Making the World Safe for "Two-Buck Chuck"


The Los Angeles Times today has an obituary for Robert Berning, an unsung but important figure in the recent history of California wine.  Formerly the principal wine buyer for the Trader Joe's markets, Berning was the man who spearheaded that company's long-running effort to sell good quality wine, particularly California wine, at the lowest possible price. 

Much of the material in the piece comes from an interview with "Trader Joe" himself, founder Joe Coulombe.  In large part, it is a rousing story of clever free-marketeers working their way over, under, around, and through outmoded protectionist pricing statutes -- so-called "fair trade" laws -- with the beneficial side effect of publicizing the quality of California "boutique" wineries at a time (the 1970s) when most of the world thought that "California Wine" meant little more than Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

Coulombe said 1970 marked the beginning of Trader Joe's 'aggressive wine merchandising' -- offering wines at lower prices than had been common in the trade.

'Basically,' he said, 'this state had fair trade on alcoholic beverages, so it was against the law to break price on Gallo or any other branded wine, and under Bob's leadership, we learned to get around fair trade.'

As head wine buyer, Berning built Trader Joe's private label wine program, in which various wines from around the world were sold under Trader Joe's own labels, for which it could set lower prices.

'It was a huge success,' said Coulombe, adding with a chuckle that 'it caused our competitors a lot of distress.  They tried to stop us, but we fought our way through the battles until 1978 when fair trade was thrown out. . . .  After that, we and anybody else could price wine any way they wanted to.'

But after eight years of offering wine under their Trader Joe's Winery label, he said, 'we had a head start.'

A grateful wine bibbing public salutes them.  Hic!

[Via LA Observed.]


Of related interest:

In an e-mail last week, Rick kindly passed along a link to a consumer friendly Trader Joe's-related item from the San Francisco Chronicle:

And previously on a fool in the forest:

Photo: "Chuck Wine" by Flickr user Refracted Moments™, used under Creative Commons license.

They've Got an Uninfringeable Urgh!
(Devo Makes Plans for "New Wave Nigel")

In April, during the most recent season of American Idol, McDonald's restaurants offered a series of product tie-in "Happy Meals" containing small toy figures representing various popular musical genres.  USA Today provided this description at the time:

None of the toys is patterned directly after a specific Idol, yet a couple of the names are oddly suggestive.  You'll pick 'em out -- the genre-specific lineup of toy characters comprises Disco Dave, Rockin' Riley, Lil' Hip Hop (surprised there isn't already a rapper by that name), Hippie Harmony, Country Clay, Soulful Selma, Punky Pete and New Wave Nigel.

Here are three of the figures -- Nigel, Selma and Pete -- courtesy of Flickr! user DaylandS:


Notice anything, hmmm, familiar about young Nigel? 

It is difficult to miss that his jumpsuit and his ziggurat-emulating head gear -- indeed, even his choice of fashionable eyewear -- resemble nothing so much as the ensembles commonly sported by the members of Akron, Ohio's gift to American music, Devo, two of whom are seen here courtesy of Flickr! user zioWoody:


Now, as you might suppose, those trademark Devo Energy Dome hats are, well, trademarked.  And copyrighted. 

And what do we do when we want to use someone else's trademarked and copyrighted work in a large scale product promotion? 

We ask and obtain permission, don't we?  We certainly do. 

Unless we are McDonald's. 

In which case, we can expect to find, as McDonald's has done, that the be-domed and bespectacled holders of the intellectual property rights in question will make a speedy transition from jumpsuits to lawsuits:

Devo bassist Gerald Casale -- who designed the trademarked energy dome headgear-- is quoted as saying, 'This New Wave Nigel doll that they've created is just a complete Devo rip-off and the red hat is exactly the red hat that I designed, and it's copyrighted and trademarked.  We're in the midst of suing them . . . they didn't ask us anything.  Plus, we don't like McDonald's, and we don't like "American Idol", so we're doubly offended.'

