Topophilia Au Jus

When the Governor of Las Californias, Felipe de Neve, was assigned to establish secular settlements in what is now the state of California (after a decade of missionary work begun in 1771 by Spanish Franciscan friar Junípero Serra who directed the building of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to colonize the area and convert the natives to Christianity), he found new and willing colonists in Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico.  On September 4, 1781, a total of forty-four settlers and four soldiers known as "Los Pobladores" founded the pueblo they called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels” translated from the Spanish.  According to the 1781 census, the 22 adult pobladores consisted of 1 Peninsular (Spaniard born in Spain), 1 Criollo (Spaniard born in New Spain), 1 Mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian), 2 Negros (Blacks of full African ancestry), 8 Mulattos (mixed Spanish and Black), and 9 Indios (Native Americans).  Today, the ethnically and culturally diverse region boasts of 11 million residents speaking more than 200 different languages spread over thousands of square miles.  People use the name "Los Angeles" to refer to both the city and the county, which is, in fact, comprised of 88 separate cities.  Greater Los Angeles is the largest metropolitan region in the United States, and no one seems to know what Los Angeles is, exactly.  In 1925, Aldous Huxley described it as “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis,” while William Faulkner, screenwriting in the middle of the last century, called it the “plastic asshole of the world.”  That’s a bit harsh, yes?  I hail from one of its suburbs 10 miles northeast of the original Spanish pueblo.

To give you some idea of the colossal scale we’re talking about here:  the city of Boston fits entirely inside the Echo Park/Silverlake/Los Feliz neighborhood (known as the Hipster Triangle, or, due to its large gay population and mountainous terrain — The Swish Alps), the city of St. Louis is swallowed whole by just the west end of the San Fernando Valley, and the island of Manhattan is a mere fraction of Los Angeles City Council District 15.  I tend to think of Los Angeles as a a bunch of cities haphazardly stapled together bisected by a mountain range, with arteries called freeways carrying its teaming life to and fro.  

The earliest known photograph of Los Angeles, dating from the mid-19th century, circa 1860 (above), shows its humble beginnings in the period immediately after California was ceded to the United States following the Mexican-American War in 1848.  Facing southeast from Fort Moore Hill toward La Plaza in the center of the photo (which is now downtown), behind the Alameda (public walkway or promenade), you can see a massive sycamore tree dating back to the 15th century known as El Aliso — a sacred gathering spot for Los Angeles' indigenous Tongva people, who, in the precolonial era, lived in as many as 100 villages throughout the region and were primarily identified by their village name rather than by a pan-tribal name; they developed an extensive trade network and a vibrant culture based on a worldview that positioned humans not at the apex of nature but as one strand in a "web of life.”  Their tribal leaders would travel from villages across what we now call Greater Los Angeles to confer amongst each other and resolve disputes under the shade of El Aliso.

European contact was first made in 1542 by Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who was greeted at Santa Catalina island by the Tongva in a canoe; the following day, Cabrillo and his men entered a large bay on the mainland, which they named Baya de los Fumos ("Bay of Smokes") on account of the many smoke fires they saw (early smog?).  This is commonly believed to be San Pedro Bay (above), which is now the Port of Los Angeles.

The area's growth was exponential after becoming part of the United States.  In a little over one hundred years the city grew to become the second most populous city in the US (after New York City) and the third most populous in North America (after Mexico City and New York City).  The motion picture industry, better known by the metonym “Hollywood” (which refers to a district found just to the north of downtown Los Angeles proper), played an indispensable role in the city's transformation into the behemoth it is today, not only in terms of its economy but equally, if not more so, in terms of its allure.

A young man by the name of Cecil B. DeMille, at just 32, launched his career and an entire industry in Los Angeles with this telegram (at right) that would see him go on to make 70 films spanning both the silent picture and “talkie” eras.

