This story was produced by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson of The Kitchen Sisters and originally aired on NPR in 2008. Thank you to The Kitchen Sisters for allowing us to adapt that piece for Bay Curious. You can listen to the original here.
here was a time when you couldn't go too long watching television without seeing a commercial for Rice-A-Roni. Many featured images of San Francisco and ended with a catchy jingle — "Rice-A-Roni. The San Francisco Treat!"
Bay Curious listener Kent Barnes has wondered if that advertising slogan is true. Was Rice-A-Roni actually created here in the Bay Area?
The short answer: yes. It was a clandestine convergence of cultures that ultimately led to the creation of "The San Francisco Treat."
The story starts just after World War II. Soldiers were pouring into San Francisco, looking for a fresh start. The housing market was crowded as Lois DeDomenico and her husband, Tom, were on the hunt for a place to live. Lois grew up in Edmonton, Canada, and met Tom in San Francisco in 1944. Tom's father, an immigrant from Italy, owned a pasta company in San Francisco where Tom worked with his brothers.
There was very little housing available in San Francisco at the time, as soldiers flooded into the city for a new start after the war. So when Lois and Tom found a room to rent in the home of Pailadzo Captanian, they jumped on it.
"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."
Captanian taught Lois how to make paklava (baklava), soups and her specialty, Armenian pilaf.
"We would bring her Golden Grain vermicelli from the factory," Lois said. "She wanted us to break it as small as rice if we could."
During those long afternoons in the kitchen, Lois listened as Captanian told her life story — about the Armenian genocide, her husband's death and the separation from her two young boys. In 1915, she trekked from Turkey to Syria, while pregnant and with little food and water, along with thousands of other women and children who had been deported. Once in Syria, she gave birth, and was ultimately reunited with her two other sons.
Captanian chronicled these events in her 1919 book, "Memoires D'une Deportee."
The family then moved to the United States, where she worked as a seamstress, sewing draperies for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hyde Park home in New York. She put her boys through school, and after World War II, she moved to San Francisco, where one of her sons had settled.
'This Would Be Great in a Box'
When the DeDomenicos moved into a place of their own, Lois often cooked Mrs. Captanian's Armenian pilaf. At a family dinner one evening, after a long day at the pasta factory, Tom's brother Vince stared at his dish of pilaf and said, "This would be great in a box."
Golden Grain had a test kitchen at the factory. It took three or four years to adapt the recipe for one-pot cooking.
When Rice-A-Roni hit the market in the 1950s, people were desperate to make cooking easier and faster. Rice-A-Roni was a product that was preseasoned and didn't require boiling water, which made cooking rice and pasta simpler than ever.
"There were not many packaged side dishes in the market in 1955," said Dennis DeDomenico, Tom and Lois' son. "Everything was being geared toward less time in the kitchen. Major appliances like dishwashers and garbage disposals were starting to come in. The convenience factor was everything."
All that was missing was a name.
"We said, 'Well, what is the product? The product is rice and macaroni. Why don't we call it Rice-A-Roni?' Didn't quite sound right. Who'd ever heard of rice and macaroni being together? Still, the name had a ring to it," Tom DeDomenico said, in an oral history recorded by the Bancroft Library in 1988.
A Culinary Melting Pot
Rice-A-Roni was marketed as "A San Francisco Treat," but it quickly became one of America's favorite side dishes. Ted Captanian remembers seeing the commercials on television as a child.
"Every time we heard that jingle, my father would say, 'You know your grandmother gave a rice recipe to the people who started that company. So every time you hear it, think of her,' " Ted said. "To be honest, we kind of thought — could that possibly be true? Could this iconic American dish actually be attributed to some recipe my grandmother gave years ago?"
Lois says she still makes pilaf the way Pailadzo Captanian taught her.
"The impact she had on me and my life," Lois said. "I only lived there for four months, but it was four months that brought all these things together: myself from Canada; Tommy, Italian; Mrs. Captanian, Armenian. All that converging in San Francisco in 1946, and out of that comes Rice-A-Roni."
Pailadzo Captanian's Rice Pilaf Recipe
Pailadzo Captanian's rice pilaf dish has been passed through the family over the years. They aren't sure if Pailadzo included mushrooms or pine nuts in her version of the recipe, and there may have been adaptations as the recipe moved through the family. But to the best of everyone's knowledge, this is it.
7/8 cup long grain white rice
1/8 cup fideo capellini crushed into small pieces
½ cube butter
½ large onion, chopped
½ 4.5 oz jar sliced "Green Giant" mushrooms packed in water and drained. (mushrooms can be substituted with any other canned mushrooms.)
1 tbsp pine nuts
2 ½ cups boiling water
2 ½ chicken bouillon cubes
½ tbsp dried parsley flakes
Salt and pepper to taste.
(The broth should taste somewhat salty before it is added to rice mixture.)
Melt the butter over medium high flame in a medium sauce pan and add rice and fideo cappellini and stir constantly, cooking until it starts to turn golden.
Add chopped onion and cook until almost clear.
Add mushrooms and pine nuts. Stir constantly over medium high flame, until the mixture is golden brown with dark flecks of fideo capellini.
Meanwhile, make broth by heating water to boiling and adding bouillon cubes, parsley flakes, salt and pepper (you can heat this in the microwave or on the stove). Stir to dissolve the bouillon.
Add boiling broth to browned rice mixture, (note: broth /rice mixture should taste slightly salty), return to a bowl, stir once, and cover, then turn down the hat to a low simmer. Do not lift the cover for 35 minutes.
Remove from the heat, fluff with a fork; let rest until ready to serve.
P.S.: Cover pan with a cloth to keep warm (If I am traveling with the rice over a period of several hours, I wrap the pan in several beach towels and it will stay nice and warm).
P.P.S.: To double the recipe: Use 7/8 cube butter; 4 7/8 cups water and 5 chicken bouillon cubes and cook rice for 37 minutes. (You can double all the other ingredients).
If you follow these directions exactly, you should have a perfect pilaf every time. But avoid the urge to peek at the cooking rice. Lifting the cover during cooking will affect the texture and fluffiness of the dish.
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