None of the available reports sees fit to give more details of the litigation, such as identifying the court in which it has been filed, so I am unable to give you further details on the allegations or procedural status of the case.  Since making the statement quoted above, however, it seems that Gerry Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh and company have been directed by the Court to withhold comment until the case reaches its conclusion.

In the meantime, if you want a "New Wave Nigel" to call your own, there are still a handful of the figures available on eBay -- although in light of the latest $61M judgment Louis Vuitton obtained against eBay for serving as a conduit for counterfeit goods, who knows how long that will last?  (Of course, these aren't counterfeit fake Devo figures, they're real fake Devo figures.  So the cases are clearly distinguishable, are they not?  Discuss.)

Perhaps inspired by this litigation, Mark Mothersbaugh has created a limited edition image entitled "Devo and the Docket."  Only six signed and numbered originals exist.  Slightly more numerous but still limited (edition size < 100) is the genuine "Devo and the Docket" t-shirt.  It's what all the most nouvelle vague IP lawyers will be sporting this summer.


For further study:

  • So far as I can determine, Soulful Selma's geodesic hairstyle has not yet triggered an infringement action by the R. Buckminster Fuller estate.

Rattus Cordonbleuvicus


At least since the Reese's Pieces in E.T., we have gotten used to the notion that when food or drink products turn up in a Major Motion Picture, it is almost certainly in the name of product placement.  One of the many satisfactions to be had from Pixar's Ratatouille, which the family caught up with over the past weekend, is the fact that the only branded comestible in the entire film is a (shamefully abused) bottle of 1961 Château Latour (100 pts, pace Robert Parker and others).

Might Ratatouille be The Best Food Movie Ever Made?  Indeed it might, among many other things.  It is certainly the most "adult" film Pixar has yet produced, touching on themes such as art, beauty, love, loss, mortality, memory, and the need to keep guns and poisons out of the hands of astigmatic French peasant ladies.  It is also full of sterling bits of physical comedy and silent expressiveness worthy of Chaplin or Keaton, and boasts a collection of Parisian colors, textures and sounds so appealing that the French government should be pinning medals on all concerned.

The non-childishness of the film may account for its (actual or perceived) box office shortfalls compared to other Pixar pictures.  The business aspects of Ratatouille -- and what they say about the rough patches in the supposedly idyllic marriage of Pixar into Disney -- are being covered in depth by animation/Disney specialist Jim Hill, in stories such as this one and this one

That last Jim Hill item is worth a scroll for the sake of the lovely photograph of Peter O'Toole, at work recording his role as the fearsome -- but ultimately surprisingly Proustian -- food critic, Anton Ego.  Which serves to remind that in Ratatouille, as is usual with Pixar, voice casting contributes immeasurably to the film's success.  O'Toole is unsurprisingly wonderful, but Patton Oswalt's turn as Remy, the Rat Who Would Be Chef, provides the spine from which all else depends. 

Fans of Mr. Oswalt, including those such as myself who encounter him for the first time in Ratatouille, should hasten to pay a visit to Daytrotter.  The online artistic pride of Rock Island, Illinois, recently launched a spoken word venture, "the Bookery," to complement its ever-growing cache of live music recordings, and has this week posted a 7 minute MP3 of Patton Oswalt reading "The Chaser" by John Collier -- a story I first encountered long decades ago in a 6th or 7th grade English class, when I was far too young and unsophisticated to appreciate its witty macabrerie.


Any number of well-respected chefs have remarked on the high accuracy of Ratatouille's portrait of life in a professional kitchen.  I, however, spotted one important gap in all that verisimilitude: the absence of cigarettes. 

As anyone knows who has watched the contestants on Gordon Ramsey's Hell's Kitchen, or who has spent time in the vicinity of a culinary school, chefs and aspiring chefs as a class tend to smoke like coal-fired power plants in Ohio -- and, mind you, the chefs in Ratatouille are French! -- yet there's not a Gauloise or Gitane to be seen.  Incroyable!

