May 24, 2013
Turns out, there may not have always been money in the banana stand.
Ask Bob Teller. The frozen banana stand he opened on Balboa Peninsula in the ’60s popularized the famous snack in Newport Beach, California—something fans of the cult Fox television series, “Arrested Development,” may find familiar.
In the show, which returns for a fourth season on Netflix after a seven year hiatus on May 26, the Bluth family runs and owns a frozen banana stand on Oceanside Wharf boardwalk on Balboa Island—a business endeavor launched by George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor)—though the Bluth’s banana stand was actually filmed in a fishermen’s village in Marina Del Rey, 50 miles from Balboa Island. According to the show’s pilot, George held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the booth in 1963—the same year Teller opened his banana stand. The connections do not end there. In 1976, a 13-year-old Mitchell Hurwitz, along with his brother Michael (another connection!), opened up a dessert stand of their own right next to Teller’s Banana Rolla Rama. With the help of their father Mark, who coincidentally went to college with Bob Teller, they rented an abandoned taco stand and renamed it the Chipyard. Hurwitz would later become the creator, executive producer and mastermind behind “Arrested Development.”
Though several restaurants on Balboa Island claim to have invented the “original” frozen banana dipped in chocolate and nuts—both Dad’s Donuts and Sugar and Spice say they sold them first on the island (a conflict reminiscent of the season three, episode eight “Making a Stand” when G.O.B. sets up the “Banana Shack” feet away from the original), the story of the first banana stand in Newport Beach goes a little further back. Circa 1940, Don Phillips, the true “frozen banana king“, opened a banana stand, “The Original Frozen Banana,” on Balboa Peninsula right next to the ferry landing—an idea he may have borrowed from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
About 20 years later, in 1961 at the Arizona State Fair, Bob Teller was also selling frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and nuts with his wife, Rita, from their concession stand, the Banana Rolla Rama. Teller borrowed the idea for the frozen bananas from a candy shop in Lake Arrowhead Village, California. The recipe was simple: Freeze a banana, dip it into the specially-made, proprietary chocolate, and roll it in nuts or sprinkles. They sold for 25 or 30 cents each, depending on the size of the banana.
Teller was a true entrepreneur—though he received a degree in real estate and finance from the University of Arizona, he dabbled in running a flea market and vending his frozen bananas for the state fair. In 1963, when Teller was interested in manufacturing car seat belts, he and his wife headed to San Diego for a business convention.
“My parents had honeymooned there,” says Jeff Teller, Bob’s son. “They saw a sign for Balboa Island where the original frozen banana was and decided to check it out.”
When Bob and his wife were in line to buy a couple frozen treats, he told the teenager behind the counter that he had also sold frozen bananas in Arizona. The counter help was not interested in the coincidence, but there was a gentleman within earshot who certainly was. Roland Vallely was looking to rent out a commercial space near the ferry landing across from Balboa Pavilion where Don Phillips ran his shop. “[Vallely] told my dad that he’d make $50,000 in a summer selling bananas in that space,” Jeff says.
Vallely and Teller exchanged phone numbers and parted ways. Nearly two months later, when Teller learned that Phillips’ original frozen banana stand was closed by the health department, he remembered Vallely’s offer.
“That night my dad tossed and turned,” Jeff says. “When he heard Phillips was never going to reopen his doors, he thought ‘My God! What a captive market to sell the product to!’”
Bob called Mr. Vallely at six the next morning and signed a lease to open up a banana stand later that day. As expected, Phillips never reopened the original banana stand and Teller’s shop next to the peninsula’s Fun Zone thrived. Vallely and Teller would later become next door neighbors and remained so until Vallely’s death in 2003.
“As the story goes, [Phillips] had said that everyone had deserted him—that he was living the life of Job from the story in the Bible,” Jeff says. “Everybody deserted him, including God and Mr. Phillips felt the same way.”
A connection to the show’s G.O.B. Bluth (pronounced “Jobe”) is unlikely, but the coincidence is bananas.
“Everyone says that one of the characters in that series is loosely based on Bob Teller,” Jeff says. “There’s a lot more truth to the show than one may realize.”
