Full Circle: Remembering the treasured gourmands

Published 9:45 am Saturday, February 23, 2019

Growing up in Austin in the 1940-50s would probably not have been described as a gastronomically exotic experience. Sure, we had lutefisk, church basement hot dishes, Tendermaid, the Wagon Wheel and Spam — and they were all certainly dear to our coveting tummies — but what we didn’t have was flat-out international gourmet alternatives.

All, that is, except for one eating establishment on Main Street named the Canton Cafe. It was owned by the Wong family and was about as non-Norwegian as food … and us! … could get. We felt a tingling of downright devil-may-care boldness as we walked through its doors, fearlessly proclaiming to the Austin public our nonchalant worldliness. Let’s face it, the Canton’s silverware was wooden sticks and their food was all cut up for us. Furthermore, its menu used more cornstarch than we used to stiffen a load of laundry! Where we kids ate school lunches made of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, the Wong boy’s lunch came in small paper boxes with little wire handles! Clearly the East was pummeling into the West.

There was another Asian food that charmed the heck out of us. Chun King Chow Mein. It came in two stacked cans — one for the crunchy dry noodles and the other for the wet goop. My dad sold it in the deli section of his Square Deal Grocery. Okay, so his deli was a bit dully, but remember that was over 60 years ago when broiled Hormel Vienna Sausages served at Austin cocktail parties were considered intoxicating, especially so if they were wrapped in bacon with glamorous colored toothpicks speared through their little pink middles.

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Actually, between the epicurean tutelage of the Canton Cafe and Chun King, my dad believed his palate was fully internationalized and that he was entirely prepared for visiting my family in Tokyo in 1965. Boy, did he have an awakening when he encountered his first plate of sliced raw squid! That was his moment of reckoning when he truly learned that Asia was a very big, very different kind of place, with food offerings as widely diverse as lefse was from spring rolls and seaweed was from angel food cake.

And don’t forget Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. He was a real man. Born in 1897 in Piacenza, Italy, his name was Ettore “Hector” Boiardi. It is said that his culinary life was preordained for as an infant he played with a wire whisk instead of a rattle, and by age 11 he was working as an apprentice chef in a local hotel. Boiardi set sail for America when he was only 16 in search of his fortune. Within a year he assumed the position of head chef at New York’s prestigious Plaza Hotel.

Two years later Boiardi moved to Cleveland where he opened his own restaurant, “The Garden of Italy.” There customers queued down the block to dine on his signature spaghetti with its savory sauce and tangy cheese. Soon folks began asking if they could make it themselves at home which prompted Boiardi to assemble some take-out meal kits that included dried pasta, cheese and marinara sauce poured into washed out glass milk bottles.

Much to his astonishment, Boiardi’s take-out meals soon eclipsed his restaurant dinners, prompting him to buy a small processing plant in 1928. But, even though sales were swift, there was one huge problem. Folks could not pronounce his name.  A change was necessary. The phonetic pronunciation became, “Boy-Ar-Dee”.

His tasty, low-cost spaghetti helped to make Italian food a mainstay in American eating. It soon became America’s biggest importer of Italian parmesan cheese and olive oil, and eventually moved to a closed hosiery factory in Milton, Pennsylvania, after getting the farmers there to agree to grow not only a particular type of tomato for the sauce, but also its own special mushrooms.

Boiardi’s smiling face appeared on his labels and he became one of America’s first celebrity chefs in both print advertisements and television commercials. The company’s rapid growth, however, outstripped Boiardi’s ability to run it, so in 1946 he sold it to American Home Products for nearly $6 million. Currently it is owned by ConAgra Foods. Boiardi died in 1985 at the age of 87, but that famous smile under the tall starched white hat lives on in grocery aisles around the world.

Last, but certainly not least, another famous cook who must be remembered is Dorcas Reilly. Dorcas Reilly, you ask?  What did she ever do? Well, folks, she was the inventor of the green bean casserole. Dorcas worked in the home economics department at the Campbell Soup Company where her job was to come up with creative ways to use Campbell’s products. One day as she was tinkering and testing and tasting, she got the idea of baking a mixture of green beans and mushroom soup.

Reilly hadn’t a clue it would become a holiday classic, almost as much a part of Thanksgiving as the turkey itself! Indeed, she claimed she didn’t even remember creating her famous dish, but thanks to her ingenuity, 40 percent of all Campbell’s mushroom soup sales now end up in the casserole. There was, however, one additional stroke of genius that secured the dish’s fanatical following. The french-fried onion rings. It was the salt, the fat and the crunch, don’t you know, that Americans couldn’t resist.

Aside from its deliciousness, there is a psychological element to the green bean casserole: Its familiarity. Americans don’t like surprises on their Thanksgiving tables — bok choy sauteed with red hot peppers and goat meat doesn’t win any prizes. No, folksy folks want what they know; what Mom cooked way back in the 50s.

In 2002, Campbell’s donated Dorcas Reilly’s original recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. A deserving soul if ever there was one, she cooked up to her 92nd birthday. Last October Dorcas died. How can we ever thank her?

It’s strange that none of us really think that someone had to invent the yummy, feel-good casserole that we all know and love. Hasn’t it always just “been there?” Like clockwork, every year as November rolls around, Dorcas’s dog-eared recipe card comes out of our files. I hope she was laid to rest in a casket full of cushiony mushroom-soup-soaked green beans. And that someone had the good sense to sprinkle french-fried onions all over the top.