The explanation is obvious: Pixar, with typical foresight, anticipated this week's decision by Disney to ban depictions of smoking in its films.  And further research discloses that in any case, zut alors!, even in France the Gauloise is extinctPoof!

These Spuds for View


Consider if you will the humble potato, that progenitor of a plethora of chips, crisps, mashes, purees, gratins, and bakers, and consider in particular the fondness with which these earthy starch factories are regarded in the arts.

The Guardian, writing on a showing of work by Argentine artist Victor Grippo, begins by wandering far and wide in an overview of the potato's proper artistic place:

In a brief 1996 memoir on his artistic development, the German painter Sigmar Polke wrote what amounts to a love letter to the potato.  His description of the sprouting tuber is almost worthy of Albrecht Dürer.  Polke talked of going to his cellar one day, and finding there 'the very incarnation of everything art critics and teachers imagine when they think of a spontaneously creative subject with a love of innovation: the potato!'  He went on to ask: 'Why doesn't the public turn its attention to the potato, where ultimate fulfillment awaits?'  Why indeed.  Certain of Polke's images are hymns to the potato.  In 1967 he built a Kartoffelhaus, or Potato House, based on the scientific principal of Faraday's Cage.

Among Polke's pomme de terre-ific pieces are the above-mentioned Potato House (Kartoffelhaus - 1967), the Duchampian Apparat, mit dem eine Kartoffel eine andere umkreisen kann (Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another), 1969 [which can be seen in action at that link in a brief, poor quality video], and even a joint potato-portrait of Krushchev and Nixon.

Later in the Guardian piece we learn of "pre-Hispanic Andean cultures' practice of rehearsing open brain surgery on potatoes," leading to the observation that

The human brain and a potato can be about the same shape and size, and both are mostly water.

Examples of Victor Grippo's potatoworks include Analogia I, which the Guardian reports to have upset the "burghers of Birmingham" who, when it was displayed in their city, "complained of Lottery money being spent on it and anyway, why didn't Grippo give his potatoes to the starving?"  Analogia IV involves fewer potatoes than its predecessor, combining real ones with a matching set of antimatter plexiglass doppelgangers.  This page (in Spanish) shows another view of Analogia IV, as well as the use of potatoes as an electrical power source, and expands the consideration of Grippo to his use of beans.  Another electrical potato, 1972's Energy of a Potato (or Untitled or Energy) [Energía de una papa (o Sin título o Energía)], is in the collections of London's Tate Modern.

Potatoes also come up in an interview published this week in the Raleigh-Durham Independent Weekly with musician/composer/artist and founder of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh, who concludes a discussion of the term "spud" with this summa of potatoes' virtues:

They're rough and they grew underground, but they had eyes all around so they saw everything that was going on.

Mothersbaugh's recent art work -- some of it directly Devo-related, some of it less so, none of it actually involving potatoes -- is surveyed at -- ::-- the visual art of mark mothersbaugh --::.


[Guardian potato link via 3quarksdaily; Mothersbaugh interview link via Hit & Run.  Photo: "Potato Heart" by micro (Mikael Cronhamn, Malmoe, Sweden) via stock.xchng.]

Tiki'd to Ride,
or, "Look on My Works, ye Mai Tai . . ."

In the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room , , , ,

Earlier this year, I noted the sad news concerning the impending closure of the Trader Vic's restaurant in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.  The redevelopment process moves on, with the slow but steady pace typical of Los Angeles-area projects.  A discussion thread in the forums at Tiki Central is following the story.

