June 18, 2013
In the late 1700s, a large percentage of Europeans feared the tomato.
A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.
Around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato grew widespread in popularity in Europe. But there’s a little more to the story behind the misunderstood fruit’s stint of unpopularity in England and America, as Andrew F. Smith details in his The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. The tomato didn’t get blamed just for what was really lead poisoning. Before the fruit made its way to the table in North America, it was classified as a deadly nightshade, a poisonous family of Solanaceae plants that contain toxins called tropane alkaloids.
One of the earliest-known European references to the food was made by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who first classified the “golden apple” as a nightshade and a mandrake—a category of food known as an aphrodisiac. The mandrake has a history that dates back to the Old Testament; it is referenced twice as the Hebrew word dudaim, which roughly translates to “love apple.” (In Genesis, the mandrake is used as a love potion). Matthioli’s classification of the tomato as a mandrake had later ramifications. Like similar fruits and vegetables in the solanaceae family—the eggplant for example, the tomato garnered a shady reputation for being both poisonous and a source of temptation. (Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to clarify that it was the mandrake, not the tomato, that is believed to have been referenced in the Old Testament)
But what really did the tomato in, according to Smith’s research, was John Gerard’s publication of Herball in 1597 which drew heavily from the agricultural works of Dodoens and l’Ecluse (1553). According to Smith, most of the information (which was inaccurate to begin with) was plagiarized by Gerard, a barber-surgeon who misspelled words like Lycoperticum in the collection’s rushed final product. Smith quotes Gerard:
Gerard considered ‘the whole plant’ to be ‘of ranke and stinking savour.’… The fruit was corrupt which he left to every man’s censure. While the leaves and stalk of the tomato plant are toxic, the fruit is not.
Gerard’s opinion of the tomato, though based on a fallacy, prevailed in Britain and in the British North American colonies for over 200 years.
Around this time it was also believed that tomatoes were best eaten in hotter countries, like the fruit’s place of origin in Mesoamerica. The tomato was eaten by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD and called the “tomatl,” (its name in Nahuatl), and wasn’t grown in Britain until the 1590s. In the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors returning from expeditions in Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica were thought to have first introduced the seeds to southern Europe. Some researchers credit Cortez with bringing the seeds to Europe in 1519 for ornamental purposes. Up until the late 1800s in cooler climates, tomatoes were solely grown for ornamental purposes in gardens rather than for eating. Smith continues:
John Parkinson the apothecary to King James I and botanist for King Charles I, procalimed that while love apples were eaten by the people in the hot countries to ‘coole and quench the heate and thirst of the hot stomaches,” British gardeners grew them only for curiousity and fo the beauty of the fruit.
The first known reference to tomato in the British North American Colonies was published in herbalist William Salmon’s Botanologia printed in 1710 which places the tomato in the Carolinas. The tomato became an acceptable edible fruit in many regions, but the United States of America weren’t as united in the 18th and early 19th century. Word of the tomato spread slowly along with plenty of myths and questions from farmers. Many knew how to grow them, but not how to cook the food.
By 1822, hundreds of tomato recipes appeared in local periodicals and newspapers, but fears and rumors of the plant’s potential poison lingered. By the 1830s when the love apple was cultivated in New York, a new concern emerged. The Green Tomato Worm, measuring three to four inches in length with a horn sticking out of its back, began taking over tomato patches across the state. According to The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs and Cultivator Almanac (1867) edited by J.J. Thomas, it was believed that a mere brush with such a worm could result in death. The description is chilling:
The tomato in all of our gardens is infested with a very large thick-bodied green worm, with oblique white sterols along its sides, and a curved thorn-like horn at the end of its back.
According to Smith’s research, even Ralph Waldo Emerson feared the presence of the tomato-loving worms: They were “an object of much terror, it being currently regarded as poisonous and imparting a poisonous quality to the fruit if it should chance to crawl upon it.”
