al collins, grasshopper pie, and me

I want to call Al “Jazzbo” Collins a local legend, except “local” is hard to define. His long radio career included extended stays in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and many smaller areas, most in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Besides radio, he was briefly a host for The Tonight Show when they were looking for a new person (they eventually decided on Jack Paar). He had a morning TV show in San Francisco in the early-60s. He even cut a few records, hip fairy tales they were called:

His radio shows, no matter the station, were always broadcast from “The Purple Grotto”, several floors underground. His theme song was “Blues in Hoss Flat” by Count Basie:

Starting in 1959, he was on KSFO in San Francisco. They (and he) played my parents’ kind of music, and hey, I was only six. It wasn’t exactly a “normal” show:

His shtick with the Mexican banditos from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, well, I don’t know how it started. But if you were a guest on his show, you had to get “majuberized”, which meant you had to recite the quote from the movie. (Later in his career, he had a call-in talk show, and people would call solely to get majuberized.)

Then he added that morning TV show, and it was a joy, even for a tyke. Memories are tricky things, but among the stuff he did, I can remember this little toy where you put a coin in it and a little hand came out and grabbed the coin and pulled it inside. Jazzbo loved crepes, and he was always having a chef making crepes on live TV.

Eventually in, I think it was the late-70s, he ended up with that call-in talk show. The channel, KGO, had nothing but talk shows, and reached all along the West Coast at night. Once in awhile, someone would call in berating Jazzbo for not talking about politics, but he would kindly explain that his show was a little different.

It is here where we finally get to the grasshopper pie. As always, Jazzbo loved to talk about his favorite foods, and he frequently spoke of how much he loved grasshopper pie. He’d talk about the recipe ... you started with grasshoppers ... I can’t really remember it very well, and I had never heard of grasshopper pie, but he got my attention as I drove home from the factory after midnight.

Eventually, I figured out that the pie was based on a cocktail my mom used to make called “grasshoppers”. I thought for a long time that grasshoppers were fairly traditional ... I mean, my mom made pitchers at home ... but apparently it’s one of those remnants of post-war American culture, and they went out of fashion. I haven’t had a grasshopper since I was old enough to drink legally (admittedly, I don’t go to bars just looking for the cocktail). But once, 30+ years ago, I was on a jury, and the city paid for our lunch. We went to some fancy restaurant in Oakland, and on the dessert menu was Grasshopper Pie. I had to order it, see what it tasted like, and yum!

Here is a video showing how to make “real” grasshopper pie:

And here’s a bartender making a cocktail:

My mom made hers in a blender.

So now you know my personal history with grasshopper pie. It turns out there’s a restaurant in Oakland that has grasshopper pie on the dessert menu, so my wife and I went there for dinner. The restaurant is called Homeroom, and they pretty much only serve macaroni and cheese. We both got the “classic mac”, and it was delicious (also v.good microwaved the next day ... the servings are huge, you can’t finish one). Then I ordered grasshopper pie for dessert:

grasshopper pie

It was yummy yummy. It wasn’t “real” grasshopper pie, and I knew in advance ... in place of crème de menthe and crème de cacao, they used chocolate mint ice cream, and apparently, this is standard nowadays. It tasted like a really good Baskin-Robbins cake. The taste was like a real grasshopper if it didn’t have alcohol.

Of course, I had to tell our waitress all of this. I wasn’t surprised she knew nothing of the cocktail, but I admit I felt very old when she said she had never heard of crème de menthe. Even my wife, whose parents didn’t drink like mine, had crème de menthe on the shelf when she was a kid, to pour on ice cream.

Anyway, I’m satisfied now. I hope Jazzbo heard about it in the Purple Grotto.

Here’s a link to an article about the cocktail:

It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Weird History of The Grasshopper


throw back the crunch

Checking the shelves at a local chain drug store for some yummy treats, I came across a mini-box of my favorite cereal of all time, Cap’n Crunch. This delicious cereal was introduced in 1963, when I was 10 years old. Here is the very first commercial for Cap’n Crunch, created by former Berkeley resident Jay Ward, the animator who gave us such great characters as Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Sherman and Mr. Peabody, and George of the Jungle. (A baby-boomer Hall of Fame.)

One sign of the times is that they promoted the cereal as “sugar sweet” ... at least they kept the word “sugar” out of the name, meaning it is still called Cap’n Crunch, just as it was in 1963. (Other cereals were not so lucky, resulting in name changes as times changed ... to the best of my knowledge, you can still buy Sugar Puffs, Sugar Smacks, Sugar Pops, Sugar Crisp, and Sugar Frosted Flakes, to name a few ... you just won’t see those names on the boxes, the word “sugar” being removed.)