Writing that same year, Willard Huntington Wright had this to say about the fledgling city’s character and its future:

And yet — after the worst has been said, much remains which is deserving of praise. Wherein lies the fascination of the Angel City? Why has it become the Mecca of tourists the world over? Is it because it is the best advertised city in the United States? Is it that it offers illimitable opportunities for making money and eating fruit? Hardly that. After all the pamphlets of the real estate agents, the boosters' clubs, the Board of Trade and the Chamber of Commerce have been read, something remains unspoken — something that uncannily grips the stranger. Despite its suburban pieties, its vice crusades, its domestic ideals, its incessant gossiping, its moral anesthesia, its Oriental religions, its Cagliostros, its leaden midnights, its poor cooking, its garish newness, its lack of hospitality, its tawdry culture, its cruel Sundays and its Iowan traditions — notwithstanding all these handicaps, there is something essentially inspiring in the life of the city. Los Angeles is a modem Ephesus, and as such is a challenge to the virile blood of the nation. Great problems are being worked out there. The city reeks with promise. Life in Los Angeles is real and earnest. There is a continual clash of wit — not the wit of epigram and culture, but the wit of serious endeavor. It is a city of crudities, of experimentation, of reinforced concrete, of gaudy colors, of real estate transactions. It represents the pioneering stage in both commerce and art. It possesses much of the bumptious assurance of the youth suddenly burdened with responsibilities. Its future is not a bustle; all eyes are fixed on tomorrow morning's sunrise. At present it is more heterogeneous than any other city in America. Its hypocrisies are matched by subcutaneous audacities which shock even the hardened policemen. At present it is far more emotional than logical. The god of Los Angeles is a combination of Calvin and Anthony Comstock — with Comstock predominating.

I am tempted to predict the future of Los Angeles; but such is not my mission in this article. But in so far as the personality of the Los Angeles of today indicates the Los Angeles of tomorrow — just as the youth suggests the man — so may I surmise that which the coming years have in store. This looking forward is inevitable when one considers the character of the city. And so, considering it in its present embryonic condition, one sees a vision of a great metropolis, founded on solid stock — a metropolis wealthy and diverse, commercially powerful and artistically wise.

Wherever I go, near or far, my hometown of Los Angeles is just a meal away.  I have only to stop into a diner and one item on the menu, “invented” in Los Angeles, transports me home as surely as I am to stop perusing what’s on offer and order it, knowing that amongst Angelenos the origin of the sandwich is a matter of great debate.  Los Angeles is a city without traditional seasons, where December is, counterintuitively, better beach weather than June because of everyone's summertime friend Coastal Eddy (a local atmospheric phenomenon which sees everything from the Santa Monica Pier to the Inland Empire blanketed in a thick layer of clouds called Eddy’s sisters “May Gray” and “June Gloom”), so Angelenos need something to talk about besides the weather.

Basically, a French Dip is a gorgeous, wet mess of a French roll stuffed to overflowing with hot roast beef (and nothing else) and dunked once, twice, or thrice in the jus (meaning “juice”) given off by its own cooking — the familiar term au jus simply means “with juice.”  Prepared properly, the roll is dunked (to taste) for you by the chef, but it is more common that a ramekin of hot jus is served alongside the sandwich allowing it to be dunked at the diner’s pleasure.  That said, a bitter rivalry exists between Cole’s and Philippe's — both in downtown Los Angeles — with both of them insisting they invented the sandwich.

I’ll begin with Cole’s, because their claim is to have invented the sandwich a full ten years before Philippe’s.  Cole’s is actually Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet, the oldest restaurant and bar continuously operated in the same location in the city of Los Angeles.  Cole's owners claim that the sandwich was invented at their restaurant in 1908.  According to Gitti Beheshti, co-owner and manager of Cole’s interviewed by The Los Angeles Times“Mr. Cole was German. He had a friend that was a chef working here. He was in the kitchen when someone wanted a sandwich, then the bread fell into the beef juice and they liked it. The other customer in line behind him asked for the same sandwich.”  Um, but Mr. Beheshti wasn’t born until 1941, and the Times article indicated that he bought Cole's in 1989; in other words, he had no first-hand knowledge of what fell where, when.  There is no record of the nameless chef or even an old newspaper article linking the restaurant with the sandwich beyond its iconic sign (above), designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1989.  The entire body of evidence in favor of Cole’s seems to be an unverifiable story passed down among employees and gullible patrons.