Via Arts & Letters Daily comes a link to a fine overview article by Wayne Curtis in the current American Heritage magazine on the wonderful world of all things Tiki.  In particular, the article covers the fons et origo of Tiki culture in the twinned figures of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, aka Donn Beach, aka "Don the Beachcomber," and Victor Bergeron, aka "Trader Vic."  Here is an excerpt covering Donn Beach's happy postwar ensconcement in Waikiki:

His restaurant became an instant landmark, more Hawaiian than most of Hawaii itself.  Beach amplified the faux-tropical theme with palms and thatch and a sweeping shingled roof, part space age, part ceremonial Polynesian meetinghouse.  The popular arranger and composer Martin Denny played at the restaurant’s Bora-Bora lounge for nine months straight.  Beach was often at the bar, a genial host wearing a gardenia lei that, he was quick to reveal, was for sale in the restaurant’s gift alcove.  A myna bird presided over the premises, trained to blurt out, “Give me a beer, stupid!”  In the boozy intimacy of late evenings, a gentle rain would often begin to patter on the corrugated metal roof over the bar — thanks to a garden hose Beach had installed.  (Always the businessman, he had observed that late-night drinkers tended to linger for another round if they thought it was raining outside.)

Why all that Caribbean rum in supposed "South Seas" drinks?  The practicality of Donn Beach supplies the answer:

He approached his drink menu the same way he approached his décor: with an eye toward frugality. Rum was the least expensive of the spirits, and Gantt had sampled a variety in his travels.

Just who invented the Mai Tai -- Beach or Bergeron -- remains a matter of dispute.  (Quoth Trader Vic:  “I originated the mai tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”)  A good recipe for same is included with the article.  Read it all to appreciate yet again the glory that was Vic and the splendor that was Don.

And now, Music  . . . . 

This is not a Tiki song, or even remotely Polynesian, but it is a bit of permanent no-smudge sunshine that fits here as well as it will anywhere else.   

Craig Bonnell of the songs:illinois weblog maintains that the semi-Swedish band Herman Dune has produced "the best song of the year" with "I Wish That I Could See You Soon" from their upcoming album, Giant.   I don't know that I will go that far, but they have certainly produced a confection that deserves a place in the permanent pop pantheon.   The tune has all the charm, and I would hope it will earn the permanence, of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."  I t seems totally dispensable at first, but if you are hearing it on the radio (where it surely belongs) in forty years, it will still make you smile for hours afterward.   

Here is the video version, seemingly set in an alterate-world Sesame Street.   You can't argue with the angels, now can you?

[Tiki photo by booshe (Brett Mathews), via stock.xchng.]

You've Gotta Fight!
for Your Right!
to Pââââté!!

The dubious Chicago Foie Gras ban takes effect next Tuesday, August 22, and the toddlin' town is toddlin' to its high-priced restaurants for a final taste of the soon-to-be-forbidden avian organs.  Illinois restaurateurs are responding to the ban in the traditional American fashion, by filing suit to overturn it:

Aboriginal_goose 'The argument is that this [ban] violates interstate commerce and the city is usurping the federal government's power by banning a product that's federally approved for shipment across state lines,' said a source familiar with the lawsuit.

Chef Allen Sternweiler of Allen's New American Cafe will be a named plaintiff.  While other Chicago chefs were hesitant about signing onto the legal battle against the city, Sternweiler said, 'If the city wants to send a health inspector to my restaurant every other day for the next five years, let them do it. I have nothing to hide.'

'What's at stake is the ability of adults to order legal products, the production of which has been overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, when they choose to dine out in Chicago,' said Chris Robling, a spokesman for the Artisan Farmers Association.

Of related interest:

  • Michael Krauss at points to the on again/off again love affair between the arch-nutitionists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and trans fat-laden vegetable oils.
  • California will implement a ban in 2012 on the production, but not on the sale, of foie gras.  I wrote about the California legislation in the long-ago days of the 2004 presidential election campaign, and noted one candidate's fondness for the controversial foodstuff.

[Illustration -- Bark Drawing: Palmated Goose, (Kakadu Tribe), showing internal anatomy, from Baldwin Spencer's Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (1914), "Chapter XIV: Decorative Art," via the Internet Sacred Text Archive.]

Beyond Gouda and Evian

Nietzsche by Munch - excuse the pun

To the devout, the notion of anything but cereal for breakfast produces anxiety and dread, but with the death of God anything is permitted, and profiteroles and clams may be eaten at will, and even buffalo wings.

