Rice-A-Roni

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Rice-A-Roni surrounded by floral motif.

“How do you solve a problem like potatoes?”

It’s hard to imagine potatoes as a problem. Have you ever HAD a potato? They’re amazing! Nevertheless, in the United States around 1950, murmurs of discontent began to arise around the humble tuber. Folks were saying that potatoes were boring and that they took too damn long to cook. A revolution was on the horizon, and it looked like nothing could be done to prevent it. The mighty potato would be toppled from its side-dish throne.

Now, none of this is true, but if you spent all your time watching TV ads, you’d almost believe it. A whole bunch of products were being developed with the intention of replacing potatoes at meals. It made sense, in a way. People wanted to spend less time cooking, and a baked potato takes 45 minutes in the oven! Granted, it’s not very hands-on, but still. That’s 3/4 of an hour that you will never see again! And all you get is a potato! Something obviously had to be done.

Enter Rice-A-Roni: a packaged version of the globally beloved rice pilaf. If we’re throwing it way back, we can say that hundreds of years ago, folks were eating a lot of rice, and wanted to pump up the flavor. They developed a method of toasting the grains and then cooking them in broth which was THE BEST IDEA EVER. (Sliced bread hadn’t been invented yet.) The rice came out fluffy and flavorful and the grains were gloriously separate. The method caught on, and soon enough it was hard to find a region that didn’t have its own version. 

America’s take on rice pilaf was born from a chance meeting between an Armenian immigrant and an Italian pasta salesman. This sounds like the set-up to a knock-knock joke, but bear with me. The pasta man, Tom DeDomenico, and his wife Lois were looking for a room to rent in San Francisco. Pailadzo Captanian had such a room for rent. They hit it off. The couple moved in. 

Over the next four months, Pailadzo showed Lois how to make yogurt. And baklava. And an incredible rice pilaf. Tom began bringing vermicelli home from his family’s Golden Grain pasta factory. They’d break it into rice-sized bits, and into the pilaf it would go.

Lois never forgot Pailadzo, or her rice pilaf recipe. She kept on making and serving it until one day, Tom’s brother poked around at his plate and said, “This would be great in a box.” 

The Golden Grain test kitchen got to work. They found a way to recreate the dish using a chicken soup base, rice, and vermicelli. Tom would bring samples home at night for Lois to taste. Eventually, they got it right. They just needed a name.

Here’s where I make a confession: For my whole entire life until researching this article, I believed that the “Roni” in Rice-A Roni was a fun little advertising flourish. Rice-a-Roni is, after all, fun to say and easy to remember. (Exactly what you want in a product name.) Imagine my shame when I discovered that “Roni” stands for…MACARONI!!! Because this rice pilaf has those little bits of vermicelli in it! This is the sort of trivia that either wins you friends or makes you insufferable, and I’ll let you know how it all turns out. 

Anyway, the new product was a hit, first regionally, then nationally. It was delicious. The company had made a pretty good approximation of Pailadzo’s Armenian pilaf recipe. It was fast and easy to make. It came together in 15 minutes, which if you remember, is 1/4 of the time it took to bake a potato. 

As often happens with these Indestructible Foods, the dish was great, but the advertising was even better. 

I could go on and on about the power of jingles. (In fact, I often do!) Something about writing a catchy little song can endear a product to us for life. Rice-A-Roni is no exception. The campaign launched with a theme song declaring that it was the San Francisco Treat, and I’d bet any amount of money that you can hear it in your mind right now.

The tv ads in the 60s were all about replacing the potatoes in your family dinner. By the mid-eighties, they were telling us to make TWO PACKS AT A TIME, so we could replace our hash browns at breakfast. A few years later, they released an ad whose tagline was “Save a Potato, serve Rice-A-Roni.” (If this seems familiar, we should all recognize that Chik-fil-a ripped this concept off hard for their eat more Chikn ads.)

Eventually, you could microwave a baked potato in less time than it took to prepare Rice-A-Roni, thus destroying a major perk of the pilaf. Predictably, a microwave version of Rice-A-Roni was developed and an ad from 2021 shows a whole family in a microwave enjoying something called a “micro-rave.” From what I can gather, a micro-rave is a mild party that takes place in the microwave in which all of the participants state the virtues of Rice-A-Roni while spinning on the turntable. When I throw mine, you’re all invited.)

