I’m sure this next statement will cause me to lose any respect I may have gained from actual foodies along the way, but here goes: ‘gourmet comfort food’ is a stupid concept. I was raised on comfort food, and I’ve since learned to appreciate the nuances of fine dining.
But part of what I love about what’s called comfort food is the fact that it’s NOT a culinary adventure—I want it to comfort me, not make me wonder what it is. I want it to evoke memories, not provoke discussions. For me, ‘gourmet comfort food’ is as oxymoronic as ‘Congressional efficiency,’ or ‘rowdy James Taylor fans.’
Let’s look at the doughnut (if you have a doughnut handy, go ahead and grab it while you read the rest of this). First off, it’s round. There’s the circle of life, right there. Some doughnuts have holes in the middle, just like some lives. Some are filled with sweetness, again, just like some lives.
Not that I’m much of a flag-waver, but the doughnut is also Americana to me. Yeah, Europe has its pastries, some of them deep-fried (I’d hate to get angry letters from Dutch people because I neglected their olykoeken, but c’mon—it literally means ‘oily cakes.) But the first reference to the word ‘doughnut’ is in an essay by the American, Washington Irving, so there.
Americans are nothing if not blunt, so it fits that we don’t pussyfoot around the fact that a ‘doughnut’ is mostly, well, dough. Yes, I know that the French word ‘beignet’ essentially means ‘fried dough,’ and that the Italian ‘zeppole’ is from an Arabic word for (you guessed it) ‘fried dough,’ but these cultures have other food traditions which made them famous. America was built on fried dough.
When I read about a doughnut shop, I don’t want to see the words ‘reinvent,’ ‘conceptualize, or ‘deconstruct.’ Likewise, ‘flavor profile.’ I want to see words like ‘hot,’ ‘fresh,’ and ‘filled.’ Maybe the phrase ‘free refills.’
Check out the names of the classic doughnut chains—‘Dunkin Donuts’ … ‘Krispy Kreme’… ‘Southern Maid’… these names say “We’re simple, we’re proud, and we don’t care much about spelling.” I think the last one also says “We want to be identified with our slave-owning ancestors,” because otherwise why not call it ‘Southern MADE?” Not the point, I suppose.
The most profound food memory I have is of a doughnut shop (one ‘p,’ no ‘e’) in a part of L.A. called Westwood, a couple blocks from my almost mater, U.C.L.A. Stan’s Doughnuts opened in 1965, and between 1978 and 1982, I’m sure I ate several hundred of Stan’s signature Peanut Butter Pockets. Sometimes I’d go crazy and have the Peanut Butter Pocket with Banana (this was college, after all).
When I decided to write about Stan’s, I wanted people to see the joint, so I called the number I found online, hoping to ask Stan for permission to use a couple of the pictures on his website. At this point, I didn’t even know if there was a real Stan.
I hoped so. There is something comforting (that word again!) about a business whose name consists entirely of the owner’s name and what he sells. There's accountability. These are Stan’s Doughnuts. "Who's responsible for these doughnuts?" "Oh, that's Stan--lemme get him." If I could find this mythical “Stan,’ I would know that a real person stood behind a real product, and you don’t see that often these days.
I would always rather take my car to Jim’s Auto Repair than someplace called ‘Autopia,’ and I’d trust the calamari at a place called Giuseppi’s Seafood over, say, an Olive Garden. If you’re willing to put your name on the damned sign, I’m willing to do business with you.
Not only is Stan real, he’s at the shop when I call. After a perfunctory introduction (“humor writer …writing a piece about your place…it’ll be affectionate…blah blah blah”), he tells me I can use the pictures (“A hundred percent—no problem.”)
Then he said one of those phrases you can only get away with if you’ve really lived—“It’s a round world.” He sounded like he had East Coast roots (Philly, it turns out), and I can’t imagine anyone being more accomodating of an unknown, aspiring writer calling out of the blue.
He was so accomodating I decided to push my luck, and I asked him if I could call him back with a few questions. I didn’t take any journalism classes at U.C.L.A., but I wanted to get to know this third-generation baker a little better, so we set up a phone interview.
I called on the day before he turned eighty-two, as it turned out, but as soon as we started recording, I knew he had at least ten times as many great stories as he’d had birthdays.
You need to know that Stan opened “Stan’s” in a part of L.A that combined college students and movie glitz (studios have for years premiered important films at the theaters in Westwood Village).
It was also a time when psychedelia was just starting to seep into pop culture, and pop culture was getting a lot less ‘white bread’—1965 gave us hits by the Mindbenders and the Strangeloves, but it also gave us James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good.)” There was a lot of heady stuff going on, and a man less sure of his vision might have given in to the temptation to be trendy, but not Stan Berman. He opened a doughnut shop.
The complete interview is on my website at meatloafmuffins.com, but here are some highlights:
I asked him how he got started in the doughnut game (I sounded like a real journalist--from the nineteen forties), and he told the story of approaching the owner of a well-known grocery store in L.A. (Gelsen's) about putting his doughnuts in there...Gelsen's, of course, now has a bakery, but they don't have a Stan's--
"We approached Bernie Gelsen, and (he) said he couldn't give us three parking spaces to build the doughnut shop, because those three parking spaces would produce so much income..."
