The Man, The Can: Recipes Of The Real Chef Boyardee Unlike the friendly but fictional food faces of Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, Chef Boyardee — that jovial, mustachioed Italian chef — is real. His great-niece, Anna Boiardi, shares family recipes and stories in her new book, Delicious Memories.
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The Man, The Can: Recipes Of The Real Chef Boyardee

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The Man, The Can: Recipes Of The Real Chef Boyardee

The Man, The Can: Recipes Of The Real Chef Boyardee

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, they're really fictional characters meant to entice you to buy their products, and you might be tempted to add Chef Boyardee to that list.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Mr. HECTOR BOIARDI (Chef): (as Chef Boyardee) Hello. May I come in? I am Chef Boyardee. Perhaps you have seen my picture on Chef Boyardee products at your grocers. Today, I want to tell you about a wonderful dinner for three, a dinner that only costs about 15 cents a serving.

NORRIS: That's an old TV ad from 1953, and the fellow wearing the apron and the trademark tall white hat is Hector Boiardi, his real name Boiardi. He founded the Chef Boyardee Company in 1928 with his brother.

And we're joined now by someone who knew him as Uncle Hector.

Anna Boiardi teaches cooking, and she now has written a cookbook that's an homage to her ancestors. It's called "Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family."

Anna, welcome to the show.

Ms. ANNA BOIARDI (Chef; Author, "Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family"): Thank you so much for having me.

NORRIS: This is more than just a cookbook. It's really a cookbook and a history book, and what's so striking about your family is that this is really the tale of an immigrant family that made its way. Tell us how they founded this business.

Ms. BOIARDI: They had a real understanding of food because they - from the time they were little, they, you know, grew up in kitchens, so food was really their education.

You know, Italian food at the turn of the century wasn't what it is today. All of the finer restaurants were French restaurants. And they ended up in Cleveland because they thought that there was opportunity there for an Italian restaurant.

The restaurant started to garner success, and customers would always ask, oh, can I take some pasta home, or how do I make this at home? And they started sort of, you know, teaching. In the restaurant, they would say, OK, take -we're going to give you a little sauce, and here's some fresh pasta that we made in the back, and here's some Parmesan cheese. And when you go home, you cook the pasta this way, and heat up the sauce. And this is how you assemble the dish.

And it was through their customer that they decided, you know what, what about if we started, you know, there's a real interest in our food. And what about if we started jarring our sauce and selling it? Would it sell? And that was really like this germ of an idea that they had, which eventually turned into Chef Boyardee.

NORRIS: Now, it's interesting because the company played a big role in introducing Italian food to this country but also changing the way America eats and the way grocery store shelves or start the company, imported huge amounts of olive oil and huge amounts of Parmesan. They grew their own mushrooms.

Ms. BOIARDI: At the time when they started Chef Boyardee, which was 1928, they were the largest importers of Parmesan cheese from Italy. And they also brought in, you know, tons of olive oil. And the reason why they went to Milton, Pennsylvania, for the factory was because they needed tomatoes.

NORRIS: They had to convince people to change their crops...

Ms. BOIARDI: Right.

NORRIS: that they would have enough tomatoes.

Ms. BOIARDI: And at the height, when they were there, they were producing about 250,000 cans a day.

NORRIS: And they weren't just sold to consumers. At some point, the U.S. military stepped up and actually commissioned the company to produce Army rations.

Ms. BOIARDI: Yes. During the war, the factory converted from what we call civilian production, which was production for supermarkets, and they were running full time, 24 hours a day for wartime efforts.

Then post-war is when they sold the company because it would have taken a lot of resources, and they felt that the best way to grow the company and to ensure that everyone that had been working there that they would continue to have jobs was to sell the company to a larger conglomerate that, you know, could offer some type of stability.

NORRIS: Now, Anna, you are an established chef yourself, and the food that sold in the can under your family name is somewhat different than that. It's processed, and it might include vegetables, but there's also preservatives in there so the vegetables will keep for a long time in that can.

How do you reconcile these two ideas, the person who promotes organics and healthy eating and also the person whose name is on a label where sometimes it's on a pop-top and meant to be thrown into the microwave?

Ms. BOIARDI: You know, there is room for all different types of food. And there's, you know, there are people that, you know, are working, and they -their kids have to come home and make something for themselves, and it's something easy that they can open and make for themselves. And, you know, it's not expensive.

What I do is I try to inspire people to cook for themselves, but, you know, I will say this, like even when I was growing up - and my mom is a fabulous cook - she would open up a can of Chef Boyardee for us also at, you know, certain nights when there just wasn't enough time and - but I do think it is important to know how to cook.

NORRIS: I - we can't get everything, obviously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: But what I'd love to do is put together, is to quickly tick through...


NORRIS: ...a wonderful Boyardee meal based on the food that you present in the cookbook. And let's start with zucchini boats.

Ms. BOIARDI: Basically, what you do is, is that you would scoop out the pulp of the zucchini, and then you would cook that with a little olive oil and some breadcrumbs and some garlic. And then you would put it back into the center of the zucchini that you scooped out, and then you would bake it in the oven. And you would just get sort of like this savory baked zucchini, which is really a great side dish for anything that you're making in the summer.

NORRIS: And you just drizzle it with a little bit more olive oil when it comes out of the oven, very pretty dish.

Ms. BOIARDI: Well, thank you.

NORRIS: So after - that would be our starter course.


NORRIS: And I thought a little pasta after that?


NORRIS: And I was thinking about a pasta that comes up with a lovely story, the penne rigate with broccoli. And I love this because it's the dish you took to college with you.

Ms. BOIARDI: My mom was like, OK, well, this is - you only need one pot, and you don't have to worry about, you know, a sauce. And if you have a burner, this would be something that would be really easy to make, and it is because you basically, you know, bring like a pasta pot to a boil, and you throw in some broccoli florets.

And once your pasta comes to a second boil, you throw in your pasta, and you cook to the cooking time of the pasta. And you drain it together, and then all you need is some Pecorino cheese and some olive oil. And you can even throw in some Parmesan cheese, and you mix it, and it becomes like the - it becomes this very creamy type sauce.

And actually, it's a good dish for kids also because they don't even think about the fact that they're eating vegetables. So if you have kids that are averse to eating anything green, this is it, a kid-tested recipe.

NORRIS: For those of you who are listening in your cars and wondering, what am I am having for dinner tonight?

Ms. BOIARDI: Uh-huh.

NORRIS: The recipes will be posted at our website. I was torn here, and you know that this is a region where you don't necessarily cook with a lot of meat and a lot of fish.

Ms. BOIARDI: Right.

NORRIS: And so I reached for chicken, but I couldn't decide whether to do the roast chicken that you brine with the vinegar...

Ms. BOIARDI: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...which seems so interesting or the Chicken Gabriella.

Ms. BOIARDI: I love a roast chicken.

NORRIS: The roast chicken it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BOIARDI: One thing I do before I cook the chicken, to prop the chicken is we soak the chicken in apple cider vinegar, which was a trick that my grandmother had taught me. It gives it such a great flavor. And my grandmother used to use apple cider vinegar as a panacea. If you have a stomach ache or a headache, apple cider vinegar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BOIARDI: So it makes sense that it would have ended up in one of her recipes.

NORRIS: Anna Boiardi's book is called "Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. BOIARDI: Thank you.

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