We’ve seen them hundreds of times, these cylinders of compressed meat spinning slowing in front of a burning-red heating element. They’re fixtures at Greek restaurants from here to Anchorage, but who exactly invented these ubiquitous cones of gyro meat?
David Segal, a former Postie who cut his teeth as a City Paper freelancer years ago, took up the challenge of unearthing its creator in today’s Dining & Wine section in the New York Times. It’s a flawlessly written piece that comes to an unlikely conclusion: The inventor of the gyro cone was not Greek, not Greek-American, but a Jewish Cadillac salesman named John J. Garlic.
So, who was John Garlic?
“He was this big guy,” she said, “like 6 foot 2 inches tall, dark curly hair, couple hundred pounds. A former Marine. A super intelligent, super entertaining man. My brother used to say, ‘When John Garlic enters a room, you know you’re going to have fun.’ “
And he was Greek?
“No, no,” she said. “He was Jewish.”
As we digest the fact that the Father of the American Gyro was Jewish, we ask the obvious next question: Where did he get the idea?
“From me,” Ms. Garlic said. “One afternoon, I was watching ‘What’s My Line?’ and there was a Greek restaurant owner on the show, and he did this demonstration, carving meat off a gyro. I immediately called an operator and asked for the number of a Greek restaurant in New York. The owner I got on the phone said, ‘Go to Chicago, there’s a huge Greek community.’ ” At the time, Mr. Garlic was a Cadillac salesman, in his late 30s, but he quickly saw his future in gyro cones. After finding a Chicago chef willing to share a recipe, the couple rented space in a sausage plant and cranked out history’s first assembly-line gyro cones. They were a hit.
“We supplied summer festivals, universities, some restaurants,” Ms. Garlic said. “John could sell anything.”
The sad thing, as Segal reports, is that the Garlics reaped only dollars from their idea while Chicago’s gyro moguls would go on to earn millions from all those spinning skewers of sweaty meat.
Photo by MontageMan via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License