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

by The Kitchen Sisters

July 31 2008

Morning Edition, July 31, 2008 · 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

"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."

The Captanian family in New York in 1921: Pailadzo, Gilbert, Aram
and Herant. Courtesy of Captanian Family