After decades of advertising, Rice-A-Roni still hasn’t defeated the potato, but why should it? There is room enough in our hearts and on our plates for more than one kind of side dish, and variety never killed anybody. Long Live the Potato! Long Live Rice-A-Roni!

Vegemite

Black and White illustration featuring an IndestructibleFood: Vegemite. Allso pictured is flying toast.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites”

In our last chapter, we talked a bit about how British troops were eating Marmite in the trenches during WWI, but you know who WASN’T enjoying Marmite during WWI? Australians. The War disrupted the supply chain of British goods, and the whole nation was left bereft of yeast-spread. It was a grave emergency, and something had to be done. 

Canned good purveyor Fred Walker stepped up, asking chemist Cyril Callister to make a spread from spent brewer’s yeast. It was certainly meant to take the place of Marmite during the supply chain disruption, but it wasn’t a straight knock-off. Cyril had integrity, and he was determined to create something distinct. First, the texture of his product was different. Instead of being syrupy, Vegemite had a pasty/creamy consistency. The flavor was also unique. Although rich in umami and salty, Vegemite was even more intense than Marmite and had a bitter note that was missing in its predecessor. The product seemed promising.

In 1923, Vegemite hit the shelves. Australia had finally taken its place as a player in the international yeast-spread market! Now they just had to convince people to buy it. The first ad campaign focused on the product’s benefits for children (Vegemite had the same rich B-Vitamin profile as Marmite.) People were not psyched. They loved Marmite. This was not Marmite. As the supply chain opened back up, and Marmite became available in Australia again, people flocked back to it.

The lesson that we learn here is that the health of children was not a good enough reason for people to abandon a much-loved product for an alternate version. Especially if children were just as healthy eating the original. So Vegemite tried something different: a name change. Vegemite became…Parwill. If you think that was a bad idea, listen to this: The new tagline was “If Marmite, Parwill.” Get it? No? Right, no one really did, because it was a belabored and clumsy attempt to say that Vegemite, excuse me, Parwill, was better than Marmite. Literally no one was convinced, and soon, Parwill was Vegemite again. 

At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how in the world Vegemite overcame early resistance to become the cultural phenomenon it is today. What caused Australians to forsake Marmite? The answer, surprisingly, is processed cheese.

In 1925, Fred Walker had started a new venture, the Kraft Walker Cheese Company. (Yes, THAT Kraft cheese!) After buying rights to James L. Kraft’s processed cheese patent, Fred Walker assigned our old chemist pal and Vegemite inventor Cyril to figure out an Australian arm of Kraft cheese production. He did. It was a big success. 

So when Vegemite failed to take off, Fred Walker did the only logical thing: He used his successful product to save his struggling one. Every Australian Kraft cheese purchase came with a coupon for free Vegemite. Even folks who had been resistant were willing to try Vegemite for FREE, especially when it was presented in conjunction with something as cool as processed cheese. Sales began to pick up speed, and by the time Australian troops joined the fight in World War II, they were carrying rations of Vegemite. After the war, they kept buying it. It was at this point that Vegemite finally surpassed Marmite as the most popular yeast-spread in Australia. 

The spread’s success never faltered. Vegemite is now a beloved symbol of Australia. It’s present in 90% of Australian homes. Fans eat it on toast, sure, but they don’t stop there. You’ll find recipes for cheese scrolls, spaghetti, beef pies, gravies, and even brownies. It has woven itself seamlessly through cuisine and culture. It is a product to be proud of.

I’ll leave you with a few entrepreneurial lessons from our friend Fred Walker: 1) Don’t be ashamed to make a new version of a beloved product. A new take on an old favorite can be a hit…eventually! 2) Hire experts. Chemist Cyril Callister figured out the recipe for Vegemite AND the best way to produce Kraft cheese in Australia. Whatever he was paid, it was a deal. 3) If people don’t like your product, try every scheme to change their minds. Name changes! Fancy jars! Medical endorsements! Catchy jingles! Do whatever you need to do, just don’t give up. 4) When nothing works, a free coupon can really make a difference. (When I worked in advertising, I had a boss that would always shoot down ideas by saying “It’s a coupon.” He meant that we had come up with a fancy way to give people a product for free or cheap, which was obviously not creative or interesting. I wish I would have known the story of Vegemite then, because I might have told him to chill about coupons. Sometimes a coupon can turn a struggling product into a national treasure. It doesn’t always have to be “clever” to work.)

