm stands. "He said, 'I am 88 years old and I want to start a food business,'" Woodhouse recalled. "I was skeptical, but he brought me a sample and I'd never tasted anything like it."
Woodhouse started making cHarissa in quantity at her Cutchogue production facility and, in the summer of 2013, Fultz and cHarissa joined her at her "tent" at the Greenport farmers market. "The first week we made $100," Fultz said, "the second week $200 and before the summer was over, I had my own tent."
He turned out to be an able pitchman, loudly declaiming cHarissa's virtues and offering samples of cHarissa with a tasters' choice of bread or meatballs. "If people taste it, they buy it," he observed. Local shops on the East End began carrying it, as did both Woodhouse's Southold retail store and website, atasteofthenorthfork.com.
When Gloria died in October 2013, Fultz emphatically did not go to pieces. It's not that he chose to be stoic; it's the way he's led his whole life. "People say the unexamined life it not worth living," he said. "But maybe the overexamined life is not worth living either. Introspection can be a habit that keeps you from living. I like to keep moving."
That's exactly what he's done. He and Woodhouse exhibited cHarissa at the New York City Wine & Food Festival in 2013. Matt Gibson, executive chef for the New York Yankees, wandered by and Fultz handed him a cHarissa-dipped meatball. "I was blown away by how flavorful and complex it was," Gibson said. After Gibson put a cHarissa-topped lamb burger on the menu at Yankee Stadium, Fultz got even more serious. In June 2014, he and Woodhouse became partners in cHarissa LLC.
CHarissa wins big
In early 2014, Fultz entered the Wells Fargo contest and won. In addition to the $25,000 grant was $5,000 for a favorite charity and six months of mentoring by a team from Wells Fargo.
"Earl sent in an essay," said Ellen Rohr, a small business consultant who heads the team. "He stated up front how old he was and he included a picture. That got everyone's attention. He was my favorite. I was so impressed that at 90 he had this kind of fizz and ambition . . . He could be waiting for the sun to set, but instead, he wanted to share this product to honor his wife."
Fultz and Woodhouse met with the team in late October. Rohr and three colleagues helped them to create an organizational chart, a budget and sales goals. Generating cash flow and an overhaul of the cHarissa website, are top priorities.
"Every step of the way I was expecting him to think smaller," Rohr said, "but he wants to take on Tabasco."
Financially secure as he is, he wants cHarissa to make money. "People can praise your product," he said, "but when they literally put their money where their mouths are — that's how you know if you're winning or losing."
With Woodhouse on board, Fultz expects that "cHarissa will definitely outlive me." But he's got a lot of work yet to do. "My mother lived to 100," he said, "I have uncles who lived to 98 and 99. I'm living my life as if I'll get to at least 100."