Of Spice and Men: A Century of Ike’s

by Mark Brown

04/17/2011

Like a newspaper, a bowl of chili is a stew of unsavory, raw, ragged elements that boil down into a somewhat digestible, often delicious, whole. Like a paper, people seem to take less of it than they once did. A reading of the history of Ike Johnson’s chili legacy must be made through the ink-blurred window of the daily news.


Hear farmer Stephen Green discuss his mission to preserve an endangered species of livestock:


Or perhaps I just can’t see it any other way.

IKE JOHNSON, CHILI PARLOR OWNER, ILL.
REPORTED IN CRITICAL CONDITION AFTER STROKE OF PARALYSIS.

They reported his demise in the Tulsa Daily World on 10 November 1928.

(Editor’s note: Associated Press style would dictate the 10 follow the November, with a comma before the year, but I have always preferred Strunk and White’s suggestion. The key, as any good copy editor will tell you, is consistency.)

Ike, more proprietor than legend in ’28, did not merit front-page news. Front page news that day: the explosion of Etna. “Second Village Falls Prey to Devouring Lava.” In fact, Ike’s stroke made bigger headlines than his death. Over his one-column and portrait are set the words, “Paralysis Victim,” as if Ike were its poster child.

The Tulsa Tribune, a day earlier and with more vigor, put his demise on page 20, in its “Market News” section. It also wrote its headlines in upper and lower case, another element of style:

Ike Johnson, 70, of Chilli Fame, Is Ill With Paralysis

Stricken as He Started to Board Bus and Condition Critical

However written, the end was swift. Both papers had it in their November 12 editions. The World:

‘IKE’ JOHNSON, PIONEER, DEAD
Man Who Gained Name of ‘Chili King’ in Tulsa Dies at 69

The Ike now bracketed in single quotes. Ike may not have been a front-page item, but he was still an institution and familiar enough in all of Tulsa’s small circles to go by his nickname. And in the Trib, with one less “L” in chili than earlier:

Ike Johnson, Famed as Chili Maker, Is Dead
Body to Lie in State Today; Burial in Texas

From whence he came, a sweet spot not far over the Red River called Honey Grove. Ike landed in Tulsa in 1907, the year of statehood, and found work in a restaurant he would own within a year.

“Uncle Ike is one of the most enthusiastic boosters Tulsa ever had,” reads a quote in his obit, attributed to “his nephews.” “He always was the first to defend Tulsa against any criticism.”

I’ve looked for Ike in photos of The 100, that group of commercial showmen who boarded a train headed east to tout the doin’s in boomtown Tulsa, for audiences in whatever cities would entertain them. If he’s in there, I didn’t find him, bobbing in the sea of similarly old, white, bald guys.

***

The first Ike’s chili wasn’t served in an Ike’s, but in a joint “in the north alley between Main and Boston” that Ike bought from one Frank Morris. That was 1908. A year later, Ike reopened at 119 S. Boston Ave., mere steps away in the Reeder Building, with the focus now solidly on chili. Over the next quarter century, all of Ike’s five nephews—Ivan O., Mortimer T., Carl, Henry and William Preston—at least dabbled in the chili business.

Ike was stricken on a train platform, heading to Pawhuska on another of his land deals, said Selma Johnson, the centenarian widow of William Preston (“W.P.” from here on). Ike poked across the southwest in search of oil. Chili became his black gold, in legend if not ledgers. He died a year before The Crash a single man, which he’d remained his entire life. “But he always had a friend with him,” Selma said. “He called them his companions.” Men still died with their boots on in those days, and often not in hospitals. Isaac “Ike” Johnson died at his home, 415 E. 15th St., where he lived with brother Preston Brooks Johnson and nephew W.P.

I drove by this address in vain. Whatever house was there gave up the ghost for the Inner-Dispersal Loop. It is now an “Up With Trees” plot, between the Broken Arrow Expressway and Maple Park.

Chili came out of the land of scrub and hoof, up from Coahuila in the Mexican plain, into the vast triangulation of Abilene, San Antonio and Chihuahua, where a lot of miles and men and beasts crossed paths on the way to slaughter. Men rode herd with chili in their guts, wiping the grease from their hands into their hair and beards.

