HBO’s Perry Mason is a Virtual Culinary Tour of Early Los Angeles

Perry Mason and cohort eating at Boo Koo Burgers

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.

The outside of Boo Koo Burgers in Perry Mason – note how chile is spelled.

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.

Mason eating at Ptomaine Tommy’s
Mason at Ptomaine Tommy’s with the Chili size since 1913 ad behind him

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.

How Atari Ruined the Taste of American Pitted Fruits

The super juicy and sweet Santa Rosa plum, a disappearing icon of pre-Silicon Valley Santa Rosa Valley.

The Silicon Valley we know today was very different before Atari moved in as one of the first tech companies in 1972 in Sunnydale, California.    The area was largely agricultural, filled with orchards of pitted fruits of cherries, apricots and plums.   About 80% of the orchards were for plums that were made into California prunes.     Before it was Silicon Valley, it was called the Valley of Heart’s Delight, because of all of its flowering fruit trees

A flowering plum orchard in Silicon Valley when it was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delights.

There was good reason for so many orchards.   The Santa Clara Valley has an advantage over other fruit-growing regions because of its geography, tucked away from the coast, but not too far from it.   It has warmth, but it also has mildness, especially at night. After a hot day, fruit trees need to rest. A lot of times in the Central Valley, where most pitted fruits for the American market are now grown, it’ll go up to 100 degrees during the day and go down to about 85 at night.   In the Santa Clara Valley, the day temperatures are cooler and the night temperatures are cooler, too. That means the fruit can stay on the tree longer, and the longer the fruit stays on the trees, the more sugar it develops. The flesh is firmer, and juicier. “Tree-ripened,” as it turns out, is not just an advertising slogan. Delicious varieties of plums, like the small Santa Rosa plum, and the Japanese variety Blenheim apricot became the fruit the Valley became known for worldwide

Until Atari came to the Santa Rosa Valley, it was the largest fruit-producing and packing region in the world, with 39 canneries.  Del Monte and Sunsweet are two brands which originated in the Valley. Various fruit cooperatives were formed in the area to deal with economic issues, including The California Fruit Union (founded in 1883) and the Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange (founded in 1892). Water was supplied from an artesan aquifer and when the water table dropped, wells were pumped. Many orchards were small with housing and fruit growing in a dispersed pattern. By the 1920s and 1930s, the agricultural and horticultural industries were doing well in the valley and included 18 canneries, 13 dried-fruit packing houses, and 12 fresh-fruit and vegetable shipping firms, and they were shipping internationally.    But that all stopped when land became more valuable for development with the tech boom.

The need for workers greatly exceeded the local population and in the nineteenth century, Chinese and Japanese immigrants met that need. Toward the end of the nineteenth century many Italians and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe came to the valley and worked in the orchards and canneries. During the 20th century there were Filipino immigrants.   Mexicans became the dominant agricultural workforce through the Bracero Program (1942-1964) which was a bi-national effort that brought Mexican guest workers, known as braceros, to fill in agricultural labor shortages caused by World War II.     It was these Braceros who are responsible for popularizing the burrito in Mexican American cuisine, because this is what they were fed at the end of their day. With no Bracero program, there would be no Chipotle.

Tasty though they are, though, these delicate Santa Rosa fruits are expensive. They bruise easily, and need to be sold and consumed right away.  As fruit farms were displaced by Tech Firms, they had to move from the Santa Clara Valley to the Central Valley.   The fruit varieties had to be more heat tolerant and more prolific than the delicate, sweet, smaller fruits that could survive in the Santa Clara Valley.  From an economic perspective, the Central Valley to the north wins on every score, not just because the land is cheaper.

That means most of the varieties you see in the markets today are ones that do well in the Central Valley’s heat. So the Blenheim apricot, for example, a delicate creature that thrived for decades in the temperate Santa Clara Valley, has given way to the heartier,  blander Patterson.    Although they’re not as sweet and delicious, they are durable, and productive, yielding 20 tons to the acre versus the ten you get with the Blenheim apricot.

The tech boom began by Atari in 1972 and fueled in the 80s caused the area’s many small orchards to give way to drive-throughs and strip malls amid campuses housing titans of high-tech industry: Lockheed Martin, Yahoo!, Juniper Networks, LinkedIn.