Whatever happened to the actual banana stand?
According to the Daily Pilot, a few years later when Mr. Phillips died, the Internal Revenue Service auctioned off the business and Teller bought it for $125—a steal for Teller as the building still contained equipment from the original stand including freezers for the bananas. Teller began selling his Banana Rolla Rama desserts in Disneyland in the mid ’60s, expanding the frozen banana’s presence to the greater southern California area. In the mid ’70s, Bob sold the company to his insurance broker, Emory Frank, so he could focus on his mall chain, “Bob’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream,” which sold his real claim to fame: a vanilla ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts that he called the “Beach Bar,” later known as the “Balboa Bar“. Teller had at least 70 shops at the chain’s peak. Frank kept the name, Banana Rolla Rama, but Teller could not confirm how long Frank ran the business after he sold it.
Around 1976, Teller’s other business investment, a “swap meet,” a kind of large-scale flea market in Orange County now known as the Orange County Marketplace, took off. Bob ran a flea market and sold concessions including his frozen bananas and “Beach Bars,” making use of the Orange County fair grounds. His son, Jeff, is the current president of the company.
Bob Teller, now 75, was unavailable for comment, but he is still involved with the family business. All the more time for his latest entrepreneurial foray: the development of electric boats. Though Teller is no longer a seller of bananas, he said in an interview with Orange Coast Magazine in 1990, that ”When I look at things to buy, I still think in terms of bars and bananas I’d have to sell to afford them.”
On May 8, a recreation of “Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana” banana stand, also known as the “Big Yellow Joint“, began a world tour, dolling out chocolate-covered fruit in London, then New York City the following week. The stand was last seen in the Los Angeles area just days before the program’s return.
While we can confirm a few items in the show are based on real life experiences, some things—whether or not anyone in the Bluth family has ever seen a chicken, for example—remain up for debate.
May 22, 2013
Throughout history, food has been sketched in pencil, painted in watercolors and oils and cast in stone. In the 1960s, Wayne Thiebaud replicated cakes and pastries in great pastel detail. Centuries before that, the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted fruits and vegetables in the shape of human faces.
Designer Kate Jenkins immortalizes food in a different medium: lambswool.
Jenkins crochets meals that look almost realistic enough to eat, from birthday cakes and chocolates to roasted chicken and topping-heavy pizzas. “The possibilities are kind of endless with food, because it appeals to everybody,” says the Brighton-based designer. “We all have to eat.”
Jenkins began crocheting food in 2003 to boost publicity for her new accessories label, Cardigan. “Everybody loves food,” says Jenkins, who studied fashion and textile at Brighton University. Before that, she spent a decade as a knitting consultant, selling her designs to fashion labels such as Marc Jacobs, Missoni, Donna Karan and others.
Her first piece was a take on the full English breakfast. Jenkins fashioned the eggs, sausage, bacon and beans out of wool, which she says is “a comforting kind of textile to use.” The medium aligned perfectly with her first collection, “Comfort Food,” which chronicled the usual suspects of British cuisine: fish and chips, bangers and mash and fried eggs and beans on toast.
A few years later, Jenkins borrowed inspiration from across the pond. “Kate’s Diner,” a collection of classic New York foods, featured burgers and fries, hot dogs, pretzels and donuts. Her crocheted chow mein in a takeout box appears on Smithsonian magazine’s June cover.
One crocheted dish can take between one to three weeks to complete, depending on the level of detail involved. She usually lays out the ingredients, or photos of them, out in front of her as a reference. While traditional artists can sketch out an idea on paper and erase what they don’t like, Jenkins must
weave crochet part, if not all, of an ingredient before seeing if it will work.
“Often I’m making something for the first time, and there’s a lot of trial and error involved and stopping and starting,” she says. “It’s not as quick as a pencil sketch—it’s a lot longer because I’m making a 3D piece.”