Chiles—guajillo, ancho, pasilla and the like—dried like a charm, as did the fresh-killed beef. Reconstituted, they made a stew of the most peppery sort. Beans are a latter-day addition, apparently, though their ability to dry nicely would seem to make them ready kin for the chili pot. Whatever, beans have no place in so-called “Texas chili.” San Antonio claims the dish, but who wouldn’t have a stake in claiming chili? The legendary “chili queens” of San Antone, hawkers of street-corner “bowls of red,” simply put a face on a pastime. A kind of Dallas Cowboy cheerleader with a ladle.

It isn’t clear if he met him here or brought him north, but very soon in his chili experiments Ike Johnson teamed up with one Alex Garcia, who must have known a thing or two about chili.

“They had a Mexican,” Zurn Johnson, another nephew, told me in 2004, “and he had a recipe that would set you free.”

Together, reads a mimeographed family history, Ike and Alex “worked out” a recipe that has survived wars, drought, shortage, marketing chutzpah and all sorts of family heresy. Garcia, reads an afterthought, “was of Spanish descent.”

Ike and Ivan went about smoothing out the rough edges, suiting it to a Tulsan’s taste, which, in 1910, apparently veered toward the tame.  “They toned it down,” Zurn said, “because it would set you on fire. They felt like they’d come up with something pretty good, so he closed down his family restaurant and opened a chili place at Second and Main. Without a name.”

***

Harry Sinclair came to Tulsa in 1905, the year they struck on Ida Glenn’s farm, a rich enough pool to name a town after. Standard Oil started laying pipelines. Wells there produced 1000 to 3000 barrels a day. By 1906, 8000 acres were developed. “Wildcat” was a reference to drilling where no man, only beast, roams.

In 1911, the Supreme Court of the United States busted the trust of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, opening the flood gates. Drillers arrived in droves. By 1913, 25,000 barrels a day were flowing from wells at Cushing. Bartlesville followed: Osage elders leased vast acreages and established rich trusts.

In 1911, Mortimer and Ivan open a chili parlor in Kansas City that closed within the year. In 1911, Tom Slick, as wild a cat as there was, came to Cushing to stake his claim.

***

Ike went on sabbatical around 1913, first to New Mexico, where, according to Selma Johnson, he visited family and rested. Then onto Tulia, halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock, where Ike had once bought land. Something took him back to Tulsa, but it wasn’t chili. “He was out of the business by 1913,” Selma said, “but he always had his finger on it. He was very protective of the name ‘Parlor.’ ”

In 1996, the First Presbyterians of Boston Avenue bought the old Masonic Lodge, where Ike’s had a groundfloor eatery. William Harvey Johnson (“W.H.”) had been keeping Uncle Ike’s namesake alive there since 1959—in hindsight, a year of infamy—but church needs had outgrown those of chili at 712 S. Boston Ave.

“I grew up downtown,” W.H. told Tulsa World columnist Terrell Lester, who wrote a column on the closing. “I mean I literally grew up down there on Third Street,” a reference to another shop, the one that a rejuvenated Ike opened with his nephew, Ivan Oliver (“I.O.”) Johnson, in 1915 at 312 S. Main St. There, a “Three in One”— chili, beans and spaghetti—ran you 15 cents. Cincinnati, who claims the three-way, also cooks a “five-way,” laying on chopped onions and gobs of orange cheese.

“That three-way term is our term,” Zurn once argued.

Back when they had a shop on 11th Street, near the college, Selma and W.P. would be walking across a parking lot and somebody would yell out, “Hey! How about a three-way?”

***

In 1912, Carl and a man named Klein bought Ike’s place at 119 South Boston. In 1913, they moved the parlor one door north, to number 117. Two years later, Ike returned from Tulia and opened a new shop with Ivan. Zurn recalled:

“ ‘Why don’t you call it ‘Ivan’s Chili,’ somebody said. Well, Ivan was too shy. But Ike was out of town. My grandfather said, OK, then painted Ike’s name on the front window. He kept an eye out for Ike.

“Sure enough, when he came in from the field … You know those really big pipe wrenches they use on a rig?

“Well, Ivan said he’d throw Ike in right after it, and Ike believed him.”

***

Rigs rose out of the blackened landscape like naked tree trunks in a big-acre burn. Speculation and skullduggery went unchecked.