Around the same time period, a man by the name of Dr. Fuller in New York was quoted in The Syracuse Standard, saying he had found a five-inch tomato worm in his garden. He captured the worm in a bottle and said it was “poisonous as a rattlesnake” when it would throw spittle at its prey. According to Fuller’s account, once the skin came into contact with the spittle, it swelled immediately. A few hours later, the victim would seize up and die. It was a “new enemy to human existence,” he said. Luckily, an entomologist by the name of Benjamin Walsh argued that the dreaded tomato worm wouldn’t hurt a flea. Thomas continues:
Now that we have become familiarized with it [the worm] these fears have all vanished, and we have become quite indifferent towards this creature, knowing it to be merely an ugly-looking worm which eats some of the leaves of the tomato…
The fear, it seems, had subsided. With the rise of agricultural societies, farmers began investigating the tomato’s use and experimented with different varieties. According to Smith, back in the 1850s the name tomato was so highly regarded that it was used to sell other plants at market. By 1897, innovator Joseph Campbell figured out that tomatoes keep well when canned and popularized condensed tomato soup.
Today, tomatoes are consumed around the world in countless varieties: heirlooms, romas, cherry tomatoes—to name a few. More than one and a half billion tons of tomatoes are produced commercially every year. In 2009, the United States alone produced 3.32 billion pounds of fresh-market tomatoes. But some of the plant’s night-shady past seems to have followed the tomato in pop culture. In the 1978 musical drama/ comedy “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” giant red blobs of the fruit terrorize the country. “The nation is in chaos. Can nothing stop this tomato onslaught?”
June 10, 2013
Curt Jones, founder and CEO of Dippin’ Dots, was always interested in ice cream and science. He grew up on a small farm in Pulaski County, Illinois. As a child, he and his neighbors would get together and make homemade ice cream with an old hand crank: he’d fill up the machine with cream and sugar, add ice and salt to lower the temperature below zero and enjoy the dessert on the front porch.
When he first made Dippin’ Dots in 1987, the treat required a little more than a hand crank. By flash-freezing ice cream into tiny pellets with liquid nitrogen, Jones made the ice crystals in his dessert 40 to 50 times smaller than in regular ice cream—something he marketed as “the future” of the classic summer snack. Today, the company sells about 1.5 million gallons of dots a year and can be found in 100 shopping centers and retail locations, 107 amusement parks and more than one thousand stadiums, movie theaters and other entertainment venues across the United States.
But, 26 years after its invention, can we still call it the “Ice Cream of the Future”? Now that competitors including Mini Melts and MolliCoolz caught on and began shaking things up with their own versions of the flash-frozen dessert, has the novelty begun to fade?
In the mid-2000s, when the recession made it difficult for the average amusement-park-goer to drop the extra dollars for the fun dessert, Dippin’ Dots plummeted in sales. In 2007, Dippin’ Dots entered a patent battle with the competitor “Mini Melts” (Frosty Bites Distribution)—a legal defeat that would ultimately contribute to the company’s financial struggles. A federal court jury invalidated Jones’ patent for “cryogenic encapsulation” on a technicality: Jones had sold the product for over a year before filing for the patent. The New York Times cites a memo prepared by the law firm Zuber & Taillieu:
One of the arguments that Mini Melts used in undermining Dippin’ Dots was that the company committed patent fraud by not disclosing that it had sold its ice cream product one year prior to applying for its patent. Technically, an inventor of a new product (or process) is required to apply for a patent within one year of inventing the product or the product is considered to be “public art” and the right to file for a patent is forfeited.
In the suit Dippin’ Dots, Inc. v. Frosty Bites Distribution, LLL aka Mini Melts, it was determined that Jones had sold a similar version of the product he eventually patented to more than 800 customers more than one year prior the filing of the patent, making the company’s claim against Mini Melts unfounded. The Federal Circuit Court ruled that Dippin’ Dots’s method of making frozen ice cream pellets was invalid because it was obvious.