Jenkins’ favorite foods to crochet are crustaceans, which are usually adorned with shiny sequins. She’s
woven crocheted enough of them in her career to fill an entire collection featuring canapes, caviar, “sewshi” and different types of fish. Crocheting bread is another story. “A slice of bread is quite boring to look at,” says Jenkins, who will spice plain-looking loaves and slices with a more textured look or deeper color in the crust.
While Jenkins says she’s a healthy eater who cooks for herself, she’s not an avid home chef. “I’d prefer to crochet the food than spend hours making it. Being a cook is an art form in itself, and I think it takes a lot of practice to become really good at cooking. My time is best spent sticking to something I’m good at.”
May 7, 2013
The smell of freshly cut grass, the crack of the bat, the 30 minutes standing in line at the concession stand. Baseball season is up and running and the experience of going to a game wouldn’t be the same without an expensive beer in one hand and a plastic receptacle of nachos covered in ooey-gooey cheese product in the other. But how did nachos become a stadium standard?
In September 1988, Adriana P. Orr, a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary, was asked to trace the etymology of the word “nachos” and conducted an initial investigation of the nacho story. She followed a paper trail of documents and newspaper articles until she found what she was looking for in the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress:
“As I walked down the long corridor leading back to the library’s central core, I heard a voice softly calling my name. There was a young woman I recognized as a staff member of the Hispanic Division…she told me she had been born and raised in Mexico and there, nacho has only one common usage: it is the word used as a diminutive for a little boy who had been baptized Ignacio. His family and friends call him Nacho… Now I was convinced there was a real Nacho somewhere who had dreamed up a combination of tortilla pieces with melted cheese and jalapeño peppers.”
Using this information, Orr tracked down a quote from the elusive 1954 St Anne’s Cookbook printed by The Church of the Redeemer, Eagle Pass, Texas, which includes a recipe for a dish called “Nachos Especiales.”
What Orr would find is that, in 1943 in Piedras Negras, Mexico — just across the border from Eagle Pass, a group of hungry army wives were the first to eat the meal. When the ladies went to a restaurant called the Victory Club, the maitre d’, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya greeted them. Without a chef around, Anaya threw together whatever food he could find in the kitchen that “consisted of near canapes of tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeno peppers.” The cheese of choice was reportedly Wisconsin cheddar. Anaya named the dish Nachos Especiales and it caught on—on both sides of the border—and the orignal title was shortened to “nachos.”
Anaya died in 1975, but a bronze plaque was put up in Piedras, Negras, to honour his memory and October 21 was declared the International Day of the Nacho.
If Anaya is the progenitor of nachos especiales, then how did it happen that Frank Liberto came to be known as “The Father of Nachos”? Nachos were already popular at restaurants in Texas by the time Liberto’s recipe hit the scene, but he’s famous in the industry for bringing his version of the dish to the concession stand in 1976 at a Texas Rangers baseball game in Arlington, Texas. What he did that no one else had done before, was create the pump-able consistency of the orangey-gooey goodness we see today—what the company calls “cheese sauce.” Though some versions are Wisconsin cheddar-based like Anaya’s original, according to the company most of the products are blends. (According to the Food and Drug Administration’s standards, the sauce is technically not “cheese,” but that hasn’t stopped fans from pumping it by the gallons since). Liberto’s innovation didn’t need to be refrigerated and had a longer shelf life. His recipe was top secret—so secret that in 1983 a 29-year-old man was arrested for trying to buy trade secrets into Liberto’s formula.
As a concessionaire, transaction time was key—Frank didn’t want customers to wait more than a minute in line for their snack. To meet this demand, he came up with the idea of warming up a can of cheese sauce, ladling it over the chips and then sprinkling jalapeños on top. Frank’s son and current president of Ricos Products Co., Inc., Anthony ‘Tony’ Liberto, was 13 when Ricos introduced the product in Arlington Stadium. He recalls that the concession operators wouldn’t put the cheesy chips in the stands. They were afraid that the new product launch would cannibalize other popular items like popcorn, hotdogs and sodas.
“We had to build our own nacho carts,” Liberto, now 50, says. “My dad has an old VHS tape where people were lined up 20 people deep behind these concession carts. You’d hear the crack of the bat and you’d think that they’d want to see what play was going on, but they stayed in line to get their nachos.”