Prospectors named their firms in hopes of hits: Clover Leaf, Hoppy Toad, Ideal, Only, Future, Success, Invincible, Midnight Oil. Oil settlements popped up, veering right: Gasright, Downright, Alright, Damright, Justright, Dropright. My dad’s dad landed in Drumright, cranking a wrench for Pure Oil.

Ike’s boomed at a time when the whole of the Tulsa restaurant scene was confined to a few city blocks. The diners and cafes were in bed with each other, sharing alley space and swapping spit. Most of them had a chili recipe. Chili was the lubricant that kept the ill-fed, hung-over, sleep-starved, oil-field itinerants from floating off in a haze of fumes.

The scene inspired one F.S. Barde, the Oklahoma correspondent of the Kansas City Star: “any man with a gill of red blood in him is stricken immediately with the oil fever upon reaching Drumright. He begins seeing things grow larger and larger at every turn. He is soon talking in terms of thousands where a day earlier the best he could do was about two bits. The atmosphere is charged with superlatives and hyperbole.”

“One entrepreneur,” wrote Ruth Sheldon Knowles in The Greatest Gamblers, “arriving with a $42 stake, opened a restaurant not much bigger than a cigar box. Serving clean, well-prepared food, he made a $500 profit in a week. He eventually made more of a fortune from the oil in his cook stove than the majority of those who were bringing it up from the ground.”

***

In 1926, Mortimer Johnson opened an Ike’s Chili Parlor on Fourth Street, in the Oklahoma Union Railroad Transportation Building. In 1927, Carl sold his Boston Avenue shop to Wayne Foster, a family friend, who after a few months drops the Ike’s name in favor of Foster’s Chili. Millard Johnson, a cousin, worked for Foster until 1930. In 1929, Mortimer closed the Fourth Street shop. In 1930, Ivan and W.P. bought his equipment and went into business at 111 South Boston as Ike’s Chili II. The family tree, already sagging under its many branches, began to crack.

***

William Zurn Johnson squeezed into a wooden school chair, its skinny lumber squeaking beneath him. He poured me a cup of coffee, into a mug silk-screened with an “Evan’s Bail Bonds” logo. He pushed a bowl of creamer toward me.

“I can do black,” I said.

Zurn looked up from his own pour. “You sure? I use this,” he said, showing me a half-gallon of cream. His own coffee—now the color of Vanessa Williams—he drank from a Styrofoam bowl that typically holds a small chili-to-go. He took oxygen through a slender tube from a tank marked “Lincare: The caring choice.” Zurn spoke carefully, considerately. He worked on his coffee some more.

“I’m not quite awake yet,” he said.

Wallpaper depicting stuffed library stacks of the foregone classics rims the walls at Ike’s on Admiral, the only Ike’s left. Zurn Johnson ran the place, cooked the chili, minded the store for his dad, W.H., who was housebound a decade before his death in 2007.

Ike’s made a downtown comeback in 2002, at Fifth and Main, but it lasted less than a year. Zurn blamed it on the restructuring of the Main Mall from pedestrian byway to drivable thoroughfare. Ike’s closed its doors “amid all the traffic and carpet bombing.”

A photo on the wall, of one of the many old parlors, shows a portion of the hand-lettered sign, with “Chilli,” getting the twin Ls of the Nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs, or maybe it was a misprint. I was about to inquire when Zurn awakened in a burst.

“Dudn’t matter! I’m working on another deal anyway.”

Inspired by a History Channel story on a Texas diner called The Pig Stand and the beginning of drive-thru service, Zurn went to plotting. “It increased business 30 to 36 percent. That got my attention. That’s the bottom line for me.”

I imagined drive-thru chili and all the spoon-fed collision likely to ensue. Less ambitiously, Zurn also had an idea for a new seasoning mix. W.P., W.H.’s uncle and nemesis, preferred the spice made famous by Willie Gebhardt of New Braunfels, Texas. I’d learned that from Selma, I told him.

“Ah …” Zurn sort of gasped. “W.P. worked for Ivan. Then he went off to the Great War and fought with the Doughboys. When he came home, he asked for his old job back. Then he very quietly snuck around and opened the location at 36th and Harvard.

“He did an end run on ’em.”