The commercial also notes the importance of “crunch”. Cap’n Crunch is true to its name ... it is indeed quite crunchy. The ad tells us that this is because it stays crunchy, even in milk. My wife, who can’t stand the stuff, points out that the crunchiness, combined with the shape of each morsel, means you hurt the roof of your mouth with every bite.

The ever-trustworthy Wikipedia tells us that Cap’n Crunch actually has roots in something almost traditional, despite the aura it gives of being concocted in a lab out of sugar and chemicals:

Pamela Low, a flavorist at Arthur D. Little and 1951 graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a microbiology degree, developed the original Cap'n Crunch flavor in 1963—recalling a recipe of brown sugar and butter her grandmother Luella Low served over rice at her home in Derry, New Hampshire.

And:

Grandma would make this concoction with rice and the sauce that she had; it was a combination of brown sugar and butter. It tasted good, obviously. They'd put it over the rice and eat it as a kind of a treat on Sundays...
—William Low, Pamela Low's brother

All due respect to my own grandmothers, who were wonderful women, but I think Luella Low belongs in the main wing of the Grandmother’s Hall of Fame.

Wikipedia lists more than two dozen offshoots of the original cereal, beginning with Crunch Berries in 1967, but I always saw them as interlopers. My Cap’n Crunch never needed to be tarted up with berries and such.

I had a bowl last night. I was as delicious as ever.


pizza moda

For many years, Robin and I enjoyed dining at Fellini Restaurant. I’ve mentioned it here a few times. The guy in charge, Jeff Davis, left, and after a couple of visits, so did we … it just wasn’t the same. Eventually it shut down.

A couple of days ago, we were driving around looking for somewhere to eat, and Robin said “let’s try that new place where Fellini used to be.” So we did, in part because they have parking. We entered the restaurant, called Pizza Moda … and there was Jeff! Turns out he’d returned to the restaurant biz. We are glad he did. The food was excellent across the board (we had an interesting salad, yummy pepperoni pizza, mac and cheese, ice cream with chocolate sauce, and apple/pear/cranberry crisp), the service was perfect, and Jeff was his usual effusive self. Basically, Pizza Moda is good at the same things Fellini used to be good at.

We look forward to stopping by in the future. We have our basics: Homemade Cafe for breakfast on Saturdays and Mondays, Juan’s Place every week or so for Mexican, Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe for comfort food accompanied by punk rock, and delivery, always delivery. We’ve gotten accustomed to going to Paisan for our semi-fancy Italian food, and it’s as good as ever, plus it’s very close to our house. But the parking sucks, Pizza Moda isn’t much farther away, and … well, you get the idea. I suspect we’ve found our new semi-fancy Italian place. And the cool thing is, it’s our old favorite semi-fancy Italian place, with a makeover!


the cost of eating at chipotle

I ate at Chipotle for the very first time after seeing this video:

OK, so I like Willie Nelson. You go to Chipotle’s, you can feel good knowing the animals you eat have been treated properly. You know the food is fresh, you know the food is good for you.

Dinner for two was $20. No tip, so that’s out the door for three crispy steak tacos, one burrito bowl, and two small soft drinks.

Now, $20 is less than we pay when we go to Juan’s Place, so I can’t exactly say that Chipotle is overpriced. At Juan’s, we’re at home (if you don’t believe me, look at my picture on the wall), we’ve gone there for a few decades, everybody knows everybody, they’re always throwing in something special for free. It’s the kind of place, the kind of atmosphere, the kind of people where you are glad to leave a big fat tip, so even if the food itself wasn’t more expensive than Chipotle’s, the tip pushes it over the top. Still, Juan’s isn’t that expensive … maybe $35 tops for two big plates of food with plenty of leftovers to take home for later, bottomless drinks, great atmosphere and service.

If we go to Taco Bell, we spend $15 at the most for enough food to more than fill two stomachs. There is no service to speak of, the food is only marginally “Mexican”, and god only knows what went into the food before it appeared on our plate. If you can bring yourself down from your high horse, you’ll find that the food tastes good … that’s the evil secret of fast food, they know how to make it taste good so you want to come back for more, whether by adding sugar or salt or fat or whatever.

So, the question is, what was I paying for when I spent $20 at Chipotle? The food was healthier than the food at Taco Bell, although I don’t know if it’s healthier than Juan’s. Some would argue that the smaller portions at Chipotle are a good thing, since Americans eat too much, but that kinda goes out the window when you’re hungry two hours later and have to eat again. The service is no better or worse than the service at Taco Bell, which is to say there is no service beyond taking your order and handing you the food.

You are spending $5 extra over Taco Bell to feel better about yourself because they were nice to the pigs before they killed them. I can see why that’s worth it; I try to buy organic (not natural) meat, myself, even though it costs more. What surprised me on my first visit to Chipotle, though, was that the entire experience was far closer to Taco Bell than it was to Juan’s. If I’m going to spend more than a Taco Bell’s worth of money, I’d just as soon go visit my friends at Juan’s, where the food is good and the people are better. I’m sure the people at Chipotle are nice. I’m just as sure that they won’t still be working there 30 years from now, greeting old friends.


larry blake’s

I suppose I should say a few words about Larry Blake’s, now that the place has closed down. As is often the case when your blog has been around for nine years, I’ve probably told all of these anecdotes before.

