S J Perelman: Avocado, or the Future of Eating

I’d like to present another item from the inimitable S J Perelman, whose writing here, as it often does, starts from a simple enough premise of being all curmudgeonly about getting lunch and then goes off in strange directions. I don’t know when the article was first published but I have to imagine it dates to the early 20s. Perelman, famously, wrote scripts for several of the Marx Brothers movies and it’s quite easy (for me, anyway) to imagine Groucho, particularly, reeling off some of the linguistic flights here. So here’s something from The Best Of S J Perelman; enjoy, please.


(Note found in an empty stomach off Santa Barbara)

One day not long ago in Los Angeles I found myself, banderillas in hand, facing the horns of a dilemma. I had gone into a Corn Exchange bank to exchange some corn and had fallen into conversation with the manager. He was very affable and insisted I inspect the assets of the branch, which included, among other things, the teeth Bryant Washburn had used in his film career. Issuing into the hot sunlight of the street, I was dismayed to find that it was time for lunch, and since I had forgotten to bring along a bag of pemmican, I would have to eat in Los Angeles –— a fairly exact definition of the term “the kiss of death”. I looked around me. On my left I could obtain a duplexburger and a Giant Malted Milk Too Thick For a Straw; on my right the feature was barbecued pork fritters and orangeade. Unnerved, I stopped a passing street Arab and courteously inquired where I might find a cheap but clean eating house. Phil the Fiddler (for it was he) directed my steps to a pharmacy bearing the legend “Best Drug Stores, Inc.” Merely for the record, I dined off an avocado sandwich on whole wheat and a lime rickey, and flunked my basal-metabolism test later that afternoon. I don’t pretend to blame the management for my physical shortcomings; all I want them to do is laugh off their menu, a copy of which I seem to have before me.

In general, “Soda Fountain Suggestions” (Best Drug Stores, Inc.) is an attractively printed job in two colors (three if you count the gravy), and though it can hardly hope to rival the success of Gone with the Wind, I suppose there is an audience which will welcome it. The salads and three-decker sandwiches are treated with a certain gaiety and quaint charm which recall Alice of Old Vincennes. The banana splits and hot-and-cold Ovaltines are handled with a glib humor in the text, which is more than I can say for the way they are handled behind the fountain. The day I was there, a simply appalling oath escaped the lips of one of the dispensers when he dropped some fudge on his shoe. The authors have included a very disarming foreword short enough to quote in its entirety: “It is our earnest desire to fulfill the name that we have chosen for our chain, THE BEST. We can only accomplish this by serving you best. Any criticisms or suggestions will be appreciated by the management.” Only a churl would decline so graceful a gambit. Messieurs, en garde!

Specifically, gentlemen, my criticism concerns that cocky little summary of yours at the bottom of the menu. “BEST Soda Fountains” you proclaim flatly, “are BEST because: the ice creams contain no `fillers’ (starch, albumen, etc.); the syrups are made from cane sugar and real fruits; the coffee is a special blend made the modern Silex way with a specially filtered water,” and so forth. Lest some of the younger boys in the troop think the millennium has come to the City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, what are the facts?

In the first place, you needn’t think you can woo me with any such tinsel as “the ice creams contain no `fillers’ (starch, albumen, etc.).” One thing I’ll have in my ice cream or it’s no dice –— and that’s fillers. I don’t even insist on ice cream as long as I can stuff myself with fillers. You heap my plate with albumen and starch (any kind, even laundry starch) and stand clear. Call me a piggy if you want to, but I just can’t get enough of that starch.

Quite honestly, your statement that the syrups “are made from cane sugar and real fruits” surprised me. If that’s a boast, I must say it’s a pretty hollow one. It might interest you to know that back in 1917 the Allied High Command specified beet sugar and false fruits in all syrups purchased by its commissary department. Didn’t know that, did you? Probably too busy evading the draft at the time. Well, you just ask any biochemist his recommendation on sugars, as I did recently; you’ll get the same terse answer: beet sugar and false fruits. I have this cousin of mine who is a perfect wiz at chemistry –— really astonishing marks for a boy of nineteen in high school –— and no matter what you ask him, he’ll give you the same answer: beet sugar and false fruits. Frankly, the family’s getting a little worried about it; they have to keep Benny chained to a ring in the floor most of the time.