A postscript from the author: 

Researching these articles, I’ve become increasingly curious about the lack of small-batch yeast-spread products produced by local breweries. You have spent brewer’s yeast! If y’all made artisanal Marmite/Vegemite would they not be a sensation? I must know someone who’s willing to take this on. Anyway, if you do, write to me, and I’ll illustrate your product for free….to use on your promotional coupons.

Marmite

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Marmite.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites…”

I saw a jar of Marmite at the grocery store, and I was like, “MARMITE! I should look into that!” Then I began to fear the hate mail that would surely follow from Vegemite fans. I decided that the obvious solution was to feature these yeasty buddies in a two-part post, and we’d all be better for it. Buckle up, it’s going to be an exciting ride. 

Part One: Marmite

Marmite, for those of you who don’t know, is a dark, sticky goo made from yeast. It’s generally spread on buttered toast. One reviewer said that “It tastes like salty beefy fermented soy sauce.” So…basically an umami-rich salt spread? Amazing! Other reviewers said it was “fishy” and “doesn’t taste like food,” which is a bit less encouraging. Love it or hate it (that’s the slogan, by the way) Marmite is important to British cuisine…but how’d that happen? 

Justus von Liebig is the man who made Marmite possible. He’s widely considered to be a principal founder of organic chemistry, but he was also wild for nutrition. He developed a healthy baby formula, a meat tea to nourish the poor, and most importantly for this story, he found out that you could concentrate brewer’s yeast, bottle it, and eat it.

A few years after his breakthrough, an international team of enthusiastic fellows got the idea over the finish line. Frederick Wissler, George Huth, and Alexander Vale, found that they could take spent brewer’s yeast from the beer-making process and create a rich, flavorful spread. It was recycling! It was inventive! It was a symbiotic sensation! In 1902, the first Marmite factory opened, sourcing their yeast from the nearby Bass brewery. The spread caught on quickly (probably because it added a lot of flavor to food cheaply) but an even bigger selling point was on the horizon: vitamins! 

By 1912, there were several discoveries involving micronutrients, and the general consensus was that human beings needed some small amount of these to maintain their health. Scientist Casimir Funk (which is an amazing DJ name) called them “vitamines.” And you know what marmite had an awful lot of? You guessed it. Vitamins. B Vitamins, to be exact. Now Marmite could be sold not just for flavor, but also for health. It could be used to treat certain kinds of anemia and malnutrition! Take that, jelly!

In 1914, Great Britain began fighting in World War I, which meant that many British troops were standing around in stinking trenches full of water under heavy bombardment. The circumstances were horrific. To help with morale and to stave off nutritional deficits, Marmite was included in rations for the soldiers. I’ll say here that our brains process emotion pretty close to where they process taste and smell, so memory and food go hand in hand. Giving soldiers something to eat that they loved at home was a very good idea.

It’s a mistake, however, to imply that all British folks love Marmite. (Remember that “Love it or Hate it” slogan?) It actually appears that equal numbers of folks love and hate it. The rest don’t really care. Fair enough. Like most things, it’s pretty easy to tell if you like it: just try it! OR, you could make it much more difficult and newsworthy, which is just what Marmite’s ad agency did in 2017.

For this campaign, Marmite worked with scientists to develop a genetic test that would tell if someone was a “lover” or a “hater.” A quick cheek swab could be analyzed and tell you if you had the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms that predisposed you towards enjoyment of the spread. The research was basically just done for a funny ad campaign, but it also showed that although certain flavors might be pleasant or unpleasant to us (I’m looking at you, cilantro!) our circumstances can overcome our tendencies. It also showed that the British have a great sense of humor about their strange foods.

