A Kansas City Family Created Wish-Bone Italian Dressing. It Became an American Obsession

Mackenzie Martin and Jenny Vergara wrote . . . . . . . . .

Before the supermarket aisles, before the ad campaigns, and before the iconic curvy bottle, there was just the Wishbone restaurant in Kansas City.

A classy establishment located at 4455 Main Street, the Wishbone served family-style bowls of fried chicken along with prime rib, lobster tails, brook trout, corn fritters, mashed potatoes and gravy — and, of course, salad.

“I used to go to the Wishbone when I was very, very young,” says Jasper Mirabile Jr., owner of Jasper’s Italian Restaurant in Kansas City. “That’s where I fell in love with fried chicken.”

Mirabile remembers dining at the Wishbone religiously, every Sunday, with his family. It was a popular place for Italian restaurateurs like his father to socialize.

Opened in 1948, the old Victorian mansion overlooking the Country Club Plaza became equally as famous over the decades for its antique Italian chandelier, neo-Roman style statues, elegant fireplaces, solarium and fine china.

The iconic restaurant is gone now. But if you walk into almost any American grocery store, you’ll see its name everywhere, even if you didn’t realize it — immortalized in the form of Wish-Bone salad dressing.

“People don’t realize about Kansas City and what we have here and what started here,” Mirabile says.

From restaurant tables to grocery shelves

Something important to know about Phillip Sollomi Sr. is that he liked to stay busy. Originally born in Cleveland, Ohio, he found his way to Leavenworth, Kansas, after being drafted to serve in World War II.

“He was a veterinarian, believe it or not,” says Phil Sollomi Jr. “And during the war, somehow he also opened a little restaurant with my grandmother called Brooklyn Spaghetti House.”

Lena Sollomi, an Italian immigrant from Sicily, had previously operated a café in Ohio. After the war ended, the pair moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to start another joint venture: the Wishbone restaurant, in the space of a former cocktail lounge.

Sollomi Jr. said operating the restaurant was a family affair: “My sister and my parents lived on the third floor.”

The Wishbone was reportedly a hit right off the bat. But even the popularity of Sollomi’s fried chicken was eclipsed when the restaurant debuted a zesty Italian vinaigrette based on a recipe that Lena Sollomi brought over from Sicily.

The back of the Wish-Bone bottle shows that the dressing includes garlic, onion, red bell pepper and a handful of other seasonings, along with oil, vinegar and sugar. (The Sollomi family still has their original recipe — but of course, they won’t disclose what’s all in it, only “a little bit of this” and “a pinch of that.”)

Patrons started bringing in their own bottles to be filled with the dressing so they could take it home. In 1950, Sollomi began mixing the dressing in a 50-gallon vat and bottling it himself in a converted carriage house behind the restaurant.

By 1952, the salad dressing had become more important to Sollomi than the fried chicken and other food. He sold the Wishbone restaurant to Joe and Dora Adelman — who kept it up for the next two decades — and instead operated Wish-Bone Salad Dressing Co. on Harrison Street.

“When Wish-Bone was first invented, it was sort of a signature salad dressing and people loved to have the bottled form that was the same as they could buy in the restaurant,” says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific. “That’s a phenomenon that is uniquely American — that a restaurant could market a product that they have so broadly and make much more money at that than running a restaurant.”

Food companies and restauranteurs had begun commercially bottling and selling salad dressings in the 1910s and 20s. But Wish-Bone is widely thought of as the second mass-produced Italian dressing, right after Ken’s Steak House in 1941.

“Those are really Italian American foods. They’re invented here,” Albala says. “They’re not things that people in Italy would recognize.”

According to Albala, Italian salad dressing has a lot in common with products like beefaroni from Chef Boyardee, which was founded by an Italian immigrant in 1928. These products helped marked the start of convenience food, which rose in availability and popularity after World War II, and also appealed to Americans who were just starting to learn about Italian cuisine.

“I think that’s the way Wish-Bone did very well,” says Albala. “They told people, ‘You don’t have to mix salad dressing because you are incompetent in the kitchen and we’ll do it for you.’”

Sollomi initially sold his dressings to grocery stores in Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis. In addition to the original Italian flavor, Sollomi Sr. is credited with adding three more salad dressings to the Wish-Bone brand: cheese, French and Russian.

“It was like almost an overnight success. It was very, very popular and it started becoming almost national in scope, certainly regional,” says Phil Sollomi Jr. “But some of the big boys in the salad dressing company didn’t like it. And they were out to kind of squash him.”

At the time, the industry was dominated by larger players like Kraft, who could afford to sell their products at a lower price point if it meant knocking out competition.

When Sollomi Sr. would consult business partners and family about how to take on the competition, everyone told him the same thing: “Lower the price.”

“And my dad, after hearing all this, he looks at ‘em and goes, ‘Nope, we’re gonna raise the price,’” says Sollomi Jr. “’We have a great product. We’re not gonna sell it for nothing and people are gonna realize it’s a great product worth paying for.’”

