Lois is the co-creator of Rice-A-Roni, the iconic convenience food remembered around the country as The San Francisco Treat.
That’s why the folks at Brookdale Senior Living, one of the nation’s largest operators of senior living communities in the U.S., asked her to act as a judge for Ultimate Chef America, a series of cook offs showcasing Brookdale chefs in several retirement facilities around the country this year.
The focus: Healthy cooking for elders. Think Iron Chef for the senior set.
The first event is today in Phoenix and you can watch the competition, which kicks off at 4:30 P.M. MST, right here.
I know Lois will return from Arizona full of stories. She’s a natural storyteller. I know this because for the past year I’ve spent most Thursday mornings interviewing her for a memoir she’s writing for her four children, five grandchildren, and great-grandchild.
It was during one of these sessions that she recounted the story behind the birth of Rice-A-Roni. She first learned the recipe for this pilaf dish (rice, vermicelli pasta, butter, and chicken stock) in 1946.
Then a 19-year-old Canadian immigrant, she had recently married Tommy De Domenico, who hailed from an Italian pasta-making family. The couple rented a large room in a San Francisco apartment from an elderly Armenian, Pailadzo Captanian, who years earlier fled the genocide in her country in search of a better life. They shared a tiny kitchen.
Mrs. Captanian made yogurt, baklava, and chicken soup. And Armenian rice pilaf. Lois learned how to make the pilaf and, to this day, still makes it from scratch. She served up the side dish to the De Domenico brothers of the Golden Grain Macaroni Company, who put it into a box and, with hard work and the help of some pretty savvy marketing, well…the rest is food history.
To hear more about the back story behind the Armenian-Canadian-Italian Treat, listen to an interview with Lois by the Kitchen Sisters as part of their wonderful Hidden Kitchen series for NPR.
A major Bay Area philanthropist, Lois is also an avid yoga practitioner and instructor. Every Monday she teaches a group of women at her home and, later the same day, she holds a class for middle school students at Northern Light School in Oakland, in what she refers to, glowingly, as hands-on philanthropy.
How many other octogenarians can claim such impressive physical feats and second acts?
She credits yoga and a nutritious diet to her continued good health.
And part of her healthy eating regimen involves starting the day with a bowl of homemade granola. Since this is Lois we’re talking about, there’s a story to go with this dish.
I’ll let her tell you the tale in her own words:
“About 40 years ago I was going on a hiking trip and I needed some hiking boots. I went to a store in Berkeley and I sat next to a young girl. Today you’d call her a hippie. Somehow we started talking about food and she gave me her recipe for granola. Well, I’ve been making it ever since and I think it’s about the best granola in the world. It has five kinds of grains and three kinds of nuts, as well as sesame and sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sesame oil, and honey. It’s just delicious.
In 1965 or so I approached Tommy and his brothers with the idea of making this granola at the plant and packaging it as Golden Granola. They said no. They didn’t think it would be a big seller. Well, look how popular granola is now. It wasn’t so well known back then. But I couldn’t convince them to try. I’m not so sure they were right.”
Golden Grain’s loss is our gain. Lois shares her granola recipe below.
What do you think: Did the De Domenico brothers pass up another surefire supermarket success?
Lois De Domenico’s Crunchy Granola
(Note: This recipe reflects revised measurements, updated on January 29, 2010. Lois says she mixes the dry ingredients and stores half in the refrigerator, unbaked, for future use.)
1 pound rolled oats
1 pound rye flakes
1 pound wheat flakes
1 pound barley flakes
1/2 pound bran flakes
1/2 pound wheat germ
1 pound chopped almonds
1 pound chopped cashews
1 pound chopped walnuts
1 pound sesame seeds
1 pound sunflower seeds
1 cup sesame oil
2 cups honey
1. Mix grains, seeds, and nuts altogether.
2. Bake in two pans at 300 degrees F for at least one hour, while slowly adding sesame oil and heated honey.
3. Bake until golden brown.