There’s No Topping Larry Kluger
Larry Kluger, aka Lariat Larry, is a juggler, trick roper, and prize-winning baker.
Photo courtesy Larry Kluger
Oakland residents are a talented bunch, from a juggler who deftly tosses clubs while perched atop a 6-foot unicycle, to a trick roper who plies the lasso and spins tales of the Old West, to a baker whose cookies and confections have swept the awards at the last two Alameda County Fairs. Wait a minute — all these talents belong to one man, Larry Kluger, who literally wears many hats (top hat, chef cap, and cattleman’s hat).
For 20 years, Kluger, now 69, taught math in schools across Alameda County, and now he uses those math skills for his latest passion, competitive baking, as he figures out the measurements for the 20-plus recipes he plans to enter in this year’s Alameda County Fair Cooking competitions.
Kluger, a longtime Oakland resident, started juggling in college and quickly advanced to performing and teaching juggling in a range of venues, including Wavy Gravy’s summer camp, Camp Winnarainbow. Attending a jugglers’ convention in 1990, he discovered a new love: trick roping. A master of the art showed him a few basics and sold him a rope. “I was no stranger to practice,” Kluger said. His disciplined routine of daily practice had allowed him to advance from juggling balls to manipulating obscure objects, such as top hats, cigar boxes, devil sticks, and diablos.
After a year of daily practice with the lasso, Kluger purchased a cowboy outfit that dated to the mid-1800s and a beaver fur felt hat and began performing at various events. In his persona as Lariat Larry, he still appears at parties and conventions, where guests are thrilled to be lassoed by him for a photo. He also bills himself as a “cowboy storyteller” and recounts true tales of the Old West, finding material by researching newspaper articles from the 1800s. In one of his favorite stories, he takes on the persona of a 19-year-old woman who marries a young frontiersman and moves to live with him in an isolated cabin in Wyoming. One day, while her husband is traveling, she is abducted by three young ruffians, but she singlehandedly dispatches them by her quick thinking and deft ability with a pistol.
With time on his hands after he retired from teaching in 2010, Kluger took up baking. Among his first attempts were oatmeal cookies. He noticed the Alameda County Fair had a category for oatmeal cookies, so he entered, but did not win. The loss only lit his fire to keep on baking. Over the next several years, Kluger continued entering and started winning. His first taste of victory, a single blue ribbon, only motivated him to do even better. In 2018, he was awarded a total of 28 ribbons, including nine first-place blue ribbons, nine judges’ favorites, and the overall Best of Show, an honor he repeated in 2019. His prize-winning creations include almond walnut thumbprint cookies with homemade cherry jam, praline pecan fudge, poppy seed babka, raspberry-pistachio Turkish delight, Chinese moon cakes with red bean paste, and salted maple bourbon caramels. When Kluger broadened his repertoire to include preserved foods, he also scored ribbons for his strawberry rhubarb jam, smoked pickled okra, and green chili and tomatillo salsa. He usually finds recipes on the internet or in books, compares them, and makes a few adjustments. As someone with lactose intolerance, Kluger is happy to accommodate dietary restrictions.
Last year, Kluger entered 24 of his creations and won 20 ribbons. He makes everything himself in his “not-so-big kitchen” and this is an area where his math skills come in handy. The judges require only seven cookies or truffles for each dish entered. Kluger does the math to reduce each recipe to produce just a few more than seven pieces. The biggest challenge to entering so many different competitions in such a short time is organization. Since all his entries need to taste fresh, he prepares their mise en places early, which saves time at the pressure-filled finale, the day before all the entries are due, when he may bake for 18 hours straight.
To increase his repertoire, Kluger recently enrolled in Laney College’s culinary baking and pastry program to learn more about the science of baking and the reasons why certain recipes didn’t turn out. He also wants to up his game, since winning depends both on good taste and a special look. When he learned that one of the requirements in Laney’s program is a class in “culinary math,” Kluger explained his background as a teacher to be granted an exemption. He was then asked to tutor fellow students, to help them answer questions such as “how many tablespoons in a quart?”
“I really don’t feel like a special person,” he said. “I just find a number of activities I enjoy doing and I want to do them the best I possibly can. I also enjoy sharing the skills I have learned with others.”
For his final project in the advanced cake decorating class, Kluger tied together several chapters of his life by fashioning a witty red cake in the shape of a pair of cowboy boots.