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Offbeat Oregon History

Iconic food items invented in Oregon

Continued From Last Week

Big League Chew (1977)

Baseball players, back in the day, were somewhat famous for chewing tobacco on the field. Fans would see them pull a pouch of Red Man or Beech-Nut out of their uniform pocket, dip out a big pinch, and stuff it in “between the cheek and gum.” Sometimes it would even make a visible bulge.

Minor-league slugger Rob Nelson probably chewed the stuff too, although he played for the Portland Mavericks; in Portland, as in most of the Pacific Northwest, moist snuff products like Copenhagen and Skoal were far more popular than pouch “chaws” like Beech-Nut. But, maybe not; the pouch was, after all, a sort of informal baseball tradition.

So in 1977, while waiting in the dugout for his turn at bat, Nelson was not surprised to see the bat boy pulling a Beech-Nut pouch out of his trousers and taking a big pinch out of it. He wasn’t surprised, but he was probably a bit alarmed; the bat boy was not old enough to be chewing tobacco.

“Oh, no,” the kid said when challenged on his “chaw.” “It’s just a tobacco pouch that I’ve put shredded licorice in.”

This got Nelson thinking: In a world of avid baseball fans who were too young to dip or chew, might there be a market for a candy product that simulated it?

He invested a little money in a bubble-gum-making kit and started prototyping. Within just a few years, he had a finished product and a patent, which he sold almost immediately to a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company.

In its target demographic, Big League Chew was a huge and immediate hit. I remember how popular and ubiquitous it was on middle-school playgrounds in 1980, just three years after Rob Nelson saw that bat boy chewing what he thought was real tobacco.

The Gardenburger (1981)

If your family is on track for a vegetarian Christmas feast, this last featured Oregon food invention might be on your menu in some form! Or, at least, a product derived from it.

The Gardenburger — that looks like a hamburger-from-far-away food product made of rice, mushrooms, and cheese — was invented in Gresham by a vegetarian health-food gourmet named Paul Wenner.

Wenner, in 1981, had just opened a vegetarian restaurant called The Gardenhouse in Gresham. One of the meals on his menu was something he called the Garden Loaf Sandwich. Its contents — the eponymous Loaf — were a formula he had developed previously when he’d mixed some chopped mushrooms into leftover rice pilaf bound together with cheese.

The Garden Loaf Sandwich was a hit, so he added another version of it to the menu: A patty made of Garden Loaf stuff. He called this, of course, the Gardenburger.

Well, the Gardenburger was a hit, but it wasn’t a big enough hit to keep a vegetarian restaurant in business in early-1980s Gresham. By 1984 Wenner could see that the restaurant was holding back the success of his Gardenburger innovation. So he joined forces with a customer, Allyn Smaaland, got a meeting with the CEO of Louisiana Pacific for the financing end of things, and pitched a plan to take the Gardenburger nationwide.

The CEO, Harry Merlo, made the deal, with the understanding that L-P would take over operational control after Gardenburger got off the ground. So Wenner closed his restaurant, founded Wholesome & Hearty Foods, and set about hiring the staff he would need to market Gardenburger in health-food stores as well as the increasing number of mainstream supermarkets with vegetarian sections.

The company got into some trouble by overleveraging in the 1990s and had to take bankruptcy protection. It emerged a year later, leaner and stronger, and now owned by a New York investment firm, which later sold it to the Kellogg breakfast-cereal company, which owns it now. Kellogg took everything out of Oregon; today, the company is based in Irvine, Calif., and its production plant is in Clearfield, Utah.

But Portland vegetarians still remember when Gardenburger was a local vegetarian delicacy — although their holiday feasts probably will lean more on the offerings of Tofurky and plant-based cranberry sauce, rather than Gardenburgers.

(Sources: “The Fruit that Made Oregon Famous,” an article by Inara Verzemnieks published in the April 16, 2007, issue of the Portland Oregonian; “The Tater Tot is American Ingenuity at its Finest,” an article by Kelsey McKinney published in the Aug. 28, 2017, issue of Eater magazine; “How Two Oregon Brothers’ Efforts to Mitigate Food Waste Created the Tater Tot,” an article by Heather Arndt Anderson published by Oregon Public Broadcasting on Feb. 2, 2022; “A Classic American Concession was First Fried in Oregon,” an article by Meagan Cuthill published by Oregon Public Broadcasting on July 16, 2022)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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