In closing, always remember that while Britney Spears loves Marmite and Madonna hates it, Men at Work are Vegemite all the way…

Join us next week for the thrilling final installment of the Tale of Two ‘Mites.

 

Vienna Sausages

Can of Vienna Sausage in from of a mountain range flanked by two Austrian buildings. This is another indestructible food.

The littlest link…

It’s hard to find a food more ubiquitous than sausage. Every country has their versions, because sausage was developed to do something important: save food from being wasted. Got a pile of tiny trimmings left over from slaughter time? Got a length of spare intestine? You’re in business. Sausages all around! They can be smoked or cured, steamed or grilled, but they always turn a pile of scraps into a meal.

Sausages should have been a low-class food. They are, after all, made from leftovers. Richer folks could afford to eat big pieces of meat like hams and pheasants and roast beef, but they wanted sausage. It’s not hard to understand why. The balance of fat, protein, and salt in a sausage made it a perfect comfort meal. Soon, butchers and delis and families and whole countries were working to make fancier sausages. They experimented with novel spices and processing methods. A pile of scraps no longer, sausages became a source of pride. 

Not to be outdone, the United States threw its hat in the ring with a product called Vienna Sausage. Bursting upon the sausage scene in 1903, these short lengths of forcemeat were smoked and canned in aspic or chicken broth. They had almost nothing in common with European vienna sausages which were long, thin hotdog-like creatures. American Vienna Sausages were their own thing, man. Made of beef, pork, and chicken (the turducken of sausage?!) they became a phenomenon. 

Advertising did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting these little links. A 1904 Libby’s print ad shares that “Vienna Sausages are served extensively at home and abroad, on transatlantic ships and in dining cars.” In 1954, the ads had shifted tone considerably, now claiming the little sausages to be “a real wife-saver.” By 1990, the ads were talking about ingredients, informing the public that the links were ALL meat. NO filler. So, whether you were a traveler, an overwhelmed housewife or just completely obsessed with meat, Vienna Sausages were for you. Luckily, recipes were everywhere, encouraging creativity and innovation with these canned wieners. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny Corndogs! Wieners with Sauerkraut! Hors d’oeuvres! The possibilities seemed truly endless.

But if canned Vienna Sausages were a uniquely American invention, they certainly did not stay here. We talked about this a bit in relation to Spam, but it is worth repeating here. Vienna Sausages spread as many indestructible foods did: with conquest, colonialism, and war. Elaine Castillo frames this beautifully in her article, Colonialism in a Can. What often started as survival food for interlopers in unfamiliar settings, was enriched and elevated by locals who made it part of their cuisine. 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Vienna Sausages are part of the rich tapestry of preserved meats. They might not have the panache of prosciutto, but they have kept folks filled and earned some fans along the way. Not too shabby for a tiny canned sausage. 

Stove Top Stuffing

How the side dish became the star…

People have been stuffing things since the beginning of time. Or, like, early, anyway. Because stuffing something (vegetables, meats) helps it to retain moisture. It also helps the dish to go a little further. Stuffing was so popular it became a side dish in its own right. Even if there was nothing to stuff. But that is the story of real stuffing. Stove Top Stuffing is a science project from start to finish. And an awfully successful one.

In 1970 or thereabouts, the marketing department at General Foods said, “We need an instant stuffing product.” Domestic Scientist Ruth Siems rose to the challenge. And it WAS a challenge. The secret behind Stovetop is the particular size of the bread cubes and the time it sits and absorbs the added water. But Ruth figured it out. And the product was an “instant” success. I know! I’m the worst!

Remember how it was the marketing department who wanted this novel product in the first place? Well, it wasn’t to go with turkey. It was really engineered to replace potatoes in a weekday chicken dinner. (What focus group requested that? Tater haters!) Early ads showed families rejecting mashed potatoes in favor of Stovetop. But for me, Stovetop ads reached their peak when they showed two kids inviting each other over for dinner so that they could eat Stovetop TWICE IN ONE DAY. I never did that even once, but I dreamt of it.

Folks still buy 61 million boxes of Stovetop every year for Thanksgiving. There are a bunch of flavors to choose from. And yes, I watched Dave Chapelle tell his Stovetop joke before writing this article.