Unlike the friendly but fictional food faces of Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Chef Boyardee — that jovial, mustachioed Italian chef — is real. Ettore "Hector" Boiardi (that’s how the family really spells it) founded the company with his brothers in 1928, after the family immigrated to America from Italy.
Stewart, Tabori & Chang "Enjoy Ravioli as truly Italian as the Tower of Pisa," read a Chef Boyardee ad that ran in Ladies’ Home Journal. Click Here To See A Larger Version Of The Ad Though America came to know him as Chef Boyardee — in the apron and trademark tall hat — Anna Boiardi knew him simply as Uncle Hector. Anna carried on her family’s culinary tradition; her new book, Delicious Memories, is part cookbook, part family history and part homage to her ancestors — immigrants who made their way in a new country.
The Beginning Of A Business
"Italian food at the turn of the century wasn’t what it is today," Boiardi tells NPR’s Michele Norris. "All of the finer restaurants were French restaurants."
The family settled in Cleveland, where they thought they could open a successful Italian restaurant. "They had a real understanding of food," Boiardi says. It was a generation of people who "grew up in kitchens, so food was really their education."
Chef Boiardi’s Restaurant in Cleveland was a success, and customers expressed interest in learning how to make Italian dishes at home. So the Boiardis started sending people home with pasta, sauce and cheese and teaching them how to cook, heat and assemble the dishes themselves.
That’s what got the family thinking: " ‘What if we started jarring our sauce and selling it? Would it sell?’ " Boiardi says. "That was really this germ of an idea … that eventually turned into Chef Boyardee."
Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family By Anna Boiardi Hardcover, 208 pages Stewart, Tabori & Chang List Price: $27.50 The new company played a major role in introducing Italian food to the U.S. — and also changed the way American supermarket shelves were stocked. "At the time, when they started Chef Boyardee [in] 1928, they were the largest importers of Parmesan cheese from Italy," Boiardi explains. "They also brought in tons of olive oil."
At a time when Italian food was not widely consumed, finding high-quality ingredients for their growing operation was a challenge. The family chose to place their factory in Milton, Pa., so that they would be close to their tomato supply. "They had to convince people to change their crops so that they would have enough tomatoes," Boiardi says. "At the height, when they were there [in Milton], they were producing about 250,000 cans a day." The family also grew their own mushrooms in the Milton plant.
During World War II, the U.S. military commissioned the Boyardee company to produce Army rations. The factory, which had been doing "civilian production" for supermarkets, began operating 24 hours a day for wartime efforts. Once the war was over, the Boiardi family sold the company to a larger conglomerate — it was the only way to ensure that everyone working there would continue to have jobs, Boiardi explains.
Traditions, Tried And True
Nowadays, packaged food made with preservatives — which has long been Boyardee’s bread and butter — has fallen out of favor, as chefs have embraced fresh, organic foods. But Chef Anna Boiardi doesn’t mind that her family name is blazoned across containers meant to be thrown in the microwave.
"There is room for all different types of food," she says. "There are people that are working, and their kids have to come home and make something for themselves. … I try to inspire people to cook for themselves, but even when I was growing up — and my mom is a fabulous cook — she would open up a can of Chef Boyardee for us on certain nights when there just wasn’t enough time."
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For an appetizer, there are Stuffed Zucchini Boats — savory squash baked full of breadcrumbs, ham and pecorino cheese — which Boiardi describes as "really a great side dish for anything you’re making in the summer."
For pasta, Boiardi recommends her "Leaving-Home" Penne Rigate With Broccoli — a recipe that she took to college with her because it only required one pot. (It’s kid-friendly, too: The sauce turns very creamy, and kids "don’t even think about the fact that they are eating vegetables.")
For the main course, try Apple Cider-Rosemary Roasted Chicken. "Soak[ing] the chicken in apple cider vinegar, which is a trick my grandmother taught me," Boiardi says. "It gives it such a great flavor.
"My grandmother used to use apple cider vinegar as a panacea," Boiardi adds with a laugh. "If you have a stomachache or a headache: apple cider vinegar."
Just one of many tried-and-true traditions passed down from one Boiardi generation to the next.