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Birth Of Rice-A-Roni: The Armenian-Italian Treat

Nikki sat down next to this story at an NPR event where we played our Hidden Kitchen episode "The Birth of the Frito," about the origin of the iconic corn chip. At the dinner, Lois DeDemenico, 80, told Nikki that she had been part of the birth of Rice-A-Roni.

Lois began to tell a story about San Francisco in the 1940s and the convergence of a Canadian immigrant bride, an Italian-American pasta family, and a survivor of the Armenian genocide – all of which led to the creation of "The San Francisco Treat."

We followed Lois, a philanthropist and widow of Tom DeDomenico, one of the founders of Golden Grain Macaroni Co., to her home in Oakland, Calif., to chronicle this hidden kitchen.

Lois had long ago lost touch with Pailadzo Captanian, the woman who in the 1940s had taught her to make Armenian rice pilaf — the recipe that would inspire her husband's family to create a side dish that gave Kraft Macaroni & Cheese a run for its money in the 1950s, when rice was rarely found on the American dinner table.

We began searching for the family of Pailadzo Captanian and found her grandson, Ted, who came bearing a translated version of the unique memoir his grandmother wrote of her harrowing exodus from Armenia, a pile of photographs, and a family pilaf recipe passed down from "Grandma Cap."

Mrs. Captanian's Kitchen

Lois grew up in Edmonton, Canada, and met her husband, Tom, in San Francisco in 1944. Tom's father, an immigrant from Italy, had a pasta company in San Francisco, where Tommy worked with his brothers.

There was very little housing available in San Francisco after World War II. So when Mrs. Captanian advertised a room to rent, Lois and Tom moved in with her.

"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."

Mrs. 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 kitchen afternoons, Lois listened as Mrs. Captanian told her life story — about the Armenian genocide, her husband's death, the separation from her two young boys and her trek from Turkey to Syria in 1915, along with thousands of other women and children who had been deported. Mrs. Captanian chronicled these events in her 1919 book, Memoires D'une Deportee.

'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.

"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.

Memoirs Of Pailadzo Captanian

Following the story, we were able to find Mrs. Captanian's grandson, Ted, who works as a contractor in Novato, Calif., north of San Francisco.

"We called her Grandma Cap," Ted said. "She baby-sat us when we were 4 or 5 years old. She'd always be wanting to cook us stuffed grape leaves, paklava, rice pilaf."

Ted's father was born during the Armenian deportation trek in 1915. Pailadzo Captanian walked for months, pregnant and with little food and water, until she reached Aleppo, Syria. There, she gave birth to Ted's father.

Meline Pehlivanian, a specialist on Armenia and Turkey at the Berlin State Library, stumbled upon Captanian's memoir 15 years ago.

"It is a rare book, because we have very [few] eyewitness accounts of this time," Pehlivanian said. "Most accounts were written 30 or 40 years after the events." The volume was published in French, the language Mrs. Captanian wrote in.

In 1919, Mrs. Captanian was reunited with her two other sons; she had entrusted them to a Greek family before her deportation. 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 Ted's father had settled.

A Culinary Melting Pot

Ted Captanian remembers seeing the Rice-A-Roni 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 Captanian taught her.

"The impact she had on me and my life," Lois said. "I only lived there 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."

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The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.
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