23. The real Cobb Salad was like Champagne
Back in the olden days when I worked in “The Theatre” in Los Angeles, one of my jobs was as Assistant (The Girl) to Theatre Impresario, Jimmy A. Doolittle. Mr. D. was a larger than life character, and though I have read a description calling him “soft-spoken” I never heard Mr. D. speak softly when he could as well shout.
“Morning, Girl,” would greet me as I opened the door at 8:30 AM to his wonderful mid-century house perched to overlook Hollywood with another view featuring the Ocean. “If you’d arrived a little later,” he continued booming, “they’d be closing up shop out there in New York.” When I suggested that I could arrive at any time, like even 5 AM, he would chuckle and hit the dining room table where he was having coffee with enough force to spill his cup, “do it and we’ll show those lily-livered Theatre producers how it’s really done.” Of course he did not mean it, and would no more have been ready to get on with it at 5 AM than I would have. But soft-spoken was not how I would describe the Jimmy A. Doolittle I worked for in those long-ago days.
We’d commence the mornings with him booming into one or two phones in the dining room while I sat and chatted up various theatres across the USA on one or two other phones in the office down the hall. We had exciting visitors; producers and agents coming to pitch their newest finds. Sometimes a person who said he was Jessie Lasky would arrive and perch on my desk to describe one or another of his thousands of humming birds he said he’d brought in by the plane load from the Amazon. Or Mr. D. would gesture me in on calls to the French to take notes about the next production he’d be bringing in.
Always around 12:30 PM he’d come striding in, all dapper and ready to “hit the road.” And he meant it. We’d stride out into the gorgeous Hollywood day and over to Mr. D’s large Cadillac. Tossing me the keys with “you drive, Girl,” he’d jump into the passenger seat. My first time was almost my last. That car was huge. And I am not very. I could not see over the steering wheel and had to look through it to see where we were heading. If traffic was particularly packed he’d start getting antsy. “Don’t stop, Girl, for anything. Just don’t do it.”
“But, Mr. D., there’s a red light.” Or, “But Mr. D., there’s a person crossing the street.”
“Run the damn fool over, Girl, just run him over.”
“Mr. Doolittle, you know I cannot run over that person.”
“Some driver is not going to see you stop, Girl, and will run into the back of us. Then where would we be?” He’d chew on that one a while as I continued up and over to The Greek Theatre where we’d start the outing.
We’d check on the current productions, and discuss with the box office the returns and then get to the business office to see what was coming in and discuss where the various performers were staying and when they were arriving. When Mr. D. was satisfied that The Greek was doing its job keeping Los Angeles entertained with the best in Dance and Music during the warm summer nights, we were off hitting the road again. This time was a little easier, as it was practically down- hill, over to the Huntington Hartford Theatre on Vine Street. There we checked on rehearsals and into that box office to check receipts and then backstage to chat with the stage hands and the cast if there was a show in rehearsals.
And now Mr. D. would look at his watch. Pretty soon I knew that this meant we were about to hit the road once more. But this time we just crossed it. We’d cross Vine Street to the Brown Derby restaurant, getting there just as lunch was winding down.
Mr. D. loved this time of day maybe most of all. He loved that restaurant, and he really enjoyed Mrs. Cobb. As soon as we’d enter and he’d shout, “Here we are!” Mrs. Cobb would appear to greet him, her friend, Jimmy. Soon we’d be seated with her at her special table and the menus arrived. The first time there for me, Mr. D. grabbed the menu out of my hand. “The Girl does not need a menu,” he announced to Mrs. Cobb. I wondered if that meant The Girl did not get to eat, just drive the impresario about. But of course not: Mr. D. was a most delightful, though loud, and thoughtful person. He was just showing The Girl all about what one did at the Brown Derby. So the Girl surrendered the menu which was snatched by the waiter. And Mrs. Cobb began to hold forth making the order for our lunch. She said I had to have The Cobb Salad, and Mr. D. beamed. He too was having one he announced. And Mrs. Cobb told the waiter to make it Cobb Salads all around.
