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L.A. Then & Now

Bar patrons go nuts over crotchety machine

September 14, 2008|Steve Harvey | Special to The Times

It's like something out of an old Rube Goldberg cartoon, a wacky contraption outfitted with various-sized wheels, leather belts and cross-bars, as well as a catcher bin, a trap door and a 1-hp motor.

The 100-year-old peanut roaster sits in the backroom of Joe Jost's saloon in Long Beach, where it might be mistaken for nothing more than a colorful piece of decor, except the darn thing still works. It turns out 400 pounds of unsalted goobers a week.

"We have people come in for the first time, and they don't know what it is," said owner Ken Buck, grandson of founder Joe Jost. "They ask if it's a popcorn-maker. Or they think it's the water heater."

"Some people say it smells like peanut butter cookies," said his wife, Cathleen, who handles some of the roasting chores.

The antique fits right in at Jost's, an 84-year-old saloon that venerates the past with such old-time touches as brass foot rails, wooden booths, deer heads, a wooden telephone booth that has no telephone and a men's room with a trough.

There's also an ancient barber's sink behind the bar from the early days when Jost offered sandwiches, beer and haircuts. Eventually, health authorities told him they "didn't want him serving alcohol and shaving people with a straight-edge razor," Cathleen Buck said.

Out went the barber chairs, comfortable as they were.

The older Jost customers like things the way they are. They raised a small ruckus, for example, when Ken Buck stopped serving Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. But when he purchased the peanut roaster two decades ago, that was one change "no one griped about," he said.

Truth be told, Buck had a few reservations about the idea.

"He was afraid that people would throw the shells all over the floor," Cathleen Buck said. But even the messiest male patrons have been trained by bartenders to deposit their shells in small discard boxes with surprising regularity.

The belt-driven roaster itself has gone through some changes. It was originally a coffee roaster, proud product of the Milwaukee Gas and Stove Co., when it went into operation in 1907 at W.H. Marmion's general store in Long Beach.

But after World War I, great-grandson Bill Marmion said, "vacuum-packed coffee began to be prevalent. You could go to a store and buy it more cheaply. So he converted it into a peanut roaster."

Oddly enough, the machine wound up at Jost's because of a transient with a sweet tooth.

A young man broke into Marmion's in 1989, stole some gum balls and set the place on fire, unaware that it was a hangout for cops. Police found the intruder a couple of days later, with gum balls still in his pocket.

"There were very few officers who didn't know what we sold at the store," Bill Marmion said. "They knew the gum balls came from us."

But Bill's mother, Ruth, decided it was time to shut down the business.

The Marmions knew Buck and thought that Jost's would make a good home for their roaster. Buck sheathed it in copper and replaced the belts and some other parts.

To keep alive its connection with the past, he placed a weathered sign above it that proclaims, "Marmion Co./Spices/Peanuts."

"I go in there and get a free peanut once in a while," Bill Marmion said with a smile.

He can recognize the taste because Jost's uses the same type of peanut that Marmion's favored: Virginia-grade, jumbo size and never soaked in brine.

After all these years, the roaster can be crotchety.

"The machine has a mind of its own," Cathleen Buck said. "You have to make friends with the machine."

Roasting can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour because the roaster has no temperature gauge and the gas burners sometimes have to be adjusted. She can usually tell when a batch is ready by the golden color of the contents and the taste of a sample.

"I'm used to handling hot peanuts," she said. "Sometimes I'll hand one right out of the roaster to someone, and they'll let out a little scream. My hands are like oven gloves."

She paused.

"It's a funny thing," she quipped. "I graduated magna cum laude. And I've become a peanut lady."

--

Steve Harvey can be reached at steveharvey9@gmail.com

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