Sullivan County is fortunate to have so many fantastic Italian restaurants that provide delicious cuisine. In America, a recent study tabulated that Italian food had an 88 percent popularity rating …
Sullivan County is fortunate to have so many fantastic Italian restaurants that provide delicious cuisine. In America, a recent study tabulated that Italian food had an 88 percent popularity rating with Mexican cuisine a close second at 86 percent. Coming in third was Chinese food at 84 percent. It shows that our tastebuds prefer veal parmigiana, burritos and General Tso’s chicken more than hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Our national preference for Italian food can, in large part, be traced back to the efforts of Hector Boiardi. The history of cuisine in America closely parallels the waves of immigrants who came to our shores at the beginning of the 20th century. Immigrants from France led many Americans to explore the offerings of French restaurants. Our image of French people was that they were educated, sophisticated and offered tasty exotic food. Many of the finer French restaurants offered dishes like cassoulet, escargot, and boeuf bourguignon. An unsubstantiated rumor claims that the father of Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s was the first to utter “Ou est le boeuf?” Decades later the English translation of that phrase would enter our collective memory in the commercials starring Clara Peller.
Hector Boiardi was a classically trained French chef at The Plaza Hotel in New York City. An Italian immigrant, he yearned to introduce America to his native food. In 1924 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio and opened a restaurant called The Garden of Italy. His chances for success were limited for two reasons. At that time, there was a perceived image that disparaged Italian immigrants also, most Americans, had never tasted Italian food.
Business was slow until Boiardi fine-tuned his sauce to make it less spicy for the American palate. The new sauce recipe combined with his introduction of spaghetti and meatballs, which had not been on American menus, led to customers asking for his recipes. Being a shrewd businessman, Boiardi kept the recipes secret but began selling jars of his sauce. The demand was so large that he shut down the restaurant and concentrated on selling his sauce.
In the 1920’s the concept of takeout food had only been implemented by Chinese restaurants who packed dishes in those foldable white containers still used today. Boiardi wanted to expand his business. He was one of the first to offer a box of ingredients that a homemaker could buy to make “Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce” at home. Each box had his name on it and contained a jar of sauce, uncooked spaghetti and a small package of parmigiana cheese.
Everything changed for Boiardi when he met with the owner of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. Eventually known as the A & P, it was America’s first supermarket chain. A & P liked Boiardi’s boxed meal and wanted to offer it nationwide with one condition. They agreed to Boiardi’s demand that his name remain on the box but opined that nobody in America could pronounce it. A & P suggested the name be changed. Hector reluctantly agreed and the Chef Boyardee brand was created.
Chef Boyardee began selling canned spaghetti and meatballs joining other companies in offering an easy way to make meals for the family. Business boomed until World War II when the government rationed items like meat, tin and cheese. Realizing that he would go out of business without those items, Boyardee met with the government and offered his canned spaghetti and meatballs to feed the soldiers during wartime. After tasting it, a contract was signed and soon he was mass producing over three hundred thousand cans each day for the military war effort without the worry of rationing.
At one point, Chef Boyardee was the largest growers of mushrooms and users of olive oil in the world. They processed over thirty thousand tons of tomatoes a year.
In 1946, with the war over, Chef Boyardee was sold for six million dollars to American Home Foods. Hector Boiardi became the spokesman and television personality on their televised ad campaigns until 1978.
So, the next time you prepare to dine on a savory Italian entrée at one of our many restaurants, raise a glass of wine and offer a big “Salute” to Chef Boyardee, the man who got the “meat”ball rolling.
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