We talked and perhaps had a glass of wine while we waited. Mrs. Cobb showed me about and talked about Hollywood history and pointed out some famous producers just ending their lunches. Of course soon they were over at the table to say hello and good-bye and see your tomorrow. And our Cobb Salad arrived.
Today Cobb Salads are served in restaurants from Portland, Maine to Honolulu. They are all made up of chopped and similar ingredients. But please believe me none of these is a real Cobb Salad. When the long white platter arrived I was visually stunned. It looked like an arrangement of gems all set in rows next to each other down the length of the platter. Each ingredient had been shopped so finely and into such perfect squares that what I really wanted to see were the tiny hands and sharp knives that had made such enchantment. The tomatoes had been peeled and seeded and cut into the tiniest of rubies; the eggs, yokes and white presented separately for color variation, were again cut into crisp squares. How? Do not ask me. But there the individual tiny morsels lay, white and orangey-yellow; the various lettuces also were chopped into tiny bits which crispy were defined from each other while all being together. It was an amazing production, and one which made Mr. D. beam. The head waiter arrived with a large bowl into which he mixed the ingredients he had at hand for the special creamy vinaigrette. As he did he had a sort of running incantation praying the ingredients into perfection. “The Coleman Mustard,” he tossed into the bowl golden dust, “juice of a real California lemon,” he squeezed, “olive oil all the way from Italy, like me,” he poured and swirled, “salt from the sea.” Into this perfection he would crumble some Roquefort cheese which was also in tiny dice on the platter. This ingredient, he told me, made the sauce perfect once he got it to the right consistency. This he did vigorously as he talked. And voila! The sauce was done. Mrs. Cobb put in a delicate finger and licked. “Yes, perfect,” she approved. And so the ingredients were added from the platter. “Each must go in at the right moment for that perfect salad,” she explained, “the egg-yokes last.” And the golden pieces were added to the whole wonder, with the crumbled Roquefort just on top, “like snow”, the waiter began to serve. I know there were small dices of purple black olives “from Santa Barbara up the coast,” though I do not see them anymore in the list of ingredients. And, “avocado from Mrs. Cobb’s garden”.
Mr. D was ready; his napkin on his chest. Large spoonsful of this lovely salad were put into our plates. “Let the lunch begin,” Mr. Doolittle sounded a little chastened in the presence of true gastronomic delight.
On the way home, “back to work”, Mr. Doolittle was quiet, thinking about I guess that wonderful salad Mrs. Cobb had invented late one night for a hungry husband, made up, she said, of things they used all day in the restaurant. She herself had chopped that first salad and her husband said it was perfection. At first, she remembered, it was not on the menu. But her husband liked it so much that he had one almost every day. His guests would see this vision arrive, but they could not find on the menu. So the rest is part of gastronomic – and Hollywood – history.
As is Jimmy A. Doolittle, the great and booming and charming Theatre impresario.
Strangely I could not find one photo of Mr. Doolittle to add to this blog, though his office was filled with them of him with his many stars and discoveries. Nor one of Mrs. Cobb, though her restaurants will also filled with those of her and her husband and their famous clients and guests. I could find some of the Huntington Hartford Theatre, renamed The Jimmy Doolittle not many years before Mr. D’s death in 1997. And naturally, some of the famous Hollywood Brown Derby. I did search too for photos of a real Cobb Salad but that has gone the way of the DoDo bird, never more to be seen.
I call the real Cobb salad like Champagne. All the ingredients were so perfectly prepared, “composed” as the French would say, and so delicately joined together that the taste of the whole was seamless, not one ingredient standing out from the other, the whole a deliciousness; as is a great Champagne. The Pinot Noir does not stand apart from the Chardonnay, nor the Pinot Meunier from the rest of the trio: a perfect blend of flavors. While in Champagne the gas of life, CO2 streams into the consumer’s system elevating one’s mood to ethereal, in a real Cobb Salad the delights of such scrumptiousness elevate the mood too, as I can remember in a more tranquil Jimmy Doolittle after his Cobb Salad “fix”. So I do proclaim the real Cobb Salad to be like Champagne. And Jimmy Doolittle too, a character so bubbly he truly can be called Champagne-like.