In 2011, Dippin’ Dots filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court in Kentucky. Again, according to the Times, the company owed more than $11 million to Regions Bank on eight different promissory notes. In 2012, Dippin’ Dots secured an offer from an Oklahoma energy executive that would hopefully buy the company out of bankruptcy for 12.7 million dollars. The Wall Street Journal reports:
The deal would preserve the flow of colorful flash-frozen ice cream beads to baseball stadiums and amusement parks across the country…Under the new ownership, the company would continue to pump out the dots from its 120,000-square-foot Paducah, Kentucky, manufacturing plant…
Even with the new owners, the plan was to keep Jones actively involved in the product. To stop the “Ice Cream of the Future” from becoming a thing of the past, the company tried a few twists on the orignal ice cream beads that eventually helped drag the company out of its crushing debt. These days, the company has a few spin off products in the works—a fusion of dots and regular ice cream called Dots N’ Cream and a Harry Potter-themed ice cream at Universal Studios, for example. And by August, Dippin’ Dots will have close to a thousand locations with 40-degrees-below-Fahrenheit freezers installed in grocery stores.
But in the late ’80s, the company was still in its nascent stages. Jones was a Southern Illinois University graduate with a degree in microbiology—a solid foundation for his futuristic idea to take shape. After graduating in 1986, he took a job with Alltech, a biotechnology company based in Kentucky. The science behind the invention is impressive, even 30 years later.
His main responsibility at Alltech was to isolate the probiotic cultures found in yogurt, freeze-dry them into a powder, and then add then to animal feeds as an alternative to antibiotics. Once ingested, these “good bacteria” came back to life and helped with the animal’s digestion. Jones experimented with different ways to freeze the cultures, and he discovered that if he froze the cultures in a faster process, the result was smaller ice crystals. After many attempts, he found that by dipping cultures into liquid nitrogen (a staggering 320 degrees Fahrenheit below zero) he could form pellets—making it easier to pour the small balls of probiotics into different containers.
A couple of months after this discovery, he was making homemade ice cream with his neighbor when they started a casual conversation about ice crystals. Jones loved homemade ice cream since childhood, but he never liked the icy taste—he wished they could freeze the dessert faster. “That’s when the light bulb came on,” Jones says. “I thought, ‘I know a way to do that better. I work with liquid nitrogen.’” Jones immediately began working on this budding business.
In 1988, Jones and his wife opened their creamery in Lexington, Kentucky with zero restaurant experience under their belt, and their rookie mistakes were costly, at least at first.
“There just weren’t enough customers coming through the door,” Jones says. “We got by because we sold one of our cars and we had some money saved up.” In that same year, he began converting an old garage on his father’s property into a makeshift factory (pictured below). With the help of his sister Connie, his father and his father-in-law, the Joneses were able to make the conversion.
By 1989, undeterred, Kay and Curt closed their failed restaurant and tried their luck at county and state fairs instead. Success there brought them to Nashville, Tennessee, and Opryland USA. At first, Jones sold the product to the park in designated kiosks throughout Opryland. They were just barely breaking even. The employees at Opryland working the stands didn’t know how to answer questions about the product. “It totally failed the first few years,” Jones says. “The people that tried it liked it, but at that time Dippin’ Dots didn’t mean anything—we didn’t have the slogan yet.” (Sometime between 1989 and 1990, Jones and his sister Charlotte came up “The Ice Cream of the Future” tagline that would help raise the product’s profile.) After two years of terrible sales at Opryland, a new food service supervisor at the park gave Dippin’ Dots another shot. Jones could sell and sample Dippin Dots himself on a retail level and explain the technology to customers himself.
When sales at Opryland took off, Jones pitched the product to other amusement parks, and by 1995 Dippin’ Dots made their international market debut in Japan. In 2000, the company’s network spanned from coast-to-coast.
It’s strange to embrace the nostalgia of a product that garnered a name for itself as a thing of the “future” —ironic even. But for anyone who pleaded with their parents to buy them a bowl of Jones’ straight-from-the-lab ice cream, it’s difficult to imagine Dippin’ Dots going the way of the Trapper Keeper and hypercolor T-shirt.