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari in Sunnyvale, California.

Nolan Bushnell, who some refer to as the Godfather of video games,  created Atari in 1972, the first silicon valley company in Sunnyvale.  He and his co-founders were in their 20s and wanted to create an “Age of Aquarius” company where the work ethic was work hard play hard – paving the way for the ethos of Silicon valley and creating the template for tech companies that came in and displaced the many fruit farms.  They recruited folks saying they could wear whatever they wanted, come in to work whenever they wanted, do whatever they wanted, as long as their output was good.    Bushnell said he could get any engineer in the valley with this explanation.    There were lots of tales of board meetings in hot tubs, pot smoking in the hallways, and lots of hooking up.    And they made a lot of money – They built their empire by making hit arcade games like Asteroids and Defender, industry defining game consoles and computers

One of their first games, Pong inspired Tomohiro Nishkado in Japan to create the iconic game Space Invaders.   His characters of alien crabs, octopuses and squid were also inspired not by sushi, but by War of the Worlds.    Atari licensed Pacman, created by another Japanese game designer, Toru Iwatani, after seeing the shape a pizza made when he took the first slice.

Many residents of the area still have fruit trees in their backyards, and a common one is the plum. These are often the Santa Rosa or the native varieties that grow wild in the area.

One of the last Silicon Valley orchards is at Orchard Heritage Park in Sunnyvale, California.    It has been owned by three generations of the Olson family since 1899.   Like many of the other orchard families, they lease the original orchard land to a strip mall in Sunnyvale.

Olson said that the market for dried apricots is narrow, especially for the Blenheim apricots that the orchard grows. Olson claims that Blenheim apricots are the sweetest and “best tasting” apricots, but are going extinct as they are the most tedious to care for — it costs around seven dollars to raise one pound of apricots.  As a result, most apricots in the United States are imported from the Middle East. Olson said less than 700 tons of apricots were grown in-state last year.  Especially with families on budgets, you can get cheap dried apricots from Turkey at Costco in big bags and small farms like Olson’s family just can’t do that

Urbanization and shelf life stability is a common story in the ruining  of our once tastier and more delicious American produce.   If we just valued our food supply chains more – which we’ve certainly seen the affects of in this Pandemic –  maybe we’d have healthier and tastier foods.    Little did I know the fun games I played on my Atari 2600 as a kid caused our pitted fruits to taste like cardboard.

A Pastry Blossom Mashup: Tuba’s Laugenkrautkrapfen and LaRosa’s Rondos

Tuba Baking’s Laugenkrautkrapfen or LKK.

There’s a new savory pastry trend in Greater Cincinnati and I want to be the first to document it. It’s called a pastry blossom – a rolled, sliced, savory-filled pastry that when baked, turns into a delicious flowering blossom. The two leading examples are Tuba Baking’s laugenkrautkrapfen, and LaRosa’s Rondo. Both are delicious and both come with a dippin’ sauce – LaRosa’s being their sweet San Marzano marinara sauce, and Tuba’s being a superb senfrahmsosse or mustard cream sauce. One comes from Italian roots, the other from German-Swabian roots. One is basically a rolled up pizza, and the other is a rolled up pretzel. I love that Tuba is using an authentic German cognate word to describe theirs, although for purposes of simplicity I think I’m going to refer to it as the LKK.

Tuba’s Laugenkrautkrapfen mit senfrahmsoße uses their signature lye brushed Swabian pretzel or bretzel dough, filled with sauerkraut and ham and served with mustard cream dipping sauce. The original is made with pasta sheets filled with Black Forest ham and sauerkraut and cooked in a pot with broth. Tuba decided since “krapfen” (donuts) is in the name they’d try it with their sourdough pretzel dough and roll it up with real schwarzwalder schinken (Black Forest ham) and real fermented caraway kraut from The Pickled Pig in Walnut Hills. Then they brush the sides with lye to initiate the Maillard Reaction, which crisps the outside and leaves the inside of the dough chewy. They then bake it off and serve it with the lovely mustard cream sauce. Stay tuned, I’m told they’re also working on a vegetarian option too. I love them and think they should be served at every German festival in Greater Cincinnati.

LaRosa’s Rondos.

