“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!