It was November 1933, when silent film organist Earl Abel opened his first ten-seat restaurant on Main Street. The Great Depression was in full swing and the onset of “talkies” left high paid entertainers jobless. Earl, who had once shared top billing with such celebrities as Rudy Vallee, Charlie Chaplin, and Bing Crosby, was forced to find a new way to support his family. Unable to find work in the theatre, even as an usher, he decided to travel the country in hopes of finding a job.
As fate would have it, he never left San Antonio. Instead, he took what money he’d saved, found a small house on Main Street, filled it with dime store plates and utensils, and opened for business. The rest is history-well, not quite.
The Great Depression was not the ideal time to start a business, especially when you’re well known as an organist, not a restaurateur. In fact, the majority of the time, the small diner brought in less than fifty cents a day. That’s when Earl realized he was going to have to make some changes and apply all of his skills as an entertainer.
As air conditioning was not yet wide-spread, his first act was to move the restaurant outside, better known as The Garden of Eatin”. There it was a cool 85 F compared to the indoor temperature of lOO F. From there he put his showbiz skills to work. For every nickel beer he sold, he’d tell the customers a few jokes and in return he’d get a few more. Pretty soon he’d collected a large repertoire of jokes and stories, which attracted as many customers as the great food.
Times were still tough; however, and Earl was down to his last $100 dollars when Duncan Hines featured the small diner in his book “Adventures In Good Eating.” That proved to be the turning point towards success. The restaurant expanded as its popularity grew, with Earl opening six other locations (even one in California). The advent of WWII caused severe labor shortages; however, forcing him to sell the other restaurants and concentrate solely on the Broadway location (pictured above, built in 1940).
Naturally, the original restaurant underwent many changes over the years, but was still going strong when I first ate there as a 9 year-old in 1956. The picture above shows what it was like throughout the 1950s.
The last time I was there was in 1994, and the food was as good if not better than I remembered it. Unfortunately, it was not to last. In 2006, the old eatery was demolished, and re-established in its new location on Austin Highway.
The once and only Earl Abel’s of my childhood was gone forever, and the new place – from all I’ve heard – isn’t quite the same, not the service, not the food, not the portions. Alas. At least they’re still making pies! At least the pies were salvageable, and a few recipes from the old menu.
So, armed with these two recipes, eat and enjoy, and imagine what it must’ve been like… once upon a time.
EARL ABEL’S FAMOUS RED CABBAGE
Makes 10-12 servings
10 strips bacon, chopped
1 cup chopped onions
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 1/2 pounds (about 1 medium head) shredded red cabbage
2 cups sugar
In large skillet (tested with a 133/8-inch iron skillet), cook bacon and onions until bacon is almost crisp and onions are soft, about 6-7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add vinegar and simmer 5 minutes. Add red cabbage and toss lightly — it will seem like too much for the pan, but it will reduce in volume as it cooks. Gradually add sugar and mix. Cover and cook over medium heat 15-20 minutes, removing lid and stirring occasionally every 3-5 minutes until cabbage is softened and tender, but not soggy. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Recipe can be halved or doubled.
Per serving (based on 12): 150 calories (15.1 percent calories from fat), 3 g fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 33 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g protein.
EARL ABEL’S MAPLE PECAN PIE
Makes 12-16 servings
3 cups water
3/4 cup plus 11/2 tablespoons dried milk powder
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk, such as Eagle Brand
1 1/2 cups good-quality pancake syrup
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup chopped pecans
2 (9-inch) baked pie crusts
3 cups whipped cream or whipped topping
Instructions: Place water, powdered milk and sweetened condensed milk in 51/2-quart or larger pot; mix well and heat. When milk powder is completely dissolved, remove 1 cup of liquid and put in mixing bowl. Bring remaining mixture in pan to boil; stir in syrup and butter. Bring back to boil. Add cornstarch and eggs to removed 1 cup liquid. Whisk well until smooth, then add mixture to boiling pot to thicken, whisking well to keep mixture from forming lumps. (Contents in pot will bubble toward the top.) Reduce heat to low boil and let cook, stirring occasionally, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in pecans. Divide mixture between pie shells. Let cool completely. Top with whipped cream. Store in refrigerator.
Per serving (based on 16): 570 calories (50.9 percent calories from fat), 32 g fat, 120 mg cholesterol, 64 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 8 g protein.