by Jillian Holness
As a Western Pennsylvania native, I was confused when I first heard the term ‘Jojo.’ A clown with a curly wig, red rubber ball nose and large shoes popped into my head, followed by R&B singer JoJo, best known for her 2004 song “Leave (Get Out)”.
After spending some time at pizza shops and bars, I learned that Jojos are potato wedges. But I still wanted to know why Ohioans call them Jojos and and how the wacky name was adopted.
Fiesta Pizza and Chicken claims to have introduced Jojos to the 330. Its website states that best friends Alfred Ajamie and Walter Abood founded Fiesta Pizza and Chicken in 1963. Their vision was to establish the first restaurant in Akron where patrons could satisfy their cravings for pizza and chicken at one place.
Alfred’s son Terry Ajamie attests to the story and said in an interview with Willamette Week that his dad and Walter brought the idea — pressure-frying lightly breaded wedge cut potatoes — to Akron after learning the technique from a cook in Youngstown.
Terry says that it took his dad and Walter a few tries before turning the potatoes into crispy, mouthwatering perfection in 1963.
“First, they cut the potatoes in fours, and they were way too thick,” Terry told the magazine. “They weren’t done in the middle. Eventually, they started cutting them in eights, and they were a whole lot better.”
Terry may claim that his dad and Walter are the pioneers of Jojos in northeast Ohio, but the fried potato also has roots in Portland, Oregon.
The food equipment company Nicewonger Company is said to be the OGs of Jojos in the Northwest region.
Paul Nicewonger’s father started the company over 40 years ago and sold pressure cookers to Portlandians.Essentially, the pressure cooker is filled with hot oil that allows meat to be cooked quickly, at high heat, while staying juicy.
Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, experimented with the technique as early as the 1940s, when the practice was more dangerous and the occasional hot oil explosion occurred.
Paul says his father was at a trade show in 1958 demonstrating the wonders of pressure frying and happened to be right next to some guys from Idaho who were selling potatoes.
He started cutting up potatoes at the restaurant show, threw ’em out for people to have,” Paul says. “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.”
Ron Echtenkamp, former president of Ballantyne Strong, a technology solutions company based in Nebraska, told the exact same story — except former Vice President Ed Nelson created Jojos at a 1961 restaurant show in Chicago.
Since the internet doesn’t have all the answers and time machines don’t exist, there’s no 100-percent factual proof of who the inventor of Jojos is.
As for how the potatoes became known as Jojos, it’s rumored that the name derived from the idea of “junk” because the parts of the potatoes were considered scraps until entrepreneurs realized they could be pressure fried and turned into crispy, delicious gold.
Jillian Holness is a recent graduate of Kent State University’s School of Journalism.
Photo at top: Jojo eating contest at Signal Tree Festival on Aug. 11, 2018. Photo by Ashley Kouri.