While other brands sold bottles of salad dressing for 29 cents, Sollomi Sr. ended up charging 39 cents.

“He was just such a visionary on some things,” says Sollomi Jr.

Sollomi Sr. wanted to play up his dressing’s quality, boasting “just the right touch of garlic” and more herbs and spices than the competition. Right down to the crisscrossed design of the bottle itself, Wish-Bone billed itself as a luxury good.

In a 1977 commercial, the narrator compares the craftsmanship of Wish-Bone Italian to the “care and skill” of cutting a diamond.

“It was all natural,” recalls Sollomi Jr. “It was the finest ingredients.”

Overwhelmed by a salad dressing empire

Eventually, the business became too big for Sollomi Sr. to handle, so he sold Wish-Bone to tea tycoon Thomas J. Lipton in 1957, for an estimated $3-4 million.

“When they bought it, I mean, our company was a fairly sizable company,” says Sollomi Jr. “The Sollomi way, the Italian way, is you just worked and you put your nose down.”

Sollomi Sr. is remembered as someone who was hardworking and tough, but who also treated employees like family. Former Wish-Bone workers told the Kansas City Star in 1996 that he “never sat still” and “always had a cigar in his mouth.”

Phillip Sollomi III remembers how his grandfather always wore suits and had a look in his eye that dared people to mess with him: “He was 5’1″ but I remember him as 7′.”

At first, as a condition of the sale, Sollomi Sr. stayed on at Lipton as an executive, sitting in on board meetings in New York City. But he hated the idea of working for a corporation and traveling so much — plus, Sollomi Jr. says, his dad was “scared to death” of planes.

“He wasn’t into the hierarchy and the strategy and all that kind of stuff,” says Sollomi Jr. “So after a year, he resigned.”

For 65 years, the dressing continued to be produced in the Kansas City area, at a factory in Independence built in 1961. By the time parent company Unilever sold the brand to Pinnacle Foods in 2013, the salad dressing plant employed nearly 200 people. (Pinnacle Foods and the Wish-Bone brand were acquired by the giant food conglomerate Conagra in 2018.)

Today, Wish-Bone still claims to be America’s number-one Italian dressing, and around the Midwest, it remains the key ingredient for meat marinades, pasta salads, potato salads and more.

But taste buds have changed since Sollomi Sr.’s time. American consumers have gravitated away from bottled vinaigrettes and towards creamy, mayonnaise- or buttermilk-based dressings.

A 2017 survey from the Association for Dressings and Sauces found that Italian dressing no longer holds the title of the most popular salad dressing in the U.S.

The new champion? Ranch.

“You know, someone once quipped that ranch dressing in the Midwest is a beverage,” Albala says, laughing.

While Wish-Bone now offers seven varieties of Italian dressing, it’s got nine different versions of ranch — from chipotle to light parmesan peppercorn.

After selling Wish-Bone to Lipton, Phillip Sollomi Sr. moved his family to Phoenix, Arizona. He mostly left his old company behind, apart from keeping a bottle of Wish-Bone Italian dressing in the family fridge at all times.

Sollomi Sr.’s original plan was to retire in Arizona, but, according to his son, that idea got scrapped after a month: “He was bored out of his brain.”

Instead, Sollomi Sr. opened more restaurants. There was the Arizona Ranch House Inn (which served a familiar pairing of fried chicken and Italian dressing) and an Italian deli, co-run by Sollomi Jr.

Sollomi Sr. did eventually retire, and both he and his son forgot about the restaurant industry — apart from occasional anecdotes that would come out when nostalgia hit.

“Dad was really a modest guy. He didn’t tout that,” says Sollomi Jr. “But we certainly knew about the Wish-Bone story and were proud of it.”

Now, the youngest Phillip Sollomi is hoping to bring his family name back into the conversation.

Sollomi III grew up in Arizona and had no plans to come to Kansas City — until he met his fiancé, Amy, who was from there.

“It was actually during COVID. So, long story short, she ends up going back to Kansas City,” he says. “You weren’t going anywhere. Everything was shut down. So, we FaceTimed every night. And fell in love.”

Sollomi III says the pair traveled back and forth for months before he moved to Kansas City himself in April 2022.

“Now I’m living like down the road from where he started this whole journey,” he says.

In between preparations for his upcoming wedding, Sollomi III is investigating his family history. He’s spent time digging into old archival material and asking around for old stories people remember about his grandfather.

“It’s just fun to relive some of the experiences of people that interacted with him,” says Sollomi III. “The more research we do on the Wishbone, the more questions I have.”

And it’s not just him. Sollomi Jr. now has a regular excuse to come home to the city he was born in. He has questions about the family legacy, too — but mostly he’s just excited to relive old memories.

“It’s really cool to be back. If he had to move somewhere, we’re glad it’s here,” Sollomi Jr. says. “It seems like we just have dad’s spirit in this town when we’re driving around.”