It was an immediate success: That season Arlington Stadium sold Ricos’ nachos at the rate of one sale per every two-and-a-half patrons—over $800,000 in sales. Popcorn, which previously had the highest sales, only sold to one in 14 patrons for a total of $85,000. There is one ingredient to thank for that shift, Liberto says: The jalapeño pepper.
“When you put a jalapeño pepper on chips and cheese, of course it’s going to be spicy,” he says. “You’re going to start looking for your beverage—a Coke or Pepsi, whatever—you’re gonna need something to drink.”
Beverage sales spiked and hotdog and popcorn sales thereafter, he says. By 1978, the spicy snack became available at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, where iconic “Monday Night Football” announcer Howard Cosell would put nachos on the map. Cosell, a household name for football fans, sat alongside Frank Gifford and Don Meredith giving viewers the play-by-play, when a plate of nachos was brought to the broadcast room.
“Cosell was trying to take up some dead air and he says ‘They brought us this new snack—what do they call them? knock-o’s or nachos?’” recalls Liberto. “He started using the word ‘nachos’ in the description of plays: ‘Did you see that run? That was a nacho run!’”
Cosell and others used the word for weeks after, allowing nachos to branch out from their Texas birthplace.
“My father first sold a condensed formulation of the product,” Tony says. “You open up the can, add water or milk and pepper juice to the mix.”
Each number ten can contains 107 ounces of the condensed cheese conconction to which 32 ounces of water and 20 ounces of pepper juice are added. Once combined, the cheese blend is put into a dispenser like the pump or button-operated machines you see at concession stands today.
“That’s an added 52 ounces of servable product,” Tony says. “Nearly 50 percent more sauce [than what comes in the can] Plus, the water is free and the pepper juice you get from the jalapenos anyway. You get an additonal 52 0z to serve and it doesn’t cost the company a dime.”
Just to make this profit thing clear—some math: If you have an extra 52 ounces of product and each two-ounce serving of cheese sauce goes for four bucks a pop, that’s 100 dollars directly into the concessionaire’s cash register.
Tony has two children, a daughter (13) and a son (11), who he hopes will take an interest in working for the family business one day as he did. His niece, Megan Petri (fifth generation), currently works for Ricos Products Co., Inc.
“We can’t go to any baseball game without getting an order of nachos,” says Liberto. “[My daughter] says ‘I need my nachos I need my nachos.’ It’s like she needs her fix.”
His daughter is not alone in her affinity for her family’s invention. As millions of people crunch into their plates of chips and cheesiness at baseball games and movie theaters around the world, one question remains: How much cheese is actually in the nacho sauce?
“I will not tell you that,” he laughs. ”We’ve got lots of formulas and that is a a trade secret—you never want to give away how much cheese is in your product.”
May 2, 2013
The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, is as famous for its music as it is for its food. In fact, some people insist it’s the po’boys and alligator pies that take center stage.
Born in 1970 and christened by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Jazz Fest is unlike any other music festival in the country and not just because it actually has good food. Residents and tourists arrive by foot, bike and cab–some official and others just enterprising locals with a car. The acts are a mix of big names–Billy Joel, Black Keys, Frank Ocean–and local favorites–Rebirth Brass Band, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Trombone Shorty. When everything wraps up in the early evening, the crowd filters out into the streets, past colorful shotgun houses, to continue the party around town.
In other words, it’s not just a festival in New Orleans, it’s a festival of New Orleans. So what’s more New Orleans: the food or the music?
For many who have been coming for many years, the festival can’t get started until they have their favorite dish to kick things off. Catherine King makes a beeline for Patton’s Catering for an oyster patty, crawfish sack and crawfish beignet. “It’s my tradition every year. This is the first thing I have to have.”
And even though seafood tends to dominate the conversation and the cooking, Bill Storer says he comes for the fried chicken. “I travel around the world in search of good fried chicken,” he says and since 1998, he’s traveled to New Orleans from San Jose, California for a plate of the good stuff at Jazz Fest.
