If you’re like me, you have noticed how many of the traditional American food brands are apparently named after people. If you’re a lot like me, you’ve wondered if the people behind the brands were real human beings or simply the inventions of ad executives. Here are 10 major brands in the food and liquor industries that were named after real people.
Ettore Boiardi traveled from Northern Italy to New York City when he was just 17 years old, a talented young cook with big dreams that at the time did not include any mention of the word “Beefaroni.” Boiardi quickly rose up through the ranks of the Italian-immigrant cuisine establishment, catering Woodrow Wilson’s second wedding in 1915, and was soon able to open his first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia. It became known for its rich and spicy marinara sauce, which Ettore soon came to sell in bottles and jars. He soon realized that his delicious sauce could be mass-produced, and in some cases even canned with pre-cooked pasta and meatballs and sold for cheap, and his canned Italian meals soon dominated Depression-era America. The Boiardi line of cheap, hearty and virtually imperishable foods soon attracted the attention of the United States War Department as they began mobilizing for World War II, and Ettore Boiardi changed the name of his food product to his name’s phonetic pronunciation to ensure that American servicemen would remember the name of their favorite reheated spaghetti meal. The gambit paid off handsomely, and today, Chef Boyardee is basically synonymous with cheap but tasty canned pasta.
Before 1952, the name Duncan Hines did not mean delicious, fudgy brownies and sweets, but obscure restaurants. Hines was a traveling salesman for a Chicago-era printer long before the era of freeway travel and chain restaurants, so he ended up eating at hundreds of local restaurants with no idea how good, bad or expensive they were until he got inside, although Hines’ prodigious memory was able to remember the pertinent details of many of the restaurants he had visited, allowing him to share recommendations with friends and coworkers. After years of driving through and having eaten in all 48 inland states, Hines realized that he probably knew more about small-town restaurants than anybody else in America, and with the help of his wife, he wrote up a list of a few hundred good American restaurants for his friends.
The list was so popular with Hines’ friends and fellow salesman that in 1935 he expanded it into a book, “Adventures in Good Eating,” full of capsule reviews of his preferred restaurants and favorite dishes (including the Sanders Court and Cafe of Corbin, referred to as “a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies”). His book later grew to include a guide to local hotels, motels and cabins, and soon he was writing a syndicated food column based on the recipes he’d collected from chefs all over the country. By the early '50s, Duncan Hines was a household name, and the Durkee Bakery Company recognized this when they offered to buy the rights to his name and the "Adventures in Good Eating" title in 1952.
The jolly old African-American man who pleasantly smiles at you while you’re cooking up a pot of rice was actually based on two different men. The name and the rice came from a black, Houston-based rice farmer known only as Ben, who supposedly won a number of awards for the quality and yield of his rice crops. German-born scientist Erich Huzenlaub is said to have chosen Ben’s rice as the starting point for his revolutionary rice-treatment system. The Huzenlaub Process was a complicated system of vacuum-drying, steaming, and husking that turns out to have been incredibly boring but resulted in dry stored rice that was remarkably resistant to weevils and old age while being easy to cook and retaining all the exciting flavor of plain white rice.
As for the bow-tied gentleman on the front of every box of Uncle Ben’s, he is widely believed to be a representation of popular Chicago maitre d’ Frank Brown. Huzenlaub and his partner Gordon Harwell (a Houstonian food broker) enjoyed eating out in the Windy City and had been served by Brown a number of times. Lacking an actual picture of the real “Uncle Ben” (who was dead by the time they decided to start capitalizing on his reputation), Harwell and Huzenlaub decided that Brown was sort of an ideal picture of a respectable and easygoing black man during the 1940s, and ended up using his image to sell what became the top-selling American brand of rice until the mid-'90s. It is not clear if Frank Brown received royalties or compensation beyond the initial payment to take a picture of his face.
Virginian country-music star Jimmy Dean may have penned the 1961 pop/country hit “Big Bad John,” and his acting career may have included a turn on Connery-era Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever” and a TV show that introduced America to brilliant puppeteer Jim Henson, but it’s likely that this multitalented media personality is best known for producing a line of delicious, pre-cooked sausage treats.