***

A small, gold slip of paper jumps out of the Tulsa World “Ike’s Chili Parlor” clip file. In parlance, it is called a “kill.” It’s dated “13 Nov 1959.” It’s composed in mid-century, manual typewriter hieroglyphics: lots of quick hyphens, clunky underlines, letters on top of each other and others kerned far apart—like teeth in a head missing a few—and a heaviness in places where the writer meant to really hammer home a thought.

The miscues are smashed over with a bunch of Xs. I’ve cleaned it up here, but the message will remain a mystery:

“Following actions taken this date at the personal request of Walter Ahlum:”

“Killed- –

Two    3-col cuts of interior of old West Third Street restaurant

One    2-col cut of W.H. and Joseph M. Johnson receiving chili recipe from father, I.O.”

“Virgil D. Curry, Librarian”

Walter Ahlum also wrote for The Tulsa Democrat where, he confessed in a 1950s column, “My instructions were one legitimate local item to four faked ones, very easy to conceal because the town was growing so rapidly that few people knew each other.”

“Cuts” are references to photographs. “Kill” means file and never print again.

***

“I remember it pretty well,” Zurn recalled, in 2004 and on his last legs. “It was ’59 so, let’s see, I was 11. And I was mad as hell. I was the one who advocated a lawsuit. To me, the brutal fact was the sneaky way it was done.”

A kid appeared from the kitchen and set a plate down in front of Zurn. On it were four pancakes swimming in syrup and six strips of bacon, which Zurn pushed off onto the placemat to make room.

“They’re apple this time, instead of banana,” said the cook. “I didn’t have any banana. Anything else?”

“No,” Zurn said. “Yes! Whipped cream. And I could use a fork.”

The guy hurried out and returned with a bag for piping cream. Zurn swirled a big snake of it onto his cakes.

“Would you mind getting me a glass of milk, thank you.”

Then he eyeballed me wildly, as if he’d forgotten I was there.

“There were other signs,” he said. “I could see it coming. But I don’t mean to sound clairvoyant. What irks me is, I’d get phonecalls. ‘What the hell’s with that chili on Harvard!’ I remember it being lighter in color. And the flavor, it just didn’t taste the same.

“It makes me mad when I get chewed out for something I didn’t do. Pride, I guess.”

I rose to leave an hour later and, for the first time, noticed Zurn’s T-shirt. “Chili … and a little bit more,” it read.

***

Chili greases both sides of the spoon, of course. I went to Burgundy Place, out near the old City of Faith, to get Selma’s.

“I don’t want to get into the family deal,” she said but we do anyway. What happened in 1959 was this:

“Our son came out of college and, um, when Ivan’s son (W.H.) got into the business there was a little difference of opinion about this and that. My husband wanted to keep the ‘Chili Parlor’ name and Ivan and his son, Bill, thought ‘Chili House’ was more appropriate for the times.

“Our son went into business out on South Harvard.”

One night there, a Coke machine blew up from carbonation overload. “Thank God we were closed,” Robert Johnson said. The scrapbook photos show a toppled container and a black spot on the floor, as if the IRA had taken an interest in the politics of chili.

“When we opened the chili parlor on Harvard,” said Selma, “we cooked it the same way the Uncle Ike cooked it—on a gas stove with three burners for three vats that each held 50 pounds of chili meat.

“Of course, today meat is not the same.”

Selma paused for me to catch up in my notes.

“My husband continued to use Gebhardt’s chili powder. There were just different little things that my husband liked to do. In fact, he was the one who’d measure the spice and see that it got cooked properly. He was the younger brother and sort of took over. He wasn’t married at the time, not until 33.”

Selma, fresh from a stint at Miss DeHaven’s flower shop, married into the chili business.

“I didn’t come into the family until 1933. Of course, that’s a sore spot. This younger generation had all sorts of other ideas.”

***

In 1942, Vera Jackson and Pat Rogers donned the aprons of Ike’s Chili, the first women ever to do so. In 1950, W.H. and Joseph M., twins sons of Ivan O., opened Ike’s Suburban, 2413 E. Admiral Place, in Whittier Square. In 1954, W.H. began wholesaling Ike’s frozen chili to local markets, perhaps with a little press payola. “After a long, hard day’s work,” one story began, “this reporter decided to treat herself to a delicious dinner and maybe a few drinks at Ike’s.”