To get the basics out of the way, I’ll quote the Chronicle article:

Blake opened the restaurant in 1940 with a $700 investment. The restaurant's initial selling point was that it was the first establishment within a mile of campus to gain an alcohol license. Before this breakthrough, thirsty Cal students had to travel to Oakland, Albany or San Pablo Avenue to imbibe.

Larry Blake's second claim to fame was the salad dressing, a closely guarded recipe Blake reportedly devised while working as a cook in the military during World War II.

That salad dressing was delicious, by the way … I got a salad almost every time I ate there, just for the dressing. It was some kind of vinaigrette … might have used balsamic vinegar, I’m not sure.

What follows is a blend of fact, memory, and third-hand tale-telling. Before opening Larry Blake’s on Telegraph, Blake ran a place around the corner on Bancroft called Woody’s. (One last time: I’m not vouching for the accuracy of anything in this post.) I don’t know if the above-mentioned restaurant that opened in 1940 was Woody’s, or if that marks the time when Woody’s on Bancroft became Larry Blake’s on Telegraph. Based on what I know, I’m guessing Woody’s opened in 1940, and the move to Telegraph came later.

My mother grew up in Berkeley. She was 12 years old in 1940, and yes, her age makes some of this story sound a bit … well, you’ll see. In that year, or close enough to count, her father, George Harrison (no, not the Beatle), the chief engineer for an oil burner company (I have no idea what that is, I’m taking this from his obit in the Oakland Tribune), moved out of the house and into the Durant Hotel. I’ve heard various explanations for this, but the most believable seems to be that my grandmother kicked him out. As it was told to me, my mom and her family did OK during the Depression … her dad always had his engineering job. Once he left, though, the money left with him. He died in June of the following year … he was only 41, and I’ve been told he drank himself to death, and that he was a brilliant but troubled man.

Now, I know that part of the story is that my mom got a job waitressing. The age thing has me confused, but maybe it was different back then, and maybe 12 or 13-year-old girls waited tables. In any event, she waited tables, and the place where she worked was Woody’s. I believe her mom might have worked there, too … more about her and Larry Blake in a bit.

Sometime in the early 40s, my dad graduated from Antioch High School and started college at Cal. My sister knows more of this than I do, and hopefully she’ll correct me in the comments. He only lasted one semester before he joined the Army, and I think he was in the service during 1944-5. So maybe it was the fall of 1943 when he was at Cal … he would have been 19 at the time. Maybe this was a year earlier, 1942 when he was 18. Anyway, Woody’s was across the street from campus, and one day, my dad went there and my mom was working there, and that’s when they met.

Back to the age thing. If I place this in the fall of 1943, it doesn’t sound so bad … my dad a 19-year-old college freshman, my mom a 15-year-old high-schooler. If it was 1942, well, let’s don’t go there. However it began, in July of 1945, they were married.

Now there’s the gossip part of the story … my sister told me this one, I think. Someone, maybe a sister of my grandmother, once said that after my grandfather died, there was only one person who my grandmother seriously thought of marrying: Larry Blake.

Well, the rest of the story is barely worth telling, mostly a post-script. Robin and I ate at Blake’s a lot when we were first married and lived on Telegraph, and during my 14-year association with Cal, I would often suggest Blake’s when someone wanted to go to lunch. The salad dressing was always good. At some point, I ended up with a photo of the place when it was Woody’s on Bancroft … I brought it with me to Blake’s one time and told our server that my parents had met there back in the 40s. I haven’t been there for several years, though, and now I guess I’ll never get back.


return of the japanese iron chef

On the old original Japanese version of Iron Chef, it often seemed as if whatever the ingredient of the day was, at least one of the chefs would find a way to turn it into ice cream.

Tuesday night, Robin and I had dinner at eVe, a new restaurant in Berkeley. The dishes were unique, almost as if the chef made them up on the spot. I had a chestnut soup with chocolate and cayenne and mango and apple and other stuff. My steak was perfect, and surrounded by curds and whey, mustard greens, chanterelles, and who knows what else. Robin, meanwhile, had “Farm Egg” for an appetizer (it had grits, among other things) and monkfish for the main course.

Dessert is what reminded me of Iron Chef. We both opted for the flourless chocolate cake, which was more like fudge. It came with a pear, and a small scoop of ice cream that tasted a bit like maple. The waitress informed us that this was Candy Cap Ice Cream, made from candy cap mushrooms found in the Berkeley Hills. Mushroom ice cream … v.Iron Chef.