I recently started watching HBO’s Perry Mason series. It’s a remake of the 1950s classic that I grew up watching and that my parents still watch in syndicated rerun. The first season presents a virtual culinary history tour of Los Angeles. This food etymologist is giddy that authentic food history is being preserved and included in new film. And it’s a trend that’s becoming more common in newly created shows and films. The series is spectacular, set in 1932 in Depression and Prohibition era Los Angeles. The characters do a lot of eating (and drinking) in between stake outs, court cases, and investigations. And the production team could have chosen to use generic diners and restaurants. Instead they’ve recreated Los Angeles iconic haunts like Ptomaine Tommy’s, where the chili size was invented; Boo Koo Burgers, a walk up burger hut common in Depression southern California; and Phillippe’s, where the French Dip Sandwich was born.
We are introduced to Phillippe’s when character E.B. Jonathon is being interviewed by the LA Times and is asked where he eats when he’s not lawyering. He says, “I’m quite fond of the French Dip at Phillipe’s.” Like many other great dishes, the French Dip sandwich was invented by accident. Phillippe Mathieu opened his restaurant in LA in 1908. IN 1918, while making a sandwich for a cop, he accidentally dropped the sliced French roll into a pan of meat drippings. The cop said he’d still take the sandwich. The next day he brought in a group of cops all wanting their sandwiches dipped in the beef drippings, and the sandwich soon became the house specialty.
Today, Philippe’s “French Dipped Sandwich” consists of either roast beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham served on a fresh baked French roll dipped in the natural gravy of the roasts. Guests can add Swiss, Cheddar, American, Monterey Jack or Blue. And as condiment accompanying the sandwich are a choice of tart, tangy cole slaw, homemade potato and macaroni salads, hard boiled eggs pickled in beet juice and spices, large Kosher style, sour dill or sweet pickles, black olives and hot yellow chili peppers. Philippe’s still prepares and serves close to 300 pounds of pigs feet every week. Additionally, Phillippe’s is also famous for their brand of hot mustard.
Mason and his cohort, Pete Strickland, grab a burger at a walk up burger hut in LA called Boo Koo Burgers in another episode. Mason gets an undressed burger and Pete gets what looks like a chili dog. Not a lot is known about Boo Koo, other than that they were also a popular burger hut in Texas in the 1930s. They were a no frills, walk up, eat at the counter burger joint. There were hundreds of these no frills burger shacks that popped up during the Depression. Also appropriate is that they do not have fries as a side with their burgers. French Fries in American fast food burger cuisine were not common until the food shortages during World War II, which made White Castle popularize the cheap and readily available side dish to customers to offset the shrinking size of their burgers.
Lastly, Mason and Della Barr eat at a super-authentically recreated Ptomaine Tommy’s, where Della introduces Mason to a Harvard-educated lawyer for some advice. A sign on the door blazons “The Original Size, since 1913” and the red florid font of Ptomaine Tommy’s. Ptomaine Tommy was Tommy DeForest. He started with a food cart he called his Ptomaine Tabernacle, which was a Depression era , self effacing description of a greasy spoon joint that used inferior meats. Ptomaine is a type of amino compound formed from the rotting or putrefication of meats.
Tommy started his chili parlor in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of LA in 1913 and it operated until 1958. But his invention, the chili size is now a regional food popular at many diners around LA. Even Bob’s Big Boy in LA has a chili size on its menu. It is basically an open faced hamburger smothered in house chili, cheddar cheese and chopped onions. It got the term ‘size’ by the size of the ladle used to add the chili. He had a large ladle for serving bowls of his chili, and a smaller, hamburger size for the hamburger. It’s LA’s version of a meat-on-meat threeway. I look forward to seeing more food history in the upcoming seasons of Perry Mason.