When I was a kid there were commercials on TV for a food product called Rice-A-Roni. Of course Rice-A-Roni still exists; it’s just hard to imagine a corporation today buying millions of dollars worth of air time to advertise a side dish.
But during the late 1960s, there was a media blitz going on for Rice-A-Roni. There was a catchy, or at least annoying, jingle about it. Rice-A-Roni billed itself as “the San Francisco treat” and to emphasize this the commercials showed a cable car climbing a big hill. It was thanks to this commercial that thousands of kids in south Texas, and I assume other places, first learned what a cable car looked like, and that there were hills in San Francisco. We imagined that the cable cars were full of contented people who had just polished off a big steaming bowl of Rice-A-Roni, whatever the hell that was.
The commercials never explained what Rice-A-Roni actually consisted of, but today we can turn to Wikipedia:It is a boxed food mix that consists of rice, vermicelli pasta, and seasonings. To prepare, the rice and pasta are browned in butter, then water and seasonings are added and simmered until absorbed.
Now it’s hard to explain how limited a middle-class kid’s culinary horizons could be in the 1960s. In much of the United States, there were really only two kinds of bread: white and “whole wheat”. The whole wheat bread was just noticeably browner than the white. My family was strictly white bread, and I’d get a mild illicit thrill, at the age of eight or ten, when I visited the houses of friends whose parents bought the brown kind. It was like consorting with secret agents, or Communists. A decade later we would discover bagles and pita bread and all the rest, but during those formative years there were just the two kinds of bread, and there were also just a few kinds of everything else: soft drinks, breakfast cereals, TV dinners. There was only one kind of lettuce, iceberg, and with a large knife a head of iceberg lettuce could be chopped into six or eight wedges, each of which we called a “salad.” In a world like this, you’d think that novelty-starved families would be madly experimenting with any unorthodox food item they could turn up, but it wasn’t that way. We weren’t a Rice-A-Roni family so we never had it, nor did any of my friends. It was the late Sixties, and Rice-A-Roni came from San Francisco. Perhaps our mothers thought that it was made by stoned hippies in the Haight-Ashbury. They might have suspected that Rice-A-Roni contained LSD. Watching television, I saw the cable car climb up the hill and I felt a poignant desolation, because I would never know what Rice-A-Roni tasted like.
Fast forward: two weeks ago we hosted a little birthday party for a younger relative of ours who’s a college student. She brought over nine or ten of her friends from school and, since this is still south Texas, we fired up the grill and made what counts around here as a traditional supper of fajitas, pinto beans, and Mexican style rice. I spent the evening outside cooking the meat, which is a ruse that men in Texas use to trick women into doing all the real work in the kitchen. The kids were friendly and intelligent and talkative, which made for a good party. Most of them had studied or at least travelled abroad, and in fact many of them were born outside of North America. Various combinations of them probably could have had conversations in about six different languages. I thought about the hermetic little monoculture I’d grown up in, and reflected on how much the world has changed. The kids were polite about the dinner, which I explained wasn’t really Mexican food but a sort of Texas border cuisine. When I saw Ariel I told her they’d especially liked the rice.
Ariel laughed. “Well I cheated on the rice,” she said. “It came out of a box.”
I looked closely at the rice for the first time. Something about it looked odd. “What is this stuff, anyway?” I asked.
“It’s rice and vermicelli. You fry it in butter, and then you add this little package of seasonings and simmer it in water. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“What does it say on the box?”
Ariel shrugged. “It’s the house brand at the grocery store. It says ‘Mexican Rice.'”
But I knew better. I turned to the nearest student, a pretty girl that I’d heard speaking Spanish earlier. “Mira!” I said excitedly. “Sabes lo que es esto? Es Rice-A-Roni!” It turned out I’d made a mistake and the Spanish speaker was a different girl; this one smiled politely and proceeded quickly to the far corner of the yard, where she remained for the rest of the evening. Nor can I prove that the dish we were eating was really Rice-A-Roni, or perhaps an underground sideline that the Rice-A-Roni people have developed to tap the market for ersatz Mexican food.
I didn’t care. As it seemed to me, I’d both filled in a missing piece of my childhood, and proved that we old folks still have something to teach the sophisticated young. But just between you and me, if you get in the mood for Mexican rice, try something else.