He was born in 1929 in Philadelphia; his father and grandfather both were bakers, but Stan also studied accounting. He was drafted into the Marine Corps in '51, and
"Believe it or not...I wound up being a baker in the Marine Corps, which never really happened--usually a baker became a machine-gunner, or whatever else...
I wanted to know the strangest request he'd ever gotten from a regular customer, and here's where Stan was way ahead of the curve...
"Now this was forty-some years ago, this happened. Somebody came in, and said they loved peanut butter, and (asked) if I could make a doughnut with peanut butter. And so I said, "I never heard of such a thing." So she went to the market and bought me a jar of peanut butter.
And we played around with it, first, like a jelly doughnut (which he explained meant frying it, THEN filling it), and it just didn't have it. So I decided to try and seal that--make a pocket, put the peanut butter in, and (then) fry it."
This 'weird' idea became Stan's most famous creation, which he has for years called a Reese's Peanut Butter Pocket. Here was my chance to earn my reporter's stripes--my Woodward-Bernstein moment. Playing it a little coyly, I said I was "a little confused about the Reese's thing--you're not CONNECTED to the company that makes Reese's, are you?
"Are you kidding? That's the reason I did that! I was hoping some day they would come here, and tell me they're suing me, and that I should stop using their name--and they never did!"
Stan also revealed that, for a while, he called his creation Al's Peanut Butter Pocket. Told a great story about Al, who would park his limo in front of the place, sit at the counter, eat half a dozen, and take half a dozen to go. Three days later he'd do the same thing...
"He was a New York character, and through this doughnut we became friends. . Eventually I found out who it was, and after about a year, I decided to change the name to 'Al's.' The guy's name was Al Goldstein. He had his headquarters in New York, but he came here to see all the porno people.
Not surprisingly, I didn't have a followup question ready, not really expecting to find out that Stan was friends with the publisher of 'Screw' magazine. Then I got it--I understood the uniting power of fried dough! It didn't matter if you were a preppie or a pornographer, Stan didn't judge. His little piece of L.A. real estate was a judgement-free zone--if you like doughnuts, you're welcome here.
'The Reese's thing' wasn't Stan's only brush with...trademark issues. The building he took over in '65 had been an 'Orange Julius,' but though he had the five grand for the building, he didn't have the twenty-five grand to renew the franchise. Undaunted (and I can't imagine Stan ever being 'daunted'), he simply changed it to an 'Orange Jubilee'...
"I had a food chemist friend from Glendale (who doesn't?), an we took the Orange Julius powder, and we reproduced it. We put a hat on the little figurine they use, and we dressed him up a little, and I think instead of a sword, we made it, like, a broom, or whatever...
We're getting ready to open, that day, and these two giants walk through my doors, they just can fit and they're like seven-foot doors...they're wearing beautiful suits, dressed to kill, and they say, "You're infringing on Orange Julius, and we're here to tell you to close. Period."
Who knew there was this much intrigue and subterfuge in the pastry industry? Naturally, Stan's came through it fine...apparently his neighbor two doors down was a lawyer who happened to have become president of International Industries, which happened to own Orange Julius. The two 'giants' came back the next day and said that Stan could stay open. Now that's American ingenuity in business!
Being in an area with several first-run movie theaters, Stan has seen plenty of celebs, and the beauty part--he doesn't come across overly star-struck, but he's not jaded either. In fact, he told me a sweet story about Gilda Radner...
"She was a junk-food eater--you don't know this...and she would come in with her husband, a guy named Gene Wilder (!)...they came in about five or ten days before she passed...and I would give her a doughnut, and Gene would just...sit against the wall, drink a cup of coffee, and watch her."
I wanted to know if he ever had an idea for a doughnut that flopped. He thought for only a second or two and then declared,
"Yeah. I tried something with kiwi. I tried kiwi. It never worked. Never, never worked."
I decided not to push the issue, in case 'the kiwi mistake' was still a sore subject. Instead, I went a little deeper and asked him what it was like in the late sixties, given that his location was adjacent to a major university as protests were beginning to explode--his answer has a special kind of wisdom to it, and I think, not a small amount of sadness:
"It was amazing. The turmoil was here, and except for a few happenings, most of it was really before the advent of the gun. Everything happened when these kids discovered the gun, in the eighties.
But in the sixties, seventies--they didn't know about a gun. And so, whenever there was a problem, there was a fistfight, somebody got hit with a stick...but no guns. You didn't hear of a shooting at a riot.
Early in the interview, I asked him if he was happy he didn't become an accountant. He said, "Life has been a bowl of cherries, kiddo," and though I'm a comic by trade, and predisposed to mock, I bought every word. Even 'kiddo.' Because I think Stan is the real deal.
I'm not the first to rave about Stan--he's been on top ten lists in magazines from Bon Appetit to Maxim. Stan told me that some writer is gonna start a book on his life later this year, and I'll be first in line for a copy.
Because you're right, Stan. It is a round world, but if you do it right, it can be filled with peanut butter and fresh banana, and topped with banana frosting and chocolate chips. A little deep fried wisdom. But the most important thing I learned from Stan? Kiwi doughnuts are a bad idea.