On a day in December last year, in the early morning hours, the peace inside St. John’s Lutheran Church in Somonauk, Illinois, was shattered when an unseen vandal threw an object through one of the church’s stained-glass windows. The culprit was never caught, but the police dutifully filed a report, noting one salient detail: the projectile was a jar of blue cheese-stuffed olives.
One could say the blue cheese-stuffed olive cut a similarly forceful arc through the American bar some 20 or so years ago. Arguments over which garnish best suited a Martini—an olive or a lemon twist—suddenly seemed quaint once this brassy refugee from the hors d’oeuvres platter arrived. It took only a few years in the late 1990s for it to girdle the globe. Today, it remains a bar staple, particularly at steakhouses and other eateries where delicate appetites are unknown. Some proudly crow that they stuff their own olives—even though they needn’t, as there are now numerous commercially produced brands on the market.
It’s a remarkable success story, particularly when you consider that the garnish field hasn’t produced many of them. In the 200 years or so that the cocktail has been around, only a handful of edible accouterments (lemon twist, cherry, pearl onion, mint sprig) have shown staying power, and most of those were introduced long ago.
Unlike the Martini it adorns, which has too many parties claiming parentage to mention, no one has laid claim to inventing the blue cheese-stuffed olive. It does, however, seem to have a hometown of sorts.
On January 14, 1994, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, reviewing a steakhouse called The Saloon, noted in almost blasé terms that “They plunked blue cheese-stuffed olives into Martinis.” Nearly two years later, on Dec. 15, 1995, the same paper interviewed a bartender at Club Lucky, another steakhouse, who said, “People come here for a martini, vodka or gin, straight up with blue cheese stuffed olives. We stuff ‘em ourselves.”
Jim Higgins, the co-owner of Club Lucky, which is still open and still stuffing olives, tells me that the restaurant has been dropping them into Martinis (three per toothpick) since it opened in 1989. “I wanted a house drink,” says Higgins, who claims Club Lucky was among the first restaurants in Chicago to help bring Martinis back to the fore of local drinking habits.
By 1997, Rossi’s Steak and Rib House in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was boasting of its “famous Martini with blue cheese stuffed olives.” Soon, the phenomenon broke out of the Midwest and, indeed, the United States. In 1999, Sydney had them. In 2000, the U.K. But Chicago—and the Tribune—remained particularly obsessed.
On December 29, 2002, reporter Judy Hevrdejs delved into the stuffed-olive mania that had apparently gripped the city. “In that tiny territory long claimed by the cherry-red chunk of pimento, martini drinkers can now find blue cheese or garlic cloves or jalapeño peppers,” she wrote. “Or—and we’re not kidding here—anchovies, almonds, asparagus, feta, mushrooms or habanero peppers.” Ami Franklin of Blue Plate Catering was quoted, saying, “These days, at the minimum, we’re doing blue cheese-stuffed olives.”
“You press it into a container of blue cheese, filing a short tube,” Kass explained. “Insert the tube into the olive, press the handle, the cheese is injected. A work of art anticipates the toothpick.”
No one at the daily carried the blue cheese torch higher—or longer—than Tribune columnist John Kass. Kass told me that he discovered the treat in 1997 while lunching with politicians and journalists at Gene & Georgetti, an old Chicago steakhouse. “An older fellow ordered a Martini,” Kass recalls. “I thought I’d try one. It came with two blue cheese olives. And I was hooked.”
He let the world know. “Who was the greatest inventor in history?” he asked rhetorically in his August 19, 2002, column. “You might think it is the guy who dreamed up the Italian beef sandwich. Or the various creators of the TV remote control, blue cheese-stuffed olives, ESPN and so on.”
A mere month later, he devoted an entire column to Marty Marcuccilli, who had invented the Olive Express, a device that could stuff an olive with blue cheese in the blink of an eye. Kass thought him a genius worthy of a MacArthur grant. “You press it into a container of blue cheese, filing a short tube,” Kass explained. “Insert the tube into the olive, press the handle, the cheese is injected. A work of art anticipates the toothpick.”
Marcuccilli, a Chicago native, had long experience with the fancy olives. As early as the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when he was an executive with Zenith, he remembers taking note of the garnishes. “I spent a lot of time going to nice restaurants with people,” he tells me. “That’s where I came across them.”
Higgins, too, recalls encountering the blue cheese-stuffed olive before he made them a Club Lucky specialty. “They weren’t really common,” he says, “but if you went to the right steakhouse, you could get them.”
Stuffed olives as snacks are an old idea. In the early 20th century, you could buy them filled with almonds, anchovies, onions and the bright-red Spanish pepper called the pimiento. The latter, of course, made its way into the Martini early on, and remains the garnish most associated with the cocktail. Media mentions of anchovy-stuffed olives in Martinis appear in the 1970s, followed by a 1981 Texas Monthly report of jalapeño-stuffed cocktail olives, promoted by “Jalapeño Sam” Lewis, a notorious huckster also known for racing armadillos.
In 1971, there was a sudden craze for blue cheese-stuffed cocktail olives. But the olives in question were not the jumbo green ones we see today, but black olives. “In San Francisco,” wrote Earl Wilson, in “It Happened Last Night,” his popular syndicated column, “the Black Olive Martini at Phil Lehr’s Steakery satisfies those who want dry martinis. Ripe olives are stuffed with blue cheese and soaked in vermouth for two seconds—that’s all the vermouth there is in a ‘B.O.M.’” The drink spread to other bars and restaurants as well.
That brief sensation, however, seems to have been the work of California’s olive lobby. Columnist Dorothy Oliver, writing in the Chicago Daily Herald, told how “the Olive Administrative Committee of the California Ripe Olive Industry” rode into town and introduced two new, stuffed black olive cocktails to The Drake hotel: the B.O.M. (which she misreported as “The Bomb”) and The Black Eye (vodka, Dubonnet Blonde and a gherkin-stuffed black olive).
Neither drink caught on. In 1990, however, blue cheese-stuffed olives surfaced again as garnishes at a Tennessee restaurant called Hibrows, according to the The Tennessean. The phenomenon’s trajectory beyond that is difficult to track. One thing that’s clear is the trend built up a head of steam in the mid-1990s, just as the Martini revival began in earnest.
Bars soon began offering long “Martini menus,” in which the traditional cocktail was adulterated in myriad ways. If the drink could be corrupted, why not the garnish as well? “The switch from gin to vodka isn’t the only transformation,” wrote Thomas Connors in the trusty, olive-mad Tribune in 1995. “Bitters, once a key ingredient, are rarely used these days, while choice of garnishes has expanded to include olives stuffed with blue cheese.”
The same period of time saw a rise in popularity of the Dirty Martini. While that drink does not typically carry a blue cheese-stuffed olive, they occasionally find themselves in the same glass. “They kind of went hand in hand,” says Higgins of Club Lucky. “It was a better fit.”
Brother Cleve, the Boston cocktail guru, meanwhile, cites the blue cheese-stuffed olive’s natural home—the steakhouse—as crucial to the garnish’s coming of age. “The idea of a steakhouse doing this first makes total sense to me,” says Cleve, who, as a musician with various bands, spent much of the 1990s touring the United States and visiting its many bars.
His theory—a bit far-fetched, but not entirely implausible given the garnish’s goofy history—hinges on the close proximity of blue cheese and Martinis in any given steakhouse. “Perhaps with the low-fat trends of the late ‘80s they weren’t getting enough calls for bacon and blue cheese baked potatoes, so some forward thinking GM or bar manager said, ‘Hey, let’s stuff it in the olives!'”