June 6, 2013
Meatballs—juicy goodness of meat, onions, breadcrumbs, egg, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, soaked in red sauce over a pile of spaghetti. Nothing says comfort like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. And, nothing says Italian food like a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs—unless you are Italian.
If you go to Italy, you will not find a dish called spaghetti and meatballs. And if you do, it is probably to satisfy the palate of the American tourist. So if not Italy, where does this dish come from? Meatballs in general have multiple creation stories all across the world from köttbullars in Sweden to the various köftes in Turkey. Yes, Italy has its version of meatballs called polpettes, but they differ from their American counterpart in multiple ways. They are primarily eaten as a meal itself (plain) or in soups and made with any meat from turkey to fish. Often, they are no bigger in size than golf balls; in the region of Abruzzo, they can be no bigger in size than marbles and called polpettines.
Polpettes are more commonly found at the family table than on a restaurant menu and hold a dear place in the heart of Italian home cooking. Pellegrino Artusi was a Florentine silk merchant, who in retirement followed his passion for food, traveling and recording recipes. In 1891, he earned the unofficial title of ‘the father of Italian cuisine‘ when he published the first modern Italian cookbook titled La scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene: Manuale practico per le famiglie (The science of cooking and the art of eating well: a practical manual for families.) Artusi was the first to bring together the variety of Italy’s regional cuisines into one book and also importantly, the first to write for the home chef. Of polpettes he writes, “Non crediate che io abbia la pretensione d’insegnarvi a far le polpette. Questo è un piatto che tutti lo sanno fare cominciando dal ciuco,” which translates, “Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to teach you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everybody can make, starting with the donkey.” Needless to say, meatballs were seen as an incredibly easy dish to make, but a popular one nonetheless.
But those large meatballs, doused in marinara over spaghetti are 100 percent American. So how did spaghetti and meatballs evolve from polpettes? The answer is similar to every ethnic cuisine that traveled to this country; immigrants had to make do with the ingredients they could find and afford.
About 4 million Italians immigrated to America from 1880 to 1920. The majority (about 85 percent) came from southern Italy, where political and economic circumstances left the region extremely impoverished, so it would be the cuisines of Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi and Molise (and not Venice) that would make their mark in the United States.
These poor immigrants went from spending 75 percent of their income on food in Italy to only 25 percent of their income on food in America. With more money came more food. Just like with the Irish and corned beef, meat became a meal staple instead of a rare (if at all) luxury. The whole dynamic of food changed completely. As a result, the dynamic of the family especially the role of women changed greatly. Women went from scraping to put food on the table to striving to be the best cook in the neighborhood. It was no longer about necessity but now what Nonna cooks what best.
Though these immigrants were eating more meat than they had ever before, they were not buying filet mignon. The comforting meatballs were the perfect solution to the quality of beef available. With the boost in income, not only was more meat consumed but in much larger quantities. The immigrants indulged and meatballs transformed from golf balls to baseballs and were made with significantly more meat and less bread. Whether you can taste it are not, meatballs are traditionally made with breadcrumbs, often crumpled stale bread soaked in milk, making the meatballs moist and soft. In traditional polpettes, the bread to meat ratio is equivalent, but the stateside version of the Italian meatball is a much denser sphere.
With the meatball must come the sauce and the spaghetti. When you look at an Italian-American restaurant menu, a large portion of the dishes will most likely be in a red sauce; manicotti, stuffed shells, baked ziti, chicken parmesan, eggplant parmesan etc…. This marinara sauce originates from Naples and comes from the Italian word, marinaro, meaning sailor. John Mariani explains how the sauce was named in How Italian Food Conquered the World, “There was a simple one of garlic, oil, and tomatoes called marinara, supposedly because it was made quickly, as soon as the mariners’ wives spotted their husbands returning fishing boats in the distance.”
For home cooks in the United States, this “sailor sauce” dominated Italian-American cuisine because canned tomatoes (and spaghetti) were among the only items available in groceries.