Source: npr

 

 

 

 

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How Cooking Food and Gathering for Feasts Made Us Human

Maddie Burakoff wrote . . . . . . . . .

If you’re cooking a meal for Thanksgiving or just showing up to feast, you’re part of a long human history — one that’s older than our own species.

Some scientists estimate our early human cousins may have been using fire to cook their food almost 2 million years ago, long before Homo sapiens showed up.

And a recent study found what could be the earliest known evidence of this rudimentary cooking: the leftovers of a roasted carp dinner from 780,000 years ago.

Cooking food marked more than just a lifestyle change for our ancestors. It helped fuel our evolution, give us bigger brains — and later down the line, would become the centerpiece of the feasting rituals that brought communities together.

“The story of human evolution has appeared to be the story of what we eat,” said Matt Sponheimer, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied the diets of early human ancestors.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, is based on material from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel — a watery site on the shores of an ancient lake.

Artifacts from the area suggest it was home to a community of Homo erectus, an extinct species of early humans that walked upright, explained lead author Irit Zohar of Tel Aviv University.

Over years of “digging in mud” at the site, researchers examined a curious catch of fish remains, especially teeth, said Naama Goren-Inbar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who led the excavations.

Many were from a couple of species of big carp, and they were clustered around certain spots at the site — places where researchers also found signs of fire. Testing revealed the teeth had been exposed to temperatures that were hot, but not super-hot. This suggests the fish were cooked low and slow, rather than tossed right onto a fire, Zohar explained.

With all of this evidence together, the authors concluded that these human cousins had harnessed fire for cooking more than three quarters of a million years ago. That’s much earlier than the next oldest evidence for cooking, which showed Stone Age humans ate charred roots in South Africa.

The researchers — like many of their colleagues — believe cooking started long before this, though physical evidence has been hard to come by.

“I am sure that in the near future an earlier case will be reported,” study author Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University said in an email.

That’s in part because harnessing fire for food was a key step for human evolution.

Cooking food makes it easier for the body to digest and get nutrients, explained David Braun, an archaeologist at George Washington University who was not involved with the study. So, when early humans figured out how to cook, they got access to more energy, which they could use to fuel bigger brains.

Based on how human ancestors’ brains and bodies developed, scientists estimate that cooking skills would have had to emerge nearly 2 million years ago.

“If we’re out there eating raw items, it is very difficult to make it as a large-bodied primate,” Braun said.

Those first cooked meals were a far cry from today’s turkey dinners. And in the many, many years in between, humans started not just eating for fuel, but for community.

In a 2010 study, researchers described the earliest evidence of a feast — a specially prepared meal that brought people together for an occasion 12,000 years ago in a cave in Israel.

The cave, which served as a burial site, included the remains of one special woman who seemed to be a shaman for her community, said Natalie Munro, a University of Connecticut anthropologist who led the study.

It seems her people held a feast to honor her death. Munro and her team found large numbers of animal remains at the site — including enough tortoises and wild cattle to create a hearty spread.

This “first feast” came from another important transition point in human history, right as hunter-gatherers were starting to settle into more permanent living situations, Munro said. Gathering for special meals may have been a way to build community and smooth tensions now that people were more or less stuck with each other, she said.

And while the typical feast may no longer involve munching on tortoise meat in burial caves, Munro said she still sees a lot of the same roles — exchanging information, making connections, vying for status — happening at our modern gatherings.

“This is something that’s just quintessentially human,” Munro said. “And to see the first evidence of it is exciting.”

Source: AP

 

 

 

 

Video: Jumbo Kingdom – World’s Largest Floating Restaurant (2018)

Watch video at CNN (2:55 minutes) . . . . .

 

 

 

 

Can-Do: How China’s Canning Industry Preserved Local Tastes

Zou Zetao wrote . . . . . . . . .

You’ve probably heard of Cup Noodles, but what about canned kung pao chicken? To appeal to the country’s overworked, underfed young consumers, Chinese canned food brands have started marketing “meals for one,” a sort of TV dinner for the mandatory overtime era. Inside each can, you’ll find entire dishes, from kung pao chicken to fish-flavored pork.

The “meal for one” format may be new, but it’s just the latest in a long line of attempts to convince Chinese of the merits of eating out of a can. Interestingly, the most successful of these products haven’t been basics like tuna or fruit, but full-fledged regional delicacies: chicken stew from Shandong, ham from Yunnan, spicy yellow croaker from Liaoning, and black bean and dace fish from Guangdong. There are even desserts in a can, like peanut soup from Fujian and canned sweet coconut soup from the tropical island province of Hainan.

The dominance of local producers and products in China’s canned goods market is linked to how the country first came to accept canned goods — imported products initially viewed with deep skepticism. The first canned goods were imported into China by foreign merchants in the 1870s and 1880s, with local consumers treating them as curiosities rather than staples. By the early 20th century, only a few canned items — milk, coