May 13, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It’s been another week of reflection and quiet. To break up the tedium, I’m celebrating these calm moments with comfort food. It’s been a parade of snacky options and delightful treats all week. When I was pondering what to write about for this latest installment, naturally I wanted to combine my interest in history with my love for food! Join us as we explore the origin story of a couple classic comforts and tell us about your go-to snacks in the comments…
There are some people who know their calling from an early age. For example, it’s no surprise that Fred Astaire started dancing as soon as he could walk. Rumor has it another household name, Ettore Boiardi, grew up playing with a whisk as a baby. You may be wondering about the significance of this adorable fact, but this little guy grew up to be the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. I was delighted to learn that there is a real-life person behind the label (much like how I felt when researching the article on Duncan Hines). Ettore was born in late 1800s Italy and by the age of eleven he was already apprenticed to a hotel chef. Just five years later, he celebrated his newfound teenage-hood by setting sail for America. His elder brother, having already made the journey, helped him gain employment in the Plaza Hotel kitchen.
The year was 1914 and the newly remodeled hotel was just a few years old. Constructed at a cost of millions and millions of dollars, this luxury spot was the epicenter of glamour. The guest list was a veritable who’s who of New York City (and the world). Working your way up in the kitchen hierarchy here would be no small feat. Yet in twelve months Ettore assumed the role of head chef. His star was rising – and fast. Soon other hotels were vying for his attention. It would be Cleveland’s Hotel Winton that served as the setting for Ettore’s next chapter. You can check out one of his menus here – that font, those yummy options! Talk about a meal experience I’d love to recreate…
Ten years after his state-side arrival, and a few years before his 30th birthday, Ettore opened his own restaurant. With his wife Helen by his side, Giardino d’ Italia opened to rave reviews. Well before people were standing in line for the latest iPhone, Ohioans were gracing sidewalks for a taste of Italy. Demand grew steadily and, in an effort to serve his patrons well, Ettore started crafting to-go orders. These take-out kits soon became the majority of the restaurant’s income. One of his devoted patrons owned a grocery store chain and offered to help grow this arm of Ettore’s yummy empire. In 1928 the Chef Boiardi Food Company was a reality! The kits were flying off the shelf, but there was a challenge – no one could pronounce the brand name. Any marketing guru will tell you that’s a critical part of commercial success, so the name was changed to the phonetic version we know and love today.
During the Great Depression, pantries across the country displayed cans of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. The low-cost, but high-quality ingredients provided vital sustenance for countless families. Having moved the company to Pennsylvania a few years before the economic downturn, tomatoes and mushrooms for his products were grown right in America’s backyard. That feeling of civic pride carried through to WWII when Chef Boy-Ar-Dee cans traveled all the way to the front lines to feed brave men & women in combat. At the peak of production a quarter of a million cans were made daily. (Talk about a Victory Garden on an epic scale!) While the company was sold following the war, Ettore remained on as an advisor and comforting figure to millions of Americans. It’s no wonder that we are lining back up for the Chef during this latest crisis.
Almost a century before Ettore was born, the Chelsea Milling Company was beginning to form in the great state of Michigan. It would take another three decades or so before a former school teacher from Illinois would catapult the family business to supermarket stardom. Mabel White Holmes sounds like the kind of gal I would love to have known. Smart as a whip, with a good eye for business opportunity, she was college-educated and driven. The idea for the Jiffy mix brand started innocently enough with a simple observation. A widowed friend of the family tried his hand at a biscuit recipe and his flub in the kitchen became Mabel’s inspiration. Already knowledgeable about the flour milling business, she set out to create a pre-made mix that would be “so easy even a man could do it.” In 1930 Jiffy hit grocery store shelves and never looked back. To this day their corn muffin mix (my personal favorite) remains their #1 product offering. I love that their packaging has stayed consistent over the years because every time I grab that blue box off the shelf I feel immediately connected to a childhood memory. It was heartwarming to learn that the company remains a family affair and that they don’t spend a dime on advertising. Much like Chef Boy-Ar-Dee learned, there is real value in name recognition. Time builds trust and during these unprecedented times it feels extra comforting to go for a snack that’s tried and true. Tell me, dear reader, what’s in your pantry these days?