***

In 1966, Zurn left Tulsa for Tulane. In 1970, he went to work at Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ older houses. “That’s where I learned to do bananas Foster. And specialty drinks. The Bluetail Fly, which was cream of cacao, cream and blue curaçao. You shake it all up and serve it in a tall glass. It was a very good drink. And one with bananas, too … I forget.”

In 1972, Zurn and W.H. acquired The Forge from Grant Hastings, who’d stuck a big fireplace in the middle of the room and grilled, on his own Hasty-Bake “charcoal ovens,” burgers, steaks and game brought in by fellow hunters. Zurn lit up at the memory of it. “Oak tables, oak chairs, oak booths and an oak bar. I said, ‘We need to serve more than just chili here.’ ”

Zurn and his dad were sitting around one evening, trying to come up with a name for the place. W.H.’s tongue tied up and out came, “Now, about this atmosfood.” Zurn, perhaps alone, liked the way it sounded. “People didn’t get it,” he said. “And they were looking for Ike’s, which means chili.”

So they changed it. Ike’s Atmosfood became Chez Ike, a suggestion blurted out one night by a sufficiently impressed diner. “We were doing trout meuniere l’amandine, filets du poisson en soufflé, escargots champignon. That was a good one. It wasn’t expensive, compared with today’s prices. But people were having a hard time understanding the concept. It smacked of the French thing. At that time, Tulsa was a beef and taters kind of town.”

There may have been more to do with the naming of Chez Ike than guerilla marketing. In September 1972, W.H. sued W.P. and Robert over trademark usage. The suit was tossed from district court when it became clear that the secretary of state’s office had issued identical trademarks to both parties. W.H., then doing business as Ike’s Chili House, let his trademark expire. It was then issued to W.P., who was calling his place Ike’s Chili Parlor. Said the court: “When the trademark expired in 1970, both sides in the dispute apparently applied for renewal, leading to the fuss over rights to the name.”

 ***

William Harvey Johnson, son of Ivan Oliver, died at age 84 two days after Christmas of 2007. His son, William Zurn, went in May of ’08, taking with him the Johnson name if not the legacy. “He was a stickler for perfection—he took the chili very seriously. It was almost a religious experience to him.”

So said Zurn’s stepson, Chris Trail, in his dad’s obit. Trail runs the last remaining Ike’s Chili House, the one at 5941 E. Admiral Place, where four years before Zurn and I drank coffee. Trail is the keeper of the recipe Zurn got from William Harvey, the one that “ain’t wrote down,” Zurn told me in 2001.

Before the 2002 economy drove them out, Chris Trail got his wish, to bring Ike’s back downtown. Its painted windows still stand in the vacant first floor space of the Sinclair Building. Trail ran for City Council in 2009 and currently represents the 5th District.

“You’ll see businessmen sitting next to guys from American Airlines,” Zurn said during my last visit to Ike’s. I saw an American Indian walk by delivering soft drinks.

***

At age 26, Tom Slick sold all of his Cushing holdings for $2 million. Seventeen years later, he sold all he’d amassed again for $35 million. Slick, the darling of Cushing, died in 1930, at 46, overworked.

Ivan O. Johnson shot himself somewhere in his home at 1220 E. 17th Place on 27 October 1966. “A revolver lay near Mr. Johnson’s body,” the Tribune reported. “County Investigator Claude Davis ruled the death an apparent suicide.” A recent cataract surgery had left him “despondent,” relatives were quoted.

The press clipping isn’t marked “Tribune,” but Hilary Pittman, the Tulsa World librarian, and arguably its greatest asset, could tell by the clues: the use of “today” in the lead (the World, being a morning paper, would have written “yesterday”), a teaser to Jim Downing’s column on the back side of the clipping, and by the serif headline font.

You have to read to the fifth paragraph to find out that I.O. and W.H. were mere days away from opening the shop out on Admiral. “Opening of this restaurant was postponed today because of the senior partner’s death.” Johnson died on Thursday. The Admiral shop was to have opened Monday. Again, it is the last left standing.

I drove by the house, just south of B’nai Emunah synagogue, a few years ago and found it for sale. I e-mailed the broker to arrange a viewing but never got a reply. The house finally sold.

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