Like a spoon in soup, food memories stir the soul of anyone who spent time around Earl Pionke.
A big heirloom spoon.
From 1962 until 1984 Pionke owned and operated the Earl of Old Town, 1615 N. Wells, across the street from Second City. In 1974 he also opened Somebody Else's Troubles, 2470 N. Lincoln Ave. with songwriters Steve Goodman, Fred Holstein, BIll Redhead and Duke Nathaus. The bar was named after Goodman's second album and lasted until 1980.
The Earl was the launching pad for singer songwriters Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, John Prine and many others.
Many of today's alt and rock clubs connect food with music but Pionke was doing in the mid-1970s. He presented "Cook and Sing" night at Somebody Else's Troubles..........
......The headlining act would prepare a meal before his or her set. Proceeds from the special evening went to charity.
"Steve Goodman did the first one and I think he did Chicken Cordon Blues because he had that song out," John Prine recalled earlier this week in a call from Nashville, Tn.
"Chicken Cordon Blues" appeared on Goodman's 1972 "Somebody Else's Troubles" album.
"Duke always made his famous chili," Prine said. "That stuff would run through you like wildfire. When they came to me all I could make was a grilled cheese sandwich. And by the time I got done making the last grilled cheese, the first one was going to be cold. So I said, 'How about my favorite food? Al (Bunetta, Prine's long time manager) was in on this because he arranged it.
"We got White Castle and little ladies with their White Castle hats. A truck pulls up outside and they come out with these big baking sheets with stacks of White Castle burgers. I'd say most of the crowd was upscale North Siders (not sliders) , liberals wanting to support whatever was going on. I forgot where I gave the money. Everyobdy got three White Castles, an order of fries and a day old apple slice with an American flag stuck in it. (Laughs) And Duke's chili. I think it was one of the shorter sets I ever did. Between the chili and the White Castle burgers the bathroom line was huge. People were running out of the place afterwards. It was quite a night."
Pionke's 80th birthday (June 23) will be celebrated at 6 p.m. June 24 in a gala affair at FitzGerald's, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn.
The spirit of Katherine Agnes Pionke, Earl's mother will be in the room.
"In the summer my mother cooked soup off a coal and wood stove," Pionke said during a recent conversation on the front porch of his home in the far south Pullman neighborhood of Chicago. "It was 85 in July and 112 in the kitchen. She baked bread and coffee cake. On Sunday she would have two big pots of soup and a separate chicken for each pot on the side. A big bowl of homemade noodles and rice separate. Friends of the family would bring their own pot to our house if they were sick or had problems and they took it home. And we're in poverty.
"She has been my hero all my life since I was three years old."
Food even came into play in 1959 when Pionke and John Cale, his running partner from Waller High School bumped into Fidel Castro in Havana.
"We were there with a Spanish friend who was in the Army," Pionke recalled. "He was our escort. I took Spanish in high school. The most important phrase when you are in Havana is Cuánto cuesta la noche (How Much For The Night?) We were on the 11th floor of the Havana Hilton. Castro had come in from the mountains. Everything about the 11th floor was Castro's headquarters. So we saw him frequently. We took him out to dinner and there's a picture somewhere here (in his Pullman digs) of us at dinner. I'm in a suit and tie like an executive. I looked like Frank Sinatra. Che' (Guevara, military leader) was still in the mountains. All the other guests had left to get out and back to America. There were 10 other Americans and us three guys. I spent the money to get there, you think I wanted to lose my money?"
Pionke and his posse left on one of the last two pre-1959 revolutionary planes that left Cuba for Florida.
"We talked baseball with Fidel, a lot of it in Spanish," Pionke said. "That was all he liked about America. We talked for at least an hour and a half. He drank wine. We had rice and beans. Pineapples. Fresh fruits. He had two armed guards by the table next to him and two by the door. We were there for 10 days.
"I rented a nightclub one night and you should have been there to report on it"
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Koloc walked into the Earl for the first time when she was 23 years old. Pionke was cleaning the bar.
It was 1968 and Koloc was 23, arriving in Chicago from Waterloo, Ia.
"Earl had on a white shirt and he might have had a tie on," she recalled. " His hair wasn't as long as it is now. Richard Harding hired me first (at Poor Richard's). I heard Earl wanted to hire me but Freddie Holstein said, 'It's a beer joint, it's really noisy.' I knew how to work a room. No one knew I had worked Ramada Inns in Iowa for five years before I came to Chicago." Pionke hired Koloc and her guitar player for two weeks with a two week option. Prine said, "Bonnie brought some class to the place because she had worked Mister Kelly's a couple of times. You could get people to stop smoking during his set.
"Earl has been such a big part of my life," Koloc said. "We had Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas at the club. A lot of waitresses were teachers during the day." Koloc still remembers Anton Rath, the German cook who would put little hearts on cheeseburgers for his favorite customers. "His life was the Earl," she says. "He had been a cook on the circus."
He was in the right place.