Now LaRosa’s Rondos are not to be taken for granted. They start out with a delicious pizza dough – brushed on the outside with a garlic pesto butter, and then filled with (midwestern, not original New York Italian) provolone cheese and either pepperoni or spinach and served with the sweet tomatoey signature LaRosa marinara we all know and love.

What it comes down to in the judging of both of these pastry blossoms is whether or not you like a rolled pizza or a rolled pretzel better. Both have a delicious crispy outside and delicious savory inside. And do you like a tomatoey dippin’ sauce or a bright mustardy dippin’ sauce? I leave that up to you, but I love both and hope to see more mashups of the pastry blossom showing up around town.

Liederkranz: The Singing Cheese That Has a More Famous Cousin

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If you’ve ever been to German festival in Greater Cincinnati, you’ve probably seen a booth that offers Limburger cheese sandwiches.   It’s typically sold warm between two slices of good German rye bread, with a slice of raw white onion.   People of German heritage love this smelly cheese.   It’s the Germanic version of Durian fruit – smells funky, tastes delicious.     There’s even reference in the history of the Ohio 9th Civil War Regiment (mustered in Over-the-Rhine of German immigrants) that their suttler Frank Linck (a former brewer) brought them Limburger cheese, and their Anglo-American compatriots complained of its smell.

Back in the 1890s, importing European Limburger cheese was problematic – it often spoiled in transport, without commercial refrigeration.   But in 1891, a Swiss immigrant named Emil Frey, working for the Monroe Cheese Company in New York, invented a domestic, and milder version of Limburger cheese, or what the Germanic immigrants in the Hudson Valley called Bismark Schlosskase.     Frey’s father had been a dairy farmer and cheese maker in Switzerland.

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Emil Frey, the Swiss immigrant who invented Liederkranz and Velveeta cheeses.

It used a slightly different bacterial culture for smear ripening than Limburger, which made it easily spreadable, with the same dirty gym socks smell.   It is a cow’s milk cheese, with an edible pale yellow-orange tan crust, and a semisoft, pale interior  distinct aroma that can turn unpleasantly ammonia-like if aged incorrectly.     Think of Liederkranz as the Germanic version of Philly Cream Cheese, only smellier.

Liederkranz offered a domestic, creamy pungent cheese that scratched the itch for Limburger and other smelly Germanic cheeses.   Germanic immigrants were delighted.  Adolph Tode, the owner of the Monroe Cheese company and a New York deli, test marketed the new cheese with his friends at the New York Liederkranz, or German singing society, and they literally sang its praises.   And, so as the legend goes, the company decided to name the cheese after the society.

The cheese became a huge hit and one with great ‘dis-stink-tion’ around the nation in Germanic settled areas, like Cincinnati.   It was packed in small wooden boxes with vent holes, which wafted the smell out and about.     Author W. H. Auden and T.S. Elliot became cult fans of the cheese. It was served locally in sandwiches and in cheese plates (what we now call charcuterie boards) at such high end places as Glenn Schmidt’s Playtorium (a notable mob hangout in Newport, Kentucky, now Jeff Ruby’s The Syndicate).

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Liederkranz cheese slowly disappeared over the course of the 20th century. In the 1920s, Tode sold the Monroe Cheese company, and the business, which relocated to Van Wert, Ohio, changed hands several more times.  Inspectors discovered bacterial contamination in a batch of Liederkrantz in 1985, and production ceased.

Not to be stopped by just one innovation, Emil Frey in 1918 invented another, more famous cheese that has become the American Cheese, one that is the go-to for grilled cheese sandwiches.   It was named Velveeta to evoke its velvety texture.     Frey had been tasked by the company execs to come up with a cheese that used scraps from other cheeses or damaged cheeses that couldn’t be sold.    It’s brilliance is that incorporating the milk whey with the curd create a creamy, easily meltable cheese that melts without clumps.   A separate company, the Velveeta Cheese Company incorporated in 1923 and took off with the brand.

In the mid-2000s, DCI Cheese Co., based in Richfield, Wisconsin, took ownership of the extinct cheese. Using cultures developed by the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, they reintroduced Liederkranz to the market in 2010.    It can now be fairly easily found at Kroger and Jungle Jim’s.   With commercial refrigeration and preservatives, importing cheese is effortless today,  but Liederkranz remains a relic from a time when attempts to replicate the flavors of Europe led to new and delicious American delights.