Karen Tei Yamashita is always full of the most interesting Nisei history, and when she told me that a Nisei woman ran a famous cafe in North Beach in the 60s and invented the mud pid dessert, I just had to find out who it was. Unfortunately, I discovered who this charming woman was too late, as she passed away in November, 2004. However, I believe her husband is still living and might be worth tracking down for Shig related memories.
But what a thrill, to find this utterly unique Nisei in the thick of the North Beach bohemian scene. The story just gets lusher and more fantastic by the day.
From the San Francisco Chronicle obituary:
Joanna Chiyo Nakamura Droeger, who is said to have invented Mud Pie at her once-famous San Francisco restaurant that was popular with writers and other notables, died Thursday at age 76.
She died at home in Cupertino from natural causes following prolonged health problems, said her son, Michael Droeger of San Francisco.
Part of San Francisco's bohemian artists community, Ms. Droeger and her husband, John Droeger, were married in 1957 and the same year opened the Brighton Express restaurant adjacent to the Old Spaghetti Factory.
The restaurant soon relocated on Pacific Street and became a hangout for writers and performers, both famous and soon-to-be-famous. Among the regulars were authors Christopher Isherwood and Herbert Gold and budding impresario Bill Graham "at a time when all he owned was a motorcycle," said John Droeger, now of Patagonia, Ariz.
Semiregulars and guests included William Saroyan, Janis Joplin, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers, Imogene Cunningham, Gus Hall and Woody Allen in company with Herb Caen.
Joanna Droeger was "jolly, laughing, funny, accepting," recalled Gold. "Where she walked, she dragged good vibes along with her."
A Chronicle "Night Life" column by Grover Sales paid tribute in 1962:
"Among North Beach restaurateurs, Joanna is regarded as a gifted and highly creative cook; in ready agreement are the inhabitants of the Brighton Express, an eatery in the old International Settlement on Pacific near Kearny that is truly beyond category.
"Owned and most feverishly operated by egg-shaped Joanna and her 6-foot-6 husband John Droeger, the Brighton Express serves as dining room, orphanage and social clinic for a strictly non-tourist clientele of entertainers, artists, writers and unclassifiables who subsist on Joanna's Daily Special, topped off with one of her unbelievable hand-crafted desserts -- usually a rhapsodic coffee ice cream and fudge delicacy misleadingly titled 'Mud Pie.' "
Her son Michael traced the origin of the dessert in a biographical sketch:
"Perhaps my mother's biggest claim to fame is as the inventor of the dessert Mud Pie in 1957," he wrote. "Her original concoction of an Oreo cookie crust, coffee ice cream and homemade fudge topping has been often imitated."
She got the idea from "an article my mother read about the then-newly married Barbra Streisand and Elliot Gould," he said. "They apparently kept a freezer under their bed so they could eat coffee ice cream without leaving the bedroom. My mother thought that that was such a decadent and wonderful thing that she went about looking to create a coffee ice cream dessert.
"The name came quite innocently enough when someone saw her making the pies (pressing the ice cream into the crust by hand) and asked what she was doing. 'Oh, just making mud pies,' she replied. The name stuck."
Born in Los Angeles as a sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, Ms. Droeger spent her early years with her older sister living in a convent. She was interned with other Japanese Americans during World War II at four detention camps: Tanforan, Tule Lake, Topaz and Amache. She began her final year of high school in a camp and graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco.
In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by a daughter, Gillian Droeger of San Francisco; and two sisters, Natalie Katayanagi of Richmond and Diane Sasaki of Detroit.
She refused to have a formal funeral, her son said, so a "festive service honoring her memory" will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundayat the Kimochi Center, 1840 Sutter St., San Francisco.
The family requests that donations in her memory be given to Project Open Hand, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, CA 94109.