Anna Boiardi’s family founded Chef Boyardee more than 70 years ago, spelling their name phonetically to help Americans pronounce it. Now, Boiardi teaches cooking classes and has written Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family, which Stewart, Tabori & Chang will publish in May. Here, Boiardi talks about how, even though she doesn’t eat Spaghetti-O’s, she will use canned tomato sauce from time to time.
When people meet you and find out that your last name is alternately spelled Boyardee, how do they react?
A lot of times people will just say it as a joke, if I’m at the bank or at the supermarket and they’ll [see my name, they’ll] say, “Oh, like Chef Boyardee?” Sometimes I’ll say yes but sometimes I’ll just laugh. [When I do tell them that’s my family], they’re always like, “NO!” They’re surprised that there’s a real family behind the brand, that it wasn’t just some marketing campaign. And then everyone tells me their stories, like, “I like to eat it cold out of the can,” or “That got me through college.”
In the book’s introduction, you say your family can be credited with bringing Italian food to America. Can you explain?
I certainly don’t mean they were literally the only people to bring Italian food here. But at the time, in the 20s, Italian food was not ubiquitous in the way it is today. The best restaurants were typically French restaurants. There was not a lot knowledge about Italian food and Italian cooking.
How do you reconcile writing a cookbook filled with recipes when your family’s legacy is so closely tied to creating meals that come out of a can?
That’s part of the reason why I did the book. My grandfather was an amazing chef. My [great] Uncle Hector was an amazing chef. They never started this saying, “Let’s make our legacy canned food.” They could make anything. They understood food and food chemistry. They had no formal education. They’re part of pop culture and it’s an iconic company, but there was so much more to their talent.
You say in the book that you buy Hunt’s tomato sauce and “jazz it up” for pizza. What do you do to it?
I will sauté a little bit of onion and a little bit of carrot and celery, chopped really fine. That will be a base and then I’ll pour in the Hunt’s tomato sauce and cook it for 20, 25 minutes and then I use that for my pizza sauce.
Do you eat Chef Boyardee?
I don’t, but I do so much cooking at home.
Are you involved in the family business? [It’s now owned by ConAgra.]
Years ago my uncle would do PR things for them. We’d go visit the factory and things like that when I was growing up. But now, no.