Which brings me to Philippe’s.  Philippe’s was founded by Philippe Mathieu, a French immigrant born in 1877 who made his way to Los Angeles in 1903.  At 617 Alameda, he opened Philippe's restaurant and delicatessen in 1908.  It was there, ten years later, that the first French Dip was made.  The family that bought the business from Mathieu in 1927 called the restaurant “Philippe The Original,” and serves upwards of 1900 French Dip sandwiches a day at their only location — 1001 North Alameda Street.  That much we know for sure.  Now, we have the cop story, the fireman story, the other fireman story, and the pork (yes, pork!) story, pork dressed with pickles, onions, and olives (wait, WTF?… pickles, onions, and olives?):

  • The cop story:  One day in 1918, while making a roast beef sandwich for a cop walking his downtown beat in a hurry, Philippe inadvertently dropped the sliced french roll into the roasting pan filled with juices still hot from the oven.  The policeman who couldn’t wait for another to be made said he would take it anyway, and when his fellow officers back at the precinct tried it, a sandwich was born.
  • The fireman story:  Same as the cop story, but it was 1917 and Philippe was hurriedly making a roast beef sandwich for a fireman.
  • The other fireman story:  In a 2008 Los Angeles Times interview, Philippe Mathieu's own grandson, Philippe Guilhem, told a different version of the fireman story:  “One day a fireman complained that his roll was stale. It was probably a Monday and the roll was a leftover from the weekend. My grandfather was a thrifty person. He said, 'Give me the damn thing back.' He dipped it in the juices and said, 'You happy now’?”
  • The pork story:  On the occasion of Philippe's relocating to make way for the Hollywood Freeway, The Los Angeles Times interviewed Philippe Mathieu in 1951.  He said:  “One day a police officer asked me if I would mind splitting one of these large loaves of French bread and filling it with 'some of the delicious roast pork.’ I was not too busy, so I said, 'Sure.' Then he asked me to 'please cut it in half. I've got a friend outside who can eat it.' Then he asked for some pickles, onions and olives. Then we started making French-roll sandwiches for those who had smaller appetites. One day a customer saw some gravy in the bottom of a large pan of roast meat. He asked me if I would mind dipping one side of the French roll in that gravy. I did, and right away five or six others wanted the same.”

But what about the name?  The obvious, easy answer, if we dismiss Cole’s claim (as I do), is that Philippe Mathieu was a French immigrant from France in a city and at a time when that would lend anything he did a certain notoriety.  “The French guy with the deli on Alameda makes a delicious sandwich you’ve just gotta try.”  “Oh yah?  I’ll try it next time I’m downtown.  What’s it called?”  ‘Roast pork dipped in gravy’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but ‘French Dip,’ so-named because the guy dipping it was probably the only person with a French accent in town, does.  Remember, Henry Cole was German!

‘French Dip’ was also most likely a double-entendre.  Around 1898, women's fashion advertisements began promoting dresses with what was referred to as a ‘French dip’ — the waist of a dress was cut below the normal belt line to give the woman a more slender and, it was thought, more attractive appearance. Dresses, and later both men's and women's jackets featuring a French dip were said to give the wearer a thinner appearance, and while delicious, the French delicatessen owner had the last laugh because a gravy-laden pork sandwich is just about the last thing that is going to slim down a waistline.

Among each of the stories about the invention of the French Dip, the one told by Philippe Mathieu in 1951 is the most convincing as it is a first-person account unlike the others, it lacks a neat-’n-tidy Bingo! moment, and even allows for the sandwich to develop as times and tastes change.  Should you decide to pay his restaurant a visit,  be prepared to wait in line.  There is a unique style of service at Philippe’s that dates back to its opening, in which lines form in front of the long deli-display counter at each of the “Carvers.”  Each Carver has everything needed to prepare your meal, including salads, soups, and chili.

Philippe The Original carvers color

The plates are paper and the service is fast-paced.

Should you happen to decide later you want a slice of pie, you will find a line to the right of the Carvers with a host of “non-sandwich” items to perfectly compliment your meal.

Philippe’s is a timeless piece of Los Angeles history, an experience as much as it is a place.  So if you find yourself in Los Angeles, skip the obvious tourist traps and dip into history at Philippe The Original with its sawdust floors and taste a French Dip the way it was and is meant to be.

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