Which leads to the final part of the holy trinity, spaghetti. Though many credit Marco Polo for introducing Italy to pasta, Italians were eating it long before. The most accepted theory is the Arab invasion of Siciliy in the 8th century. But since its beginning in Italy, pasta has been considered as more of an appetizer and not a main course or side dish. It was actually American influence that invented a new role for pasta in the dinner meal. There are two theories to how pasta vaulted to its spot as a secondo piatto. The first is that Anglo-American diners were accustomed to having a starch accompaniment to their proteins, namely potatoes. To satisfy the requests of their clientele, these early Italian restaurants married the main course meat dishes with pasta. The second theory is that spaghetti, being one of the only Italian ingredients available in the U.S., became more popular in the home to new immigrants who were adjusting to their new wealth of food.
To close, it’s instructive to look at the writings from 1950 of Sicilian restauranteur Niccoló de Quattrociocchi, as quoted in Mariani’s book:
Niccoló de Quattrociocchi reported in his memoirs that he’d dined at an Italian restaurant “where I was introduced to two very fine, traditional American specialties called ‘spaghetti with meatballs,’ and ‘cotoletta parmigiana,’” which he thought were “just for fun called Italian,” but added “as a matter of fact, I found them both extremely satisfying and I think someone in Italy should invent them for Italians over there.”
So there you go, spaghetti and meatballs may not be Italian, but it is a symbol of Italian-American cuisine and as The Lady and the Tramp may tell you, as American as Walt Disney himself:
May 30, 2013
Roughly 30 years ago, the average soda serving was just six ounces. Today the standard is 32 ounces or more. Though most fast-food restaurants offer giant-sized beverages, 7-Eleven’s 32-ounce “Big Gulp” was one of the first of its kind. These days, at any 7-Eleven, you can choose from the original Big Gulp, the 52-ounce X-Treme Gulp, the 64-ounce Double Gulp (Though it was cut to 50 ounces when consumers asked for the cup to better fit into a car’s cup holder), or the astonishing, gallon-sized jug of soda called the Team Gulp—in case you’re really thirsty.
But what’s the story behind this cup transformation?
With more than 18,200 stores in 18 countries, 7-Eleven sells an average of 33 million gallons of fountain drinks a year—enough to fill 75 Olympic-size swimming pools. The company has always been a leader as far as convenience goes: in 1964, 7-Eleven was the first store to offer freshly-brewed coffee in to-go cups. Their hours put pressure on grocery stores to remain open later and the quickly attainable goods still make “life on the go” just a bit more manageable. This commercial from 1970, for example, flashes the words “convenience” and “FAST,” reminding us to “Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven”:
But it wasn’t always the go-to, “to-go” convenience store. Back in the early ’70s, Dennis Potts, who was the merchandise manager for 7-Eleven’s 300 or so stores in Southern California at the time, says sales were mediocre at best before the introduction of the Big Gulp.
“It was a sort of a ‘we-need-to-do-something-or-get-out-of-the-business’ situation,” he says. Sometime in the spring of 1976, Coca-Cola representatives approached Potts about a new 32-ounce cup design—a pretty significant increase in liquid as the store carried only 12 and 20-ounce cups for their fountain drinks at the time. It was an oddly shaped cup—circular on the bottom like any standard plastic drinking receptacle, but square on top, similar to a milk carton. (Sadly, we were unable to track down any images of this version of the Big Gulp. If you have any, please let us know in the comments.)
“I said [to the Coca-Cola representatives], ‘This thing is this too damn big.’” Potts says.
Unsure of what to do with the two cases of cups, the Coca-Cola reps gave them to Potts and said “Do what you want you want with them.”
Potts sent the 500 or so cups to a store in Orange County with the highest sales in soft drinks. The most popular item at the time was a 16-ounce returnable bottle that went for a total of 50 cents including tax and a bottle deposit.
It was a Tuesday when they introduced the new cup size. They put up a handmade sign that read: “39 cents, No Deposit.” That following Monday, the franchise called Potts in Dallas asking for more cups. “Once we heard we sold 500 cups in a week, we got the message dog gone fast,” Potts says. “We moved as quickly as we could to get this thing out. It just took off like gangbusters.”