Over the years, he says things haven’t changed much but he did have to switch his morning dive bar routine after the one he frequented closed recently. “You like to start off in the morning at a good, seedy bar,” he explains, “Have a few drinks right off and then come here for lunch.” This year he settled on Ms. Mae’s, located across town. “It’s the ultimate dive bar. I was there and the lady said, please get out of the way, you’re standing in vomit.”
The festival puts food front and center. After walking in past the gospel and jazz tents, a wide lawn of tables and food stands opens to your right. Each vendor offers one plate or dish. You can get Storer’s fried chicken and Cajun jambalaya from New Orleans’ own Catering Unlimited or cheesy crawfish bread from Panorama Foods based in Marksville, Louisiana. With 22 stands representing all parts of Louisiana, this is just one of nine places to find a bite to eat so pace yourself.
Enchanted by the food, you might miss the truck off to your right, loaded up with produce courtesy a one Mr. Okra. Raised in the 3rd ward, he’s lived in the 8th for nearly 30 years but he’s known all over town. Mr. Okra can usually be found driving his truck loaded with lemons, greens and more through the streets of New Orleans, singing the day’s offering into a speaker system. Joined by his daughter and friend, Mr. Okra now offers his goods to Jazz Fest visitors as well. “I’ve been coming out here about three years. I like it,” he says seated in the truck with a view of the Jazz and Heritage stage, “You meet a lot of people.”
Unlike Storer’s shuttered dive bar, the festival has continued to grow over the years, surviving hurricanes and oil spills. According to retired shrimper Jim Hebert, the explanation for that is simple: “We still have the best seafood around and that’s coming from a Cajun in the seafood industry.” Po’Boy in hand, Hebert explains, “I’m kind of partial to shrimp, my family is in the shrimping business.”
Hebert hadn’t been back to Jazz Fest for nearly 20 years, but says it’s even better than he remembers. “Although it was fantastic back then, this has grown.” Spread over two weekends, the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of food and music fans. Twelve music tents offer a wide variety of experiences. If you want the big shows and big crowds, the Acura Stage offers that for more mainstream acts (and rather un-jazzy) including Maroon 5 and Fleetwood Mac. Breaking the trend at Acura, though, is one act you won’t want to miss: the legendary Trombone Shorty (so named because he was tearing it up even as a kid) and Orleans Avenue, performing Sunday. Meanwhile the Fais Do-Do Stage, named for the Cajun dance parties that borrowed the name from mothers whispering “fais do-do” or “go to sleep” to fussy children, has a smaller stage and bleachers you might even get a chance to sit on. For local acts, like the Stooges Brass Band or the festival favorite Mardi Gras Indians, the Jazz and Heritage Stage also offers a smaller space.
You can also catch some of the Mardi Gras Indians and second line bands as they parade through the festival itself. Born out of funerary traditions, the second-line parades are full of color and big brass and not to be missed. Everyone gets in on the action, including children, and crowds join in behind the slow march, clapping and dancing. There is a schedule but the felicitous appearance of the music makes it all the more infectious.
You can even park at one of the tables after getting your food and likely catch one of these high-energy parades.
A couple of Coors in front of him, Kenneth Gunndersson is digging into a mound of juicy red crawfish as a group of feathered Mardi Gras Indians go by. He traveled all the way from Sweden for the dish and he says it actually reminds him of home. “In Sweden, we eat crawfish but the spices are not that strong,” he explains, “We use dill and salt.”
“And vodka!” His friend interrupts.
“Yeah, we drink vodka too.” Gunndersson says crawfish are popular for a few weeks in August in Sweden. “I remember when I was a boy, fishing for crawfish with my brother, my father and my uncle. Every time I eat crawfish it reminds me of my home and my childhood.”
Halfway through a tour of cities that would take him to Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Mississippi; and Austin, Texas as well as New Orleans, Gunndersson says, “The best food? New Orleans, of course.”
If you can’t make it to Jazz Fest this weekend, listen in over at WWOZ.