Jimmy Dean put in a lot of time in Nashville studios as a producer, instrumentalist and occasional performer, and while his success was enough to support him for a number of years, Dean was determined to find a long-term source of income. In 1969, eight years after “Big Bad John” dominated the charts, Jimmy invested much of his earnings in his brother Don’s sausage company, which was just then beginning to move into the field of “instant” microwavable sausage patties and links. The newfangled Jimmy Dean Sausage Company became a major regional power, largely due to Jimmy Dean’s charming and funny improvised commercials. While Dean’s singing career remained on the sidelines forever, his sausage-marketing exploits made him a household name among Southern families.
Harland David Sanders did put in some time in the military, but he fell pretty far short of being a full colonel. His title at the time of his honorable discharge was “mule handler,” not normally a position entailing a high rank. Sanders had a long way to go and a lot of failures -- his first wife eventually split from him with a note saying she “had no business marrying a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job” -- before striking on the idea of opening a service station in Corbin, Ky., that sold chicken dinners and country ham on the side. The service station proved so popular that over time it grew into a motel with a 142-seat restaurant (currently the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum) that became nationally renowned for its fast, delicious fried chicken, and earned Sanders the honorary title of “Kentucky Colonel” from the governor’s office.
Over time, Sanders developed both his chicken-cooking operation (pressure-frying instead of pan-frying chicken, and the famously secret herbs and spices) and his public image (growing out his mustache and goatee, and filling his wardrobe with all-white suits and black string ties). Unfortunately, his motel and restaurant folded in 1955 after the newly-built I-75 pulled most traffic out of Corbin. Undeterred, Sanders pulled $105 out of his first Social Security check and went out hunting for franchise opportunities. So many people wanted to cash in on the image of Sanders’ restaurant (as well as Sanders himself) that he was able to sell off the newly-rejuvenated Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation to a Kentucky partnership for $2 million in 1964.
Considered by many to be an outdated, racist caricature, the character of Aunt Jemima was first introduced in a song by controversial African-American performer Billy Kersands in 1875, and soon became a common fixture in minstrel shows as the archetypical “mammy” figure. Aunt Jemima was often portrayed as a happy, simple-minded, obedient slave, particularly in Southern minstrel shows. Even in the North, Aunt Jemima was an insultingly simple character, and more often than not was played by white men. It’s almost certain that when the founders of what would eventually become Aunt Jemima ready-mix pancakes were looking for a character to represent their brand, they ended up choosing what was actually a German immigrant man wearing blackface.
On the other hand, when it came time for the R.T. Davis Milling Company to hire someone to play Aunt Jemima at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it was actual African-American woman and former slave Nancy Green who was hired on to cook pancakes in front of a fascinated crowd of tourists. Green’s pancake exhibition (and her adept people skills) won her a medal from the Expo and a lifetime contract to perform as the Aunt Jemima character in public appearances. The financial freedom from her contract (one of the first offered to an African-American) allowed Green to spend her spare time and money working for various anti-poverty causes until her tragic death in a car accident in 1923.
Can anyone really hope to capture in mere words the thrilling career of Indiana-born agronomist and businessman Orville “The Hammer” Redenbacher? Perhaps by inventing lots of fictitious details, like how his nickname was “The Hammer,” or examining the exciting world of agronomy as taught at Purdue University in the 1930s, or conceivably by working in some kind of strained popcorn metaphor, like how Redenbacher’s exclusive hybrid strain of popping-corn exploded onto the market in 1970 in a rich tide of buttery flavor. No, those are all too gimmicky.
The famous popcorn brand was originally going to be called “RedBow,” a combination of the name Redenbacher and partner Charlie Bowman, until ad consultants decided that the name and character of Orville Redenbacher was just folksy-quaint enough to sell millions in the hotly contested instant popcorn market of the '70s. Redenbacher appeared in numerous TV spots, eventually adopting a standard “costume” for public appearances just like Harland Sanders before him. He became surprisingly popular, appearing on daytime talk shows to assure the audience that he was in fact a real person, and through the magic of mildly creepy computer animation, he returned to TV commercials in 2007, 12 years after his death, proving not even the will of God can prevent Orville Redenbacher from selling popcorn.
CAPTAIN MORGAN AND ADMIRAL NELSON
It’s hard to buy rum today without being forcibly reminded of the heroic Age of Sail, a time when drunks and petty criminals were kidnapped from the streets of London and forced into years of grueling and dangerous service in the Royal Navy, where they battled starvation, disease, cannibals and the French, but typically got rewarded with gallons of delicious booze. Rum was the most common naval beverage, since the sugar from which it was distilled was already a major part of the trans-Atlantic trade network, and when combined with a sailor’s ration of citrus juice (to prevent scurvy) and stagnant water (to prevent death) it resulted in a tall pint of the traditional sailor’s cocktail known as “grog.”