After the first store’s success, 7-Eleven experimented with the cup in 25 or 30 stores and then with 300 more in Los Angeles. The sales for soft drinks doubled.
In August, three months after the cup’s launch, Potts learned that the supplier of the original design, Continental Can Company based out of Colorado, was moving its facility to Canada and would not be in production for several months. In an attempt to keep the new 32-ounce endeavor rolling, Potts explored the company’s options. The milk-carton shape of the original beverage seemed to be indispensable—”We thought it was magic,” Potts says— but eventually the 7-Eleven team went with an alternative “flush-filled” cup (a cup that holds 32 ounces of liquid if filled to the very brim, excluding ice and walking room) with the Coca-Cola logo, shaped like the round container we see today.
“They sold like hotcakes,” Potts says. Back at the Dallas headquarters, the Stanford Agency, an in-house advertisement team, decided the wildly popular cups needed a 7-Eleven logo and catchy name. The Big Gulp was born. Later, the slogan would read “7-Eleven’s Big Gulp gives you another kind of freedom: freedom of choice.”
In the summer of 1980, large, refreshing beverages like the Big Gulp and the frozen, slushy drink, the Slurpee increased in popularity. The opening line of this commercial from that same year is the perfect example of 7-Eleven’s promise of convenience and relief from the heat:
During 7-Eleven’s early years, only the West coast stores were set up with fountain drink dispensers, and with the Big Gulp’s popularity, the company made some changes. By 1979, every 7-Eleven was equipped with fountain soft drink machines.
In 1981, one of Potts’s employees proposed a new design—a 46-ounce cup tentatively called “The Super Big Gulp.” Potts gave it a shot and sent it to a division in Texas where the summers are hot and the customers are thirsty. History repeated itself when Potts got a call from a store manager in Texas: “We’re out of the damn cups,” he said. Soft drink sales doubled again—fountain soda profit was now four times higher than before the Big Gulp hit the scene.
Before 1983, all 7-Eleven fountain drinks were available only by counter service. When the Big Gulp and Super Big Gulp gained popularity, the amount of labor and time it took to fill up a cup that size increased (it took roughly 20-30 seconds to fill the cup, not including volume of ice and time for capping and handoff to the customer). “We had always sold coffee on a self service basis—early on we discovered customers like to put sugar and cream in to make it exactly the way they like it,” Potts says. “We thought ‘Why can’t we do it with fountain drinks?’”
In a few test stores, they turned around the dispensing station and let the customers help themselves.”It was sort of a rude crude, Jerry-rigged operation,” he says, “But sales rocketed and we didn’t have those labor costs.” 7-Eleven was the first retailer in America to install self serve beverage stations—a distinction from its competitors that this commercial from 1987 highlights perfectly:
By 1984, all 7-Eleven stores were outfitted with a self-serve beverage bar. That same year the chain launched the 64-ounce Double Gulp in a milk carton cup like the original Big Gulp design—what Ellen DeGeneres calls “six weeks in the desert.”
Mr. Potts, whose last position before retiring was vice president of merchandising, is not surprised that the soda cups keep getting bigger. “We should’ve known better. Some of our best selling beverages before the Big Gulp were our largest ones,” he says. “The customers were already asking for more volume—they always seem to be.”
But not everyone’s as thirsty as the Big Gulp compensates for. About a year ago when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on sugary drinks exceeding 16 ounces in the city’s boundaries, people got to talking. “It’s just pop with low-cal ice cubes in it!” Sarah Palin joked at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. Hip-hop songs were written in response to his plan. In March this year, a Manhattan judge ruled that measures to restrict soda servings to a maximum of 16 ounces in restaurants and other venues, were “arbitrary and capricious,” and he was barring the plan “permanently,” the AFP reports.
Good news for 7-Eleven if they’d like to someday offer something larger than the gallon-sized Team Gulp—more than 200 percent more than what the average adult stomach can hold at one time.
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.