April 5, 2013
Despite recent flirtations with secession and even being accidentally listed as a foreign destination by the State Department, Texas is not its own country. The Republic of Texas may have dissolved in 1845, but the Czech Republic of Texas is doing better than ever, thanks to a surge in interest in Tex-Czech’s most beloved dish: kolaches.
The doughy pastry came over with a wave of Czech migration in the late 19th century and found a happy home in the rural communities like West, Texas (a town of fewer than 3,000 people but which serves as a touchstone for Czech culture in the region) and others at the heart of the state, sometimes called the Czech Belt. For the most part, the culture settled in quietly. Unlike other urban centers in Midwestern cities including Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, rural Czech families maintained relatively traditional dialects and recipes.
“The dialect of Czech spoken here is very old-fashioned. It’s from 100 years ago and people are always amazed to hear it and I think the food is the same way,” explains Austin-based food blogger Dawn Orsak. From her blog, Svačina Project, Orsak honors her Czech grandmother and chronicles her many adventures with kolaches, from judging to baking.
In the Czech Republic, kolaches come in two varieties: dense wedding kolaches that are formed in circles or frgale, which Orsak describes almost like a pizza, and covered in toppings. In Texas, you’ll find both the wedding kolaches and rectangular options with lighter, more bread-like dough. Since coming to the States, kolaches have added a few flavors (you would never find a kolache with meat in the Czech Republic, for example), including one of Orsak’s favorites: sauerkraut. Based off recipes that once used sweetened cabbage filling, sauerkraut kolaches arose only after coming to Texas. Though sauerkraut is now part of the Tex-Czech canon, other flavors still haven’t found complete acceptance within the community.
As big companies inside Texas capitalize on the kolache-trend, Orsak says it inspires her even more to find out about the roots of the food and to get it right. “My friend Laurie and I take pictures of the most bizarre fillings we can find and email them to each other with a subject line that says ‘Eww.’” She remembers one in particular, “There’s a place that makes a cream cheese kolache that has one of those mini Hershey’s bars stuck in the center, it sort of melts in there. I laugh because I am biased.” While she’s open to trying these new takes on the Czech dish, she says she can’t stand when big companies use gelatinous fruit fillings or get the dough wrong.
And she doesn’t seem to be alone in wanting to celebrate the century of Czech tradition in Texas. As a judge at the 2011 Kolache Festival in Caldwell, Texas, she says she was heartened by the number of young people entering the contest.
Her first taste of the pastry, traditionally filled with dried fruits or cheese, was in her grandmother’s kitchen on special occasions. Nowadays, Texans can grab the treat from bakeries and even gas stations on a whim. For the most part, says Orsak, these varieties aren’t true to the Tex-Czech roots of the pastry. The big three traditional kolache flavors are prune, apricot and cheese. But at these combination bakery-gas stations, you’ll often find savory buns with meats and even vegetables.
“It’s funny, there’s a company in Austin called Lone Star Kolaches that now has like four locations and they don’t even sell prune,” she says. “I asked about it a couple weeks ago and they said, we don’t sell that, which I was really surprised about.”
But when Texans find themselves outside the warm, buttery embrace of the Czech Belt, they crave everything from the sweet stuff to the less conventional and their demands are helping spread the dish, from Pittsburgh to D.C.
In February, Shana Teehan, spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin Brady from Texas, begged Roll Call writer Warren Rojas to find her some kolaches in the nation’s capital. “I’ve never had a flavor I didn’t like,” she told him, “whether it was a sweet, fruit-filled bun, or a savory option filled with sausage, cheese or peppers.”
Czech cuisine also enjoys some fame for its influence on Texas barbecue, which owes a lot to Czech and German smoked meats. In fact, the most common place to find Czech food–other than at a bakery–is at a meat market or barbecue.
All of this is helping bring the food of the Tex-Czech community, most visible at festivals and bake-offs but largely tucked away in rural kitchens, onto a wider stage. From a new bakery in Brooklyn, New York to hungry politicians in D.C., kolaches may be ready for their close-up.
Orsak offers up her favorite recipes here.