Rice-A-Roni - the San Francisco Treat

1940s San Francisco. A young Canadian immigrant and her Italian pasta family husband move into the spare room of an old Armenian woman.

The result of this temporary arrangement? The boxed rice and pasta side dish which — for good or ill — would come to be as strongly associated with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge:

“Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat”

If you’re of a certain age, just reading that phrase will plant the jingle in your head for the rest of the day. Oops.

Since this is a culinary story, it seems fitting that the Kitchen Sisters, intrepid explorers of the nation’s Hidden Kitchens, should be the ones to tell it. They’ve put together a wonderful short feature which aired earlier this week on Morning Edition.

If you missed the clip, you can hear the audio, absorb an entertaining history and enjoy photos of the entire cast of characters at the NPR website: “Birth of Rice-a-Roni: the Armenian-Italian Treat”.

The (appropriately) condensed version:

Here are the bones of this typically San Francisco story of convergence, with quotes borrowed from the Kitchen Sisters’ story.

In the early ’40s Lois DeDomenico moved from Edmonton to San Francisco. It wasn’t long before she met and fell for Tom DeDomenico, employed with his brothers at the family pasta works — and the two quickly got hitched. Housing was tight in the post-war city, though, so Lois answered a classified ad for a spare room posted by one Mrs. Pailadzo Captanian.

“Mrs. Captanian, I had a liking for her right away. So we moved in. Tommy would work until about 7 o’clock at the pasta factory and I was alone a lot,” Lois said. “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 years [old], making yogurt on the back of the stove, all day, every day. I didn’t even know what the word ‘yogurt’ meant.”

The older woman, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, took the young Canadian under her wing and taught her to cook. Among the recipes included in this cross-cultural transmission was her specialty, a simple, traditional side dish of pasta and rice called Armenian pilaf.

Mmmm, pilaf! Of course, pilaf is no mystery to our modern and ever-so-cosmopolitan palates now, but in that pre-rice era, it must have seemed to Lois like an exotic taste of the Orient.

It was certainly a hit with the DeDomenicos, and even Tom contributed with pasta brought home from the Golden Grains factory. Lois learned well at Mrs. Captanian’s side, and continued to prepare the dish long after the couple had moved into their own home.

As the story goes, Tom’s brother Vince frowned down at his pilaf one night at a family dinner and spoke the fateful 1950′s phrase, “this would be GREAT in a box!”

And so it came to pass. Following four years of experimentation in the pasta factory’s test kitchens, “Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat” took its place on supermarket shelves right next to the Jell-O, Miracle Whip, and Velveeta cheese product. It was the ’50s, after all, and now — thanks to the Armenian diaspora, to an Italian immigrant family cranking out pasta, to a Canadian girl who couldn’t cook — San Francisco’s contribution to the age of convenience was official.

Try it yourself

Well, though I’ve never been a fan of the stuff (is that heresy?), I am intrigued by Mrs. Captanian’s original recipe (scroll down to the bottom of the page). If you feel moved to try it too, head into the kitchen and let me know how your experiments turn out.