So it’s not surprising that when the Seagram Company decided to go into the rum business, their flagship brand was named “Captain Morgan,” after the legendary Welsh privateer, Sir Henry Morgan. Captain (later Admiral) Morgan was born into an impoverished, semi-noble, Welsh family with almost no chance at being anything better than a country squire. After a stay in Barbados and a lot of time aboard legal/semi-legal/piratical ships in the Caribbean, Morgan emerged as a brilliant seaman, leader and naval tactician, leading several ground assaults on Spanish treasure-ports and generally deeply screwing up Spain’s New World operations. Based out of Jamaica and other British Caribbean possessions, Morgan became popularly associated with the rum trade that dominated the local economy.
As Captain Morgan enjoyed a second round of popularity as a rum frontman, second-string distiller Luxco (best known for bottling Everclear) decided to up the ante in both rank and historical significance with the production of Admiral Nelson-brand rum. Admiral/Viscount/Duke Horatio Nelson was one of the most brilliant and courageous men ever to command a ship, as well as a total mack who had fine women in every port, and his tragic and heroic death defending Britain from a combined Spanish-French invasion is a legendary milestone in British history. Although Nelson didn’t spend nearly as much time in the Caribbean as Morgan, putting his name on a bottle of rum is particularly appropriate, as after his death he was shipped back to England inside a barrel of rum to preserve his corpse.
A man (and a rum) of a decidedly different class and era than Captain Morgan, Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was one of the first famous American tattoo artists, an enormously talented designer whose influence can still be seen today. Collins spent his formative years riding the rails, learning tattoo and life lessons from semi-mythic figures like Big Mike and Tatts Thomas, and practicing his skills on passed-out drunks. In 1930, he joined the Navy and was first exposed to the visual arts and tattoo traditions of Japan, China and Southeast Asia -- a crucial part of his iconic style -- and remained a licensed and practicing sailor until his death in 1973.
Collins’ art and style were continued after his death by his two students, Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone and Ed Hardy. Malone and Hardy's styles are close cousins to Sailor Jerry, and in 1999, the two artists established Sailor Jerry Ltd. to act as custodian of Collins’ artwork and to sell ashtrays, sneakers, cards, shot glasses and eventually a reasonably-priced, Caribbean-style, 92-proof rum. All Sailor Jerry products are produced in America or other countries that ban sweatshop-style labor, and the company sponsors independent musicians as part of an effort to “keep Sailor Jerry’s legacy alive and kicking.”
Next: Hilarious Photos on the Runway
Bonus: Mario, of Video Game Fame
Seattle-based contractor, developer and property manager Mario Segale became an unwitting and somewhat unwilling part of video game history in the early '80s after leasing a warehouse to an obscure Japanese electronics company that had trouble meeting its rent deadlines. In 1981, Segale finally got fed up with the company’s frequently absent paychecks and drove out to give these “Nintendo” folks a piece of his mind. But after confronting Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa, he was convinced that the company would soon be able to make good on its promises. In fact, Nintendo was soon able to pay their rent 10 times over after the release of the massively popular arcade game “Donkey Kong,” featuring the soon-to-be-legendary character of “Mr. Video.”
If the name “Mr. Video” (or his similarly uninspiring alias of “Jumpman”) isn’t really ringing a lot of bells, it’s because Segale’s appearance at the Nintendo of America headquarters/warehouse made such an impression on Arakawa and his staff that they decided to name the Donkey Kong protagonist after him. After all, Segale was a short, stocky man with dark hair, just like the character (although he apparently was lacking the classic Mario mustache at the time of his visit to Nintendo), and he had the sort of forceful personality that they could easily imagine leading a man to fight an ape in a crumbling skyscraper. Segale remains a major player in the Seattle real-estate scene, but is as reclusive and publicity-shy as a land development magnate can possibly be. The only publicly available and verifiable picture of Segale was snagged by tech discussion site Technologizer.com by going through old Seattle-area high-school yearbooks, and according to friends and business partners, Mario adamantly refuses to even mention his role in the creation of one of video gaming’s most enduring brands. Is it because of Nintendo Mario’s ridiculously heavy Italian accent? Is it because of Segale’s decidedly private nature? We choose to believe that it’s because Segale found 1993’s "Super Mario Bros." movie a sad waste of the talents of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo.