A Harte Appetite: Culinary icon Chef Boyardee was a real person

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Gourmet Beef-a-Reeno is an upscale version of a Chef Boyardee classic.

Betty Crocker, Mrs. Butterworth and Chef Boyardee. There are so many culinary icons that have been invented purely for marketing purposes that you could be excused for assuming all three of these names and faces are fictitious.

Betty Crocker clearly is, even though at one time she was named by Fortune magazine as the second most popular woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. But she was created out of whole cloth by a home economist at General Mills.

Likewise, even though she has her own Facebook page, Mrs. Butterworth is not real (and, for that matter, neither is her syrup, as it contains neither real butter nor real maple syrup). The sweet old lady was the creation of an advertising agency.

But Chef Boyardee was a real, honest-to-goodness person. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his passing. The tale of how this man, once the head chef at the famed Plaza Hotel in New York, became synonymous with cheap, tomato sauce-soused, flabby canned pasta is a genuine American success story.

Chef Boyardee was born in 1897 in Piacenza, Italy. His real name was Ettore Boiardi, but when he went into the canned food business, he began spelling his surname phonetically so customers would pronounce it correctly.

Chef Boyardee, still pictured on the line of canned pasta dishes he created, was a real person. (TOM HARTE ~ photos@semissourian.comABOVE)

He arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 with his cooking skills already considerably developed, having worked as a cook at his first restaurant in Italy when he was only 10 years old. Those skills, along with an inside connection in the form of his brother who was already a waiter there, earned him a spot in the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel. Growing his signature mustache to make himself look older, he eventually worked his way up to head chef.

His career included stints at a variety of prestigious restaurants, including West Virginia's Hotel Greenbrier, still one of the poshest places around, where he catered President Woodrow Wilson's wedding reception. Before long, he decided to open his own place, launching Il Giardino d'Italia in Cleveland.

There, his spaghetti dinners were so popular that customers asked if they could buy his red sauce to take home with them. He obliged by packaging it in milk bottles, until he could no longer keep up with the demand and enlisted the help of a cannery. Soon he had his own factory and a national brand, which he eventually sold, making him a millionaire many times over. His picture still appears on cans of beefaroni, as far as most children are concerned his greatest legacy.

Gourmet Beef-a-Reeno

In a famous episode of "Seinfeld," Kramer feeds what is obviously beefaroni to a horse that pulls tourist-laden hansom cabs around New York's Central Park. To the displeasure of these passengers, the product produces tremendous flatulence on the part of the animal. No wonder the folks at Chef Boyardee refused to allow the show to use their brand name, forcing the writers to call the dish "Beef-a-Reeno" instead. Not wanting to get the publishers of the Southeast Missourian into any trouble, I use the substitute term here as well, but this is no ordinary beef and macaroni dish, whatever you call it. Serve it to humans, not horses, and the only emissions at the dinner table will be sighs of contentment. The recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit magazine.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground sirloin

2 onions, sliced thinly

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/3 cup dry red wine

2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

8 ounces large elbow macaroni

Parmesan cheese

Brown meat and onions in oil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add cinnamon, cayenne and cloves, and saute for five minutes. Add wine, tomatoes and tomato sauce and let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook macaroni to the al dente stage, drain and add to sauce, tossing to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and serve.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at news@semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699.

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