RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today on Hidden Kitchens, the worlds of a young Canadian immigrant, an Italian family of pasta makers and an Armenian grandmother converged in the story of the creation of the San Francisco treat. The Kitchen Sisters, producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, present the birth of Rice-A-Roni.
Ms. LOIS DeDEMENICO: (Singing) Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. DeDEMENICO: I'm Lois DeDemenico. I grew up in Edmonton, Canada. I met my husband, Tommy, in 1944 in San Francisco. His father, his brothers and he had a pasta factory. When the war was over, there was no place to live. All these hundreds of thousands of soldiers were coming home. So I saw this ad that saw lady who lived alone would like to rent out one room of her apartment, Mrs. Captanian.
I had a liking for her right away, so we moved in. Tommy would work until what, 7:00 every night at Golden Grain Pasta Company. I was alone a lot. I was only 18, and I was pregnant, and I had kitchen privileges.
Well, I really wasn't much of a cook. And here was this Armenian lady, probably about 70 at the time, making yogurt on the back of the stove all day, every day. I didn't even know what the word yogurt meant.
Mr. TED CAPTANIAN: My grandmother's name was Pailadzo Captanian. Grandma Cap was what we called her. My name is Ted Captanian. She babysat us when were four or five years old. She would always be wanting to cook us stuffed grape leaves, baklava and rice pilaf.
Ms. DeDEMENICO: Pilaf, Armenian way. She taught me how to make that. We would bring her Golden Grain vermicelli. She wanted us to break it as small as rice if we could.
The kitchen was teeny, tiny, like a closet. But right around the corner was a huge, big, round table, and when she rolled out her dough for baklava, she would roll and roll until every bit of that dining room table was covered with this sheet of phyllo dough. She would hold up, and she would say see, Lois, you have to be able to see through the dough.
I can remember sitting there and Mrs. Captanian telling me her life story. She was in Armenia, 1915, 16, when the massacre happened, which by the way, the Turkish people still don't agree that it ever happened. She was pregnant with one child and had two other boys.
Mr. CAPTANIAN: This is a copy of her book, her memoirs of that exodus from Armenia. She wanted to guarantee that somebody knew what happened.
Ms. MELINE PEHLIVANIAN (Armenia and Turkey Specialist, Berlin State Library): My name is Meline Pehlivanian, working the Berlin State Library as the Armenia and Turkey specialist. About 15 years ago, I found, by chance, this little book from Pailadzo Captanian.
It is a rare book. They are not so much first-hand memoirs of the time. It was 1915. The deportation of the Armenian population of Turkey began. Pailadzo Captanian left her two little sons with a Greek family. She knew that it would be death for all the Armenians.
About two weeks later, the husband of Pailadzo is killed.
Mr. CAPTANIAN: Where are my two children, whom I abandoned? My heart is breaking with longing to see them again. Alone at night, I repeat cradle songs for their sake. And while I…
Ms. DeDEMENICO: Mrs. Captanian wrapped her feet in rags and walked through the Middle East.
Ms. PEHLIVANIAN: There were only women, little children and old men. They walked about 12 hours a day through mountains, and there were no food or little food.
Mr. CAPTANIAN: Eventually, my grandmother made it to Syria, where she gave birth to my father, after having walked for months to escape.
Ms. DeDEMENICO: I used to sit in Mrs. Captanian's kitchen and listen to this amazing story of this woman. When I left her apartment, we got our own flat, and I made her Armenian pilaf a lot.
One night, my husband and his brother, Vincent, were eating pilaf in my kitchen. Vincent looked at it, and he took it apart, and he said you know, this would be great in a box.
Mr. DENNIS DeDEMENICO: We had a kitchen down in the plant. We would cook the dish up, and we would taste it. I would bring home some samples and asked my wife how she liked it.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Shake it, baby, shake it, 'cause you'll love the way…
Mr. DeDEMENICO: We needed a name for the product. We were saying, well, what is the product? Rice and macaroni. Why don't we call it Rice-A-Roni? The name had a ring to it.
(Soundbite of television commercial)
(Soundbite of bell)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco treat.
Unidentified Announcer: Rice-A-Roni, the delicious break from potatoes.
Mr. DeDEMENICO: There were not very many packaged side dishes in the market in 1955. I'd Dennis DeDemenico, son of Lois and Tom DeDemenico.
Everything was being geared towards less time in the kitchen, dishwashers and garbage disposals. The convenience factor was everything.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CAPTANIAN: When I was young, we'd see these commercials for Rice-A-Roni. Every time we'd hear that jingle, my father would say, you know, your grandmother gave a rice recipe to the people who started that company. So every time you hear it, you can think of your grandmother. To be honest, we kind of thought could that possibly be true that this iconic American dish, could that actually be attributed to some recipe my Armenian grandmother gave to someone years ago?
Ms. DeDEMENICO: I still make pilaf the way Mrs. Captanian taught me. The impact she had on me and my life - I only lived there four months, but it was four months that brought all these things together: myself from Canada, Tommy, Italian, Mrs. Captanian, the Armenian - all that converging in San Francisco in 1946. And out of that comes Rice-A-Roni.
MONTAGNE: Hidden Kitchens is produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. If you're a fan of Rice-A-Roni, or even if you're not, we have a version of the rice pilaf recipe that started it all at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.