So here’s the thing about life: You think you’re going to make all these choices. And sure, you make some. But some also get made for you.
You say, I’m going to be this and I’m not going to be that. And then the lines blur and you end up a mix of this and that.
Jordan Monkarsh is the son of a Jewish butcher, who fled Poland in the 1930s — and who himself was the son of a ritual slaughterer in the old country.
Growing up, Monkarsh, born and raised in L.A., had no plans to assume the meat mantle. He was a reader. He was a dreamer. He loved poetry.
But again, here’s the thing: Even if you have the luxury of choice, you may in a way already be chosen. You may have things inside of you, passed down to you, nudging you along, that for years you don’t even recognize.
Maybe the name Jordan Monkarsh doesn’t ring a bell for you? How about the alter ego he made up, the often brash, sometimes ribald Jody Maroni who built an empire out of Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom, “the home of the haut dog,” the little business he launched by the beach?
On Sunday, I went to say goodbye to Jody Maroni’s, which is closing shop after 40 years. And as Monkarsh offered up free food and the last sausages sizzled on the grill at his first stand, I took in the well-known sausage king’s rich life, strengthened by deep community connections, but also his hunger for new adventures and the push-me, pull-you forces at work in shedding the old and making room for the new.
Monkarsh, who also goes by Jody, still has a USDA sausage factory in Fullerton. He’ll continue to provide sausage to restaurants and institutions.
But it wasn’t that long ago, before the tougher times brought on first by 9/11 and then by the Great Recession, that Jody Maroni’s name was everywhere — not just in L.A.
Long before it was common in the sausage world, Monkarsh put his creativity to use on interesting flavor combinations — chicken molé, duck sausage with orange and cumin, a sausage made to mimic the flavors of the roast chicken and plantains served up at Versailles Cuban restaurants.
You could pick up a Jody Maroni’s sausage on the New Jersey turnpike and at airports across the land, in Las Vegas and Phoenix and Detroit and three terminals at LAX. You could eat them at the Century City mall or at CityWalk.
Jody Maroni’s sausages went to Dodger Stadium. You could watch the Padres in San Diego while eating them. You could buy Jody Maroni’s sausages at Trader Joe’s or Costco and heat them at home.
Or you could do what a lot of people liked best — and what I did Sunday — and take Venice Boulevard all the way to the ocean to eat them at the spot they first appeared, just steps from the sand.
Now the little stand with the family apartment on top has been sold to the owners of one of the carnival-style fried food stands by the beach. Monkarsh moved out this week, leaving behind a whole lot of history.
As Jody Maroni, he grew famous for handing out sausage samples with a side of mildly salacious stand-up. And it was only on the boardwalk where he could get away with just about anything that popped out of his mouth.
“Hey you! Come over here and taste it! Your wife needs to taste my sausage! Don’t you want to go to heaven?”
He did a lot of things for laughs, like posing with sausage links wrapped around his head and neck and shoulders a la Peter O’Toole in full headdress as Lawrence of Arabia.
And at first it was just an act. He was nothing like this bigger-than-life character he‘d dreamed up. And he didn’t really see the connection to his father Max’s suave style of doling out advice to the women planning dinners for their husbands at Max’s Prime Meats, his Studio City butcher shop.
Jody Monkarsh had spent a lot of time in his youth pushing away any thoughts of inheriting that role.
At 13, he hadn’t liked it when his father got him started making sausages for the shop.
Then he headed to Berkeley to study English and comparative literature and found work in fine dining and wandered the world for a bit — and he seemed right on course to veer off course and abandon his marbled family line.
He made his way around the country. He worked at a fish-packing plant in Seward, Alaska. He was a children’s librarian. He got a job in the casino of a Caribbean cruise ship. He spent time in Europe and Mexico.
Back in L.A. in 1979, he found in his travels what at first he saw as a temporary way to make some money. Inspired by the street food he’d seen elsewhere, he got someone to build a makeshift cart with a grill and piled on the Italian sausages he knew how to make and rolls he bought — and set up shop selling sausage sandwiches on the Venice boardwalk, in front of a little two-story Ocean Walk apartment building that his parents recently had bought.
The sausages sold fast. His schtick seemed to work. He kept being hauled into court for the cart, which was illegal. But he kept on selling — until 1984, when the Olympics came to town and he converted the bottom floor of his parents’ building into his first brick-and-mortar sausage stand.
Soon he was living upstairs and cooking downstairs and soaking up the Venice scene, which back then was wild, he said, “quaaludes and roller skates” and people of all races coming together in a way they rarely did in other parts of the city. Those who lived in Venice at the time, he said, included many free thinkers. He could always find a good debate or talk politics or activism or books. So that part of him wasn’t just pushed aside.
When his parents retired and he got married and started a family, he moved out of the beach apartment and they moved in, for about 20 years. Later, after his parents died and his marriage broke up, he moved back, with his four “sausage prince” sons in residence off and on. Upstairs, Max Monkarsh’s well-worn butcher block covered with a glass top served as the dining table.
Over the years, both Monkarsh and his parents got involved in Venice affairs. They sat on local boards and councils. They got to know just about everyone.
And in this free-form corner of the world, the introverted bookish boy and the extroverted sausage salesman melded into one. Which part is more real now? “After 40 years, it’s hard to say,” Monkarsh told me on Sunday, as barefoot drifters and homeless people and longtime friends and neighbors lined up for his food.
Please don’t go, they kept telling him in not so subtle ways. Don’t take away the real food to make room for more deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos.
But Monkarsh says the boardwalk has been going downhill while the rest of Venice grows richer. The two don’t connect. The new rich residents don’t much visit the beach. “I’m too fancy for the boardwalk now and too cheap for Abbot Kinney,” he said, only half-joking.
He had to give up handing out samples some years ago because too many hungry beach denizens were coming back again and again all day. And as for his old customers, the ones he could talk to for hours about anything, they long since “had kids and got successful and moved to the exoburbs,” he told me — to Westlake Village and Agoura Hills.
Anyway, he still has a lot of non-sausage dreams to fulfill. He wants to travel again. He hopes to lie on a beach or two and read. He plans to stop just yelling at his TV and “be like Don Quixote,” going wherever the progressive group Swing Left tells him he has the best shot to help try to defeat President Trump in 2020.
“I feel as if I have been balancing on a rope for years, and now it’s time to start to walk on the Earth again,” he wrote to me in a recent note as I peppered him with questions about his past and his future.
How many people in this city of a certain age can bring up a tangle of sense memories, of Coppertone and salt water and sausage? For Monkarsh and his sons and his shops’ many longtime workers, the history, of course runs much deeper.
On Sunday, two of his sons, Henry, 22, and Sam, 32, kept hugging each other and weeping.
They were saying goodbye to the home upstairs that featured in their earliest memories. They were saying goodbye to the kitchen downstairs, where they had worked as they grew up.
“It’s really hard to talk about my family without talking about Jody Maroni’s, so it feels like we’re sitting shiva,” said Henry, who had flown in from New York.
As for Sam, watching so many Venice people hug his father and thank his father and tell his father how much they would miss him, he suddenly better understood his legacy.
He used to cringe at his father’s loud showmanship, he said. He used to want him to be more like other dads, more organized and ordinary and conventional.
“He’s just not built like that exactly, but he’s filled with this spirit of community and creative vision and he sort of lives in this fantasy world which is so beautiful — but I rarely allow myself to sort of appreciate it,” Sam said.
He clearly was appreciating it Sunday, as the sun set and tears rolled down his cheeks.