Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, & Chef Boyardee; one of these things is not like the other. In the wake of the world becoming more aware of the damage caused by racial stereotypes, many of the icons with which we have become accustomed are being replaced. Land o’ Lakes recently removed the native American from its packaging causing at least one observer to note that just as they did in the past, they got rid of the Indian and kept the land. Now with the rebranding of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben products, I have seen some Italian Americans ask about Chef Boyardee. Well, as I said, one of these things is not like the other. For reasons other than the obvious, Chef Boyardee is significantly different than these other brand images.
There never was an Aunt Jemima. She was a character created by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood in 1889 as a logo for a pancake mix. She was what as referred to as a mammy. Think of Hattie McDaniel’s character in Gone With The Wind, a large black woman who devotedly took care of the wealthy white slave-owning family. The character’s name originates in a song Rutt had heard sung by a performer in blackface, “Old Aunt Jemima.” Later Nancy Green, a former slave, was hired to play the character, making appearances at various events such as fairs, acting as the product line’s ambassador.
Uncle Ben is another fictional character. In 1910 two scientists came up with the process of parboiling rice that retains more of the rice’s nutrients. In 1932 Forrest Mars formed a partnership with one of the two scientists, Erich Huzenlaub, and subsequently created the Converted Rice Company. The character of Uncle Ben was based on the maître d’hôtel Frank Brown. The name Uncle Ben comes from an African American rice grower.
In both of these cases, the product first existed. The character came later, a fictional character based on racial stereotypes. While our society has evolved past these crass caricatures, companies have tried to preserve the branding while removing the racism. Unfortunately, the very essence of these characters is racist.
So, what about Chef Boyardee? Isn’t he just another case of Corporate America racism?
Chef Boyardee was a real person. Born in Piacenza, Italy Hector Boiardi immigrated to the United States when he was just sixteen years old. He created built such a reputation in the food industry that he catered both of President Woodrow Wilson’s weddings. Then in 1926, he opened his first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, in Cleveland Ohio. This quickly became the place to go for authentic Italian food.
You must remember that back then Italian food was not as ingrained in American culture as it is today. These were exciting new exotic flavors to the American palate. Customers begged the chef for his sauce recipe or some extra sauce to take home. Of course, Chey Boiardi realizing there was a market here, started selling his sauce for what we call today take out. By 1928 they had to turn to factory production to keep up with demand. He expanded his reach beyond Cleveland providing an easy to make, reasonably priced, filling food to all of America. The name you see on the can is the phonetic spelling of his name, he wanted to make sure that Americans could pronounce it properly.
If you spoke with most Italian Americans about removing the image of Chef Boyardee from the canned Italian food, you will receive reactions on a scale ranging from apathy – who the hell gives a shit – to anger – what the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you have something better to worry about? I on the other hand have a much different opinion.
Rather than question whether Chef Boyardee is a stereotype, I say he is a hero. He is a truly great Italian American. Think about it. This guy came over here when he was sixteen years old and worked his way up in a tough business. If you ever worked in a restaurant you know what I mean. He was an immigrant whose food was eaten by the president of the United States. This Italian name, although spelled phonetically, is a household name in the United States. All Italian Americans should be praising this guy for what he has achieved.
I know that many Italian Americans are critical of the product line. I have even heard some say that what offends them is not the image on the can, but the food inside. If you get caught up in this culinary purity debate you miss the point. The chef made Italian food an integral thread in the American tapestry. As I said earlier before Chef Boiardi Italian food was not well known in the United States. Today, where would American food be without the flavors brought to it by Italian Americans? One of the people responsible for this transformation is Hector Boiardi.
While I understand and agree with the changes concerning such brand icons as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, the case of Chef Boyardee is substantially different. Rather than discuss the appropriateness of the image, I want to go the other way. I want to remember and celebrate the life of a truly great Italian American, Chef Boiardi.
For more on Italian and Italian-American culture, read my book Italianità, The Essence of Being Italian