Ask a Portlander about jojos, and a lot of them will tell you the same story: It's just a funny name people in the Northwest call a potato wedge. The name was invented here and is used only here—a country quirk of our nation's upper-left corner.
Every Californian tends to hear the word for the first time when they arrive in Oregon, granting credence to this version of events. Jojos are a staple of old-school truck stops and bars all over Oregon and Washington, a word most locals will apply to any old potato cut lengthwise into wedges.
But there's more to it than just frying up a wedge potato in a pan. The roots of the jojo go deep into the country's industrial midsection. Ask the man whose family is responsible for more of them locally than anyone.
"A true jojo is a potato wedge that's been breaded, pressure fried and spiced," says Paul Nicewonger.
For 40 years, the company Paul's father started, Nicewonger Co., flooded the Portland area with pressure fryers used to make chicken and jojos. In the '80s, every city in Oregon had something called a jojo. Oregon remains obsessed with the jojo—state-by-state slang maps show Oregon Googles the word disproportionately often—but it's not unique, and probably not something that started here.
The jojo is intertwined with a technological wonder of the modern age: the pressure fryer. Essentially, it's a pressure cooker filled with hot oil that allows meat to be cooked quickly, at high heat, while still staying juicy. Pressure frying is the only reason fast-food fried chicken exists at all: Colonel Sanders had been experimenting with the process as early as the '40s, when it was a dangerous and improvised method involving the occasional hot-oil explosion.
Alongside Henny Penny, the Broaster Company of Beloit, Wisc., was the one of the first to make a reliable pressure fryer, and so "broasting" became synonymous with the machines. The brand-name has become genericized today.
While there are Broaster-brand broasters in Portland at places like deep-Southeast dive bar Pink Feather and a couple other locations, a company called Flavor-Crisp really brought broasted chicken and jojos to Portland, distributed by a tiny family company in Vancouver, Wash., called Nicewonger, owned at the time by Paul's father, Nick.
"My father actually invented the jojo," Nicewonger says.
At the time, Nicewonger was distributing pressure fryers through the whole Portland metro area, selling the first ones to a chain of drive-in theaters in 1958.
According to Nicewonger, his father was at a restaurant trade show demonstrating the marvels of pressure-frying chicken, and just so happened to be next to some guys from Idaho who were hawking potatoes.
"A potato will clean up the oil real nice," says Nicewonger. "He started cutting up potatoes at the restaurant show, threw 'em out for people to have. People started grabbing 'em and they wanted to know what they were. He called them jojos. It's what he told me—he just said it's what came into his head."
Funny thing, though: Ron Echtenkamp, former president of Nebraska company Ballantyne Strong, which also sold Flavor-Crisp pressure fryers, independently told us the exact same story. Except in Echtenkamp's version, the guy who said "jojo" was a Flavor-Crisp salesman from the Midwest.
"The guy that actually started the jojo by accident was Ed Nelson—that was back in 1961," Echtenkamp tells WW. "He was the VIP of the company for a while. Where it started was they were at the national restaurant show in Chicago. The guy was from Idaho russet potatoes in the next booth. He said, 'I can show you how to freshen up that grease… '"
Nobody knows exactly what happened at that Chicago trade show. But Flavor-Crisp had a hit on their hands. Flavor-Crisp salesman across the country sold the idea of jojos with their pressure fryers.
"We started selling them in 1962," says Echtenkamp. "We'd tell people, you cut the potato into quarters, it takes the same time to cook as a two-and-a-quarter to two-and-a-half pound chicken—you can cook a complete fried meal at the same time."
Flavor-Crisp reps reportedly sold those jojos in Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northeast Ohio, upstate New York and the Pacific Northwest—Echtenkamp says the company even had a trademark on jojos. This patchwork of jojo states allowed any place where jojos were sold to believe they invented the word themselves—Nicewonger told us that perhaps only people in the Northwest used the term.
The company no longer makes the fryers, and locally, Nicewonger mostly sells the breading—Henny Penny makes a lot of the pressure fryers now sold locally. But Nicewonger figures he and his father were responsible for a sizeable chunk of the jojos broasted in this town—including the old Flavor-Crisp pressure fryer they sold to the Reel M Inn.
We'll get more into the local lore as Jojo Month rolls on. For now, just remember that it's not unique to the Northwest, and that if it's not breaded and pressure-fried, it's not a jojo. "There are a lot of places that will call anything a jojo," Nicewonger says. "A whole lot of people call a potato wedge a jojo in this marketplace."
More on Jojos:
Portland's Finest Chicken is Served in a Division Street Dive Bar