Furthermore, it’s useless to try to creep into my heart with any blandishments like “the coffee is a special blend made the modern Silex way with a specially filtered water.” Filtering Los Angeles water robs it of its many nourishing ingredients, not the least of which is chow mein. It is an interesting fact, known to anybody who has ever been interned in that city or its suburbs, that the water possesses a rich content of subgum almond chow mein, Cantonese style, and one or two cases have even been reported where traces of peanut candy and lichee nuts were found. The assertion of a friend of mine that he once saw an Irish houseboy come out of a water faucet, of course, must be regarded as apocryphal. The Irish are a wiry little people, but they are not as wiry as all that. Nor are they ready as yet for the self-government which my distinguished opponents, the gentlemen of the affirmative, claim they should have. And so, honorable judges and ladies and gentlemen, we of the negative conclude that the Irish should not be given their independence because (1) we need them for a coaling station, (2) there is a high percentage of illiteracy, and (3) if we do, Ireland will soon be snatching up Guam -—- or “chewing Guam,” so to speak. I thank you.

Harold Lloyd: A Sammy In Siberia

I realized I’ve got a shocking lack of Harold Lloyd video in my little humor blog here, so let me correct that by referring you loyal readers to the 1919 Hal Roach-directed short A Sammy In Siberia, which is surely one of the few American comedies set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Siberia in 1918. Archive.org has the video in reasonably archival form, though YouTube again has the form easier to embed in a WordPress site. Don’t read the comments [*].

I admit it’s the setting that’s making me choose this one. The short doesn’t really show Lloyd (or Roach) at his best, despite a couple nicely done stunts and fast action. But when do you see any kind of pop cultural representation of the Siberian Intervention? And I wonder also where Hal Roach filmed this, since there’s a good bit of what looks like stuff filmed outdoors in the snow. (On the other hand, the establishing shot of the cabin with the mountains in the background looks like a set to me.) Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database don’t seem to have much about this film. That’s often a danger with silents, though, to get distracted by looking at the stuff that isn’t the actors.

[*] It’s funny because back then you could stereotype Russians as big fat guys in silly hats the way you can’t anymore since political correctness destroyed humor? Seriously, guy, you want to put that thought out on the Internet where people can read it?

Robert Benchley: Blank Form To Be Handed To Returning Tourists

The Robert Benchley Society is a group devoted to the fandom of, well, it’s right there on the label. A little while ago, and I am late in catching up to them — I was interested in this year’s Benchley Society humor contest, but they don’t seem to have any announcements about it yet — they found a short piece that Benchley had written for Franklin P Adams’s “The Conning Tower” column in The New York Tribune. It ran on the 9th of September, 1914, and gives a quick glimpse into the early days of the Great War and what people who had friends coming back from Europe kept hearing about, and pretty efficiently captures a moment and a scene that rarely gets mentioned in histories. The Society’s article on this includes a scan of the original text, although it just looks like the sort of reproduced ancient newspaper microfilm you always see in this sort of thing.

Blank Form To Be Handed to Returning Tourists

Please fill in blanks and return with photograph showing yourself with mouth open.

The first inkling I had of the war was in _____. I was with my _____ (and my _____) at the time, and we had just come from a delightful trip through _____. One evening, the _____th of _____, we heard _____ and I said to our _____friend–, “_____?” He replied: “_____!” Immediately the streets were thronged with enthusiastic _____, all singing “_____.” We had time only to get our _____ and stand _____ hours in the station for the train to _____. We were grossly insulted on the border by a _____ who insisted on _____. On reaching _____ we had to stand like cattle before the _____ left for _____. I tell you, the old Statue of Liberty looked pretty good to me. I don’t know, of course, but take it from me, the war won’t be over until one side is victorious and that won’t be for _____.

R. C. B.