In the New Yorker, Woody Allen reveals the diet secrets of Friedrich Nietzsche: "Thus Ate Zarathustra."

[Via Cosmopoetica .  Pretty good late-period Woody but, darn it, his New Yorker pieces used to be reallly funny.]

But Where Will the Werewolves Go For Pina Coladas?

Both LA Observed and LAist are reporting that the current owners of the Beverly Hilton hotel are making plans to remodel and expand the property to incorporate three high-priced high-rise condo towers.  One victim of the project: the Beverly Hills outpost of that fons et origo of Tiki culture, Trader Vic's.  LA Observed's Kevin Roderick writes:

The existing hotel, recently remodeled, would remain.  The Beverly Hilton's 1950s modern styling, with lanais on the rooms overlooking the pool, has its fans. The hotel was for a time the L.A. flagship of the Hilton chain and served as the Western White House for President John Kennedy.  But Trader Vic's— that place would be missed by lots of people.

The Beverly Hills restaurant is not the original: that would be up north in Oakland, as the official history would have it:

Trader_vics In 1932, with a nest egg of $700 and carpentry help from his wife's brothers - plus his mother's pot-bellied stove and oven - the ebullient Victor [Bergeron] built a cozy pub across the street from the store and called it Hinky Dink's.  His pungent vocabulary and ribald air made him a popular host, as did his potent tropical cocktail concoctions and delicious Americanized adaptations of Polynesian food.

Soon one of the most popular watering holes in Northern California's Bay Area, the place attracted sophisticated urbanites like writers Herb Caen and Lucius Beebe.  By 1936, when Caen wittily wrote that the 'best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland,' Vic had become 'The Trader' and Hinky Dink's had become 'Trader Vic's,' complete with a showpiece Chinese oven.  Its South Pacific theme 'intrigues everyone.  You think of beaches and moonlight and pretty girls.  It is complete escape,' Vic said at the time.  Among Trader Vic's more tantalizing legacies is the original Mai Tai, the bracingly refreshing rum cocktail he created at the restaurant in 1944 and introduced to the Hawaiian islands in the 1950s.  Tahitian for 'the very best,' Mai Tai became the slogan for his entire operation.

I have been unable to find any online confirmation of my favorite Trader Vic's detail: in the mid-1970's founder Vic Bergeron was caught up in the "Pyramid Power" craze then sweeping the nation.   Convinced of their efficacy in improving the aging of wines, he had pyramids installed in the wine cellars of many of the restaurants.  It is uncertain whether a belief in such stuff can be traced to one (or more) too many of those famous Mai-Tais.

And yes, I realize that the werewolves, and their bespoke tailors, are most likely still hanging out at this branch.

Still Thankful After All These Years c/w The Turkey Pardoner's Tale

Thomas Nast - Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving - 1869

Last year for Thanksgiving, I posted (with lyrics) the original 1970 Christmas-single* recording of Fairport Convention's "Now Be Thankful."  Here's another:

This is a reworking by the current version of the band for their 2002 collection XXXV.  (The album title refers to the band's then-thirty-five year history.)  This new turn is a bit more overstuffed, a bit more self-consciously stately than the 1970 rendition, but it is still a lovely, lovely song.  I am curious to know which of the cowriters (Dave Swarbrick or Richard Thompson) was principally responsible for the lyric, especially in the chorus, which achieves a deceptive simplicity reminiscent of Blake.

[Illustration, from Harper's Weekly, November 20, 1869, via the Thomas Nast Portfolio, at Ohio State University.]


Turkey Pardon 2005 - the President with 'Marshmallow'

With the song last year, I also posted a photo from the annual Turkey Pardon at the White House.  Here is a snap from this year's ceremony.  (White House Photo by David Bohrer; others available here.  Photos of various prior Presidents, going back to Harry S. Truman, with our National Bird may be examined here.)

