On the eve of November 4, 2008, I found myself outside the Obama campaign’s northern California headquarters, straddling the border between Berkeley and Oakland as crowds of victory-crazed Americans thronged to the street corners of history. When the junior senator from Illinois first announced his candidacy for the office of president of the United States, the political scientist in me was quick to fortify the barricades of skepticism. By 8PM on election night, the American in me decided that no reasoned analysis can restrain the joys of being part of a drunken mob. Yes, I did!
Such a historic evening, of course, calls for a historic hangover cure. With the glee of a new president shining down upon the East Bay, I make my way to my favorite counter to celebrate with a man named Jodie. If you’ve been following The Eaten Path, you’ll know that Jodie makes a perfect bowl of grits and is responsible for the greatest mission ever assigned to two eggs.
A great many tales could be told about the sixty-nine year old, five-foot-three answer to the chicken and the egg that is Jodie Royston. What you really need to know is that this is a man who never says, “Goodbye,” always has a bag of dry dog food behind the counter for his customers’ best friends and greases his griddle with generous amounts of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He’s built a twenty year legacy of home cooked hospitality in a hole in the wall under the BART track in Albany, a paramount of neighborhoodism that manages to outdo the model neighborhood in which it’s tucked away. He’s never had a use for more than six diners at his counter and proudly displays an eight by ten close up of himself, sucking the last morsels of flavor off of a fried chicken leg that he had just taken out of the fryer, behind the customers who have become a part of his family.
The food at Jodie’s is as much a labor of love as the restaurant itself. Jodie’s ingredients are bought fresh and local, even when “fresh” and “local” mean “Minute Maid.” Never one to pander, Jodie cooks for his customers the way he would cook for his grandchildren (one of which is a regular behind the counter). Homemade grits and fried chicken are served on weekends. His country scramble, a brilliant ribbon of medium-cooked yolk swirled over scrambled white, is the non-negotiable style of eggs cooked to order. His English muffins, steeped and crisped in margarine, help to redefine the meaning of “nook and cranny.” The cheesecake is baked at home by Jodie’s wife; try the mango.
Jodie’s specials, all 40+ of them, aren’t so much bold new directions or trussed up classics as they are startling visitations of the expected. Eggs Royston and Something Different turn Eggs Benedict on their yolks, amassing all kinds of flavor and texture (ie: English muffins, grilled tomatoes, onions and peppers, hash browns, and chopped bacon) beneath a blanket of flash-poached eggs and homemade hollandaise. The Torta sends the concept of corned beef hash through Jodie’s filter of flavor, mixing fresh corned beef with country hash browns and grilled vegetables to a delightfully crispy end. Nothing, the cook’s own breakfast omakase, yields a different concoction every time, sometimes involving ingredients as far-reaching as fresh cactus. Jody’s With a Y, which crowns a plate of grits with a country scramble and chopped or ground hot link (if you’re lucky, you’ll get a healthy dollop of sausage grease ladled into the mix), is so stupidly tasty that it calls into question the value of every food not named after a customer and presented on a tackily decorated sheet of laminated printer paper.
With this knowledge in our stomachs, my comrades and I walk into Jodie’s for a taste of his latest special: the Obama. It starts with a perfectly crisped layer of hash browns. Jodie tops the potatoes with three strips of beef brisket and anoints the combination with his homemade Arkansas BBQ sauce, a tomato-free dressing of molasses, vinegar and other heavenly sources of tang. The entire platter is just small enough to be enjoyed as seconds on top of any other of Jodie’s specials- which is fortunate, because on the morning after the greatest election of my short lifetime, I’m hungry enough for eight years of BBQ.
The bundle is laid next to a flapjack and served with an expression of relief. Newspapers are flocking from their shelves. Echoes of the words, “Yes, we did!” are sounding throughout the city. Under the BART track in Albany, though, this historic outpouring of pride and community is little more than a twinkle in Jodie’s eye. After all, pride and community are nothing new to a man who’s spent twenty years in a hole in the wall. It’s just a shame that it took the rest of the country this long to catch up with him for breakfast.
902 Masonic Ave
Albany, CA 94706