Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Chef Boyardee

 When I tell people that Chef Boyardee started his multi-million dollar spaghetti-in-a-can business empire in Cleveland, the reaction I usually get is: “Chef Boyardee was a real person?”

Unlike fictional product icons such as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, who were invented for marketing purposes, Chef Boyardee, whose real name was Hector Boiardi, was indeed an actual person.

Born in Italy in 1897, Boiardi came to America with the assistance of his brother, who worked in the hotel business.

According to foodreference.com, Boiardi was a hit in the American kitchen from the very start:

Three years later [after coming to Cleveland] he opened his own restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, where his spaghetti sauce was so popular, he was soon selling it in milk bottles for his customers to take home. He was soon producing the sauce in an adjacent building, expanded to include dry pasta and packets of cheese to go with the sauce.

Donna Gabbacia, author of We Are What We Eat, adds further insight:

He decided to can and distribute his sauce, initially packaging it with dry spaghetti and a packet of grated cheese, through his own business Chef Boiardi Food Products Company. Boiardi changed the name of his company (and its product) to Boyardee in the 1930s, mainly to ease pronunciation by non-Italians, as he sought a regional, cross-over market of multi-ethnic consumers. By the late 1930s, Boiardi was successfully selling canned spaghetti to A&P stores and reaching a national market. Boiardi even became a supplier to the U.S. army during World War II, further building a taste for Chef Boyardee among returning GIs.

Boiardi eventually sold his company to a large conglomerate that turned his idea into a multi-billion dollar business that is today owned by Con/Agra. He died in Parma, Ohio in 1985, an icon of American processed food and Italian-American pop culture.

It was the latter that inspired me to make a pilgrimage to his final resting place in order to pay homage. Since he died in Parma, I assumed that he was interred in a Parma-area cemetery. But after careful research, I discovered that he was in fact interred in a Cleveland suburb on the completely opposite side of town in Chardon’s All Souls Cemetery.

Enlisting a friend, we both set out on a countryside excursion in search of the Boiardi mausoleum. After finding our way through several winding roads in the middle of nowhere, we arrived at All Souls Cemetery.

Since we knew it was a mausoleum, we thought that it would stand out in a sea of grave markers and thus be easy to locate.  However, we soon discovered that was not the case.  We had to ask for directions.  Fortunately I had jotted down the cemetery office number on a post-it note just in case. 

Phone call to the staff office: “Good afternoon.  Can you please tell me where Chef Boyardee is interred?”

“One moment,” she replied, “Lot 23 in the Crucifixion Mausoleum under the name Hector Boiardi.”

boyardee

The grave marker of Chef Boyardee

And so my friend and I made our way to the mausoleum and there he was, placed beside his wife, Helen. After a brief moment of silence and some personal reflection on the legacy of Chef Boyardee, my friend and I said arrivederci to the man, the mausoleum and All Souls. Both of us knowing that we would never look at a can of spaghetti and meatballs in quite the same way ever again.

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3 Comments»

  Judy wrote @

My husband was born in 1939 in Cleveland. He was brought up on Chef Boyardee and even after we were married I couldn’t get him to eat any other kind of spaghetti sauce for years. Finally he discovered the good homemade stuff and Chef Boyardee faded into oblivion. Our family rejoiced! I always belittled Chef Boyardee but now, thanks to you, he has regained some respect in my eyes. Now I’m wondering if my husband’s family ever went to his restaurant as fellow residents of Cleveland–even living in later years on the east side in Willoughby Hills, apparently not far from where he is buried.
Now, how about investigating another Cleveland specialty: the chocolate chip ice cream from Euclid Race. Best chocolate chip ever, but long gone from the scene. Would love to find the recipe.

  backwardpresent wrote @

That is a great story! Thanks for sharing. I’m not sure about the chocolate chips at Euclid Race, but I will tell you that I am endlessly fascinated with the Rocket Car, which was taken from a ride at the old Euclid Beach Amusement Park

  josh wrote @

I started to learn to cook at age 8 using the Chef Boiardi spaghetti dinner in the ad. It took me 20 years to perfect my own meat sauce, but it’s a happy memory.


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