In the past, the pardoned foul have left the White House to take up residence at a Virginia animal farm named -- to the turkeys' dismay, I'm sure -- Frying Pan Park.  This year, however, the turkeys will instead be winging their way to southern California, where they will take up residence at Disneyland.  The zealots at PETA are claiming responsibility for the change of plans; Disney spokespersons give a somewhat differing version.  The Los Angeles Times reports:

With a contentious Congress in recess, some might speculate that the turkeys are benefiting from the benevolence of a capital in seasonal good cheer.  But the travel plans may have more to do with a letter-writing campaign sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals, along with some reports in the media, decrying the fate that befell the pardoned birds in the past.  'We sent a letter to President Bush early last week, as we have for the last five years in a row, asking him to send the birds to a better environment than Frying Pan Park, where they shiver in a 10-by-10 shed with no mental or physical stimulation and tend to die within six months,' said Bruce Friedrich, director of vegan campaigns for PETA.  'Really, the pardon for the last 15 years has been more like a death sentence.'

The park, an animal sanctuary in Herndon, Va., that re-creates a 1930s farm for visiting schoolchildren, denies that it has mistreated the turkeys, which it considers honored guests.

'The claims of poor or inhumane treatment were a little painful for our staff, because they take pride in the care of the animals,' said spokeswoman Judy Pedersen.  'Many of these turkeys are bred for the table.  They don't tend to have a long retirement.'

For its part, Disney said that it scored the presidential turkey with a request to the National Turkey Federation, a Washington-based advocacy group that has provided a Thanksgiving bird to the commander-in-chief since 1947.

But this being Washington, conspiracy theories have popped up about the real motive behind the destination change.  With the White House referring all questions to the federation and the federation not returning calls, PETA is sure the president wants to fend off any more negative publicity.  'He's dodging Turkeygate,' Friedrich said.

The President's remarks on the occasion of the 2005 Turkey Pardon (full text available here) included this:

I'm going to grant a pardon this afternoon, and the pardon I grant comes with a new measure of responsibility and fame for [the turkeys named] Marshmallow and Yam. In the past years, the turkeys I spared went on to lead lives of leisure at Frying Pan Park in the state of Virginia.  This year is going to be a little different.  Marshmallow and Yam were a little skeptical about going to a place called 'Frying Pan Park.'  I don't blame them.  So I'm proud to announce that Marshmallow and Yam will serve as honorary grand marshals at Disneyland's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  And they'll go on to spend the rest of their natural lives at Disneyland.

Discuss: to what extent are there any "natural lives" at Disneyland?

Also apropos of the turkeys' visit: a turkey recipe from the excellent Napa Rose restaurant at the Disneyland resort.


*  The "Christmas single" phenomenon -- the breathless wonder with which the public awaits the revelation of which performer tops the UK charts on Christmas Day -- has no U.S. equivalent.  In 2003, it provided the background for what was arguably the most amusing of the innumerable subplots in the film Love Actually, with Bill Nighy as wizened rocker Billy Mack making it to the top by promising to perform his tune "Christmas is All Around" in the nude.

  • So central to the essence of UK-ness is this ritual that the British Council has prepared a classroom curriculum on the subject. 
  • Making it to Number One is not without a price, however, as the Guardian reported in its 2004 exposé of "The curse of the Christmas single."  (Pity if you will poor Bing Crosby, who succumbed to the dual curses of a Christmas #1 and a duet with David Bowie.  And may the sorry tale of The Singing Nun be a lesson to us all.)

"Now Be Thankful" was released as a Christmas single in 1970.  It is notable as the final Fairport Convention recording with Richard Thompson before he left the band for his well-respected solo career.  It is also notable for its B-Side, a medley of mostly traditional tunes to which was attached the band's bid to achieve the ranks of Longest Song Title in the Guinness Book of World Records:

"Sir B. McKenzie's Daughter's Lament for the 77th Mounted Lancer's Retreat from the Straits of Loch Knombe, in the Year of Our Lord 1727, on the Occasion of the Announcement of Her Marriage to the Laird of Kinleakie"

Details?  They're right here.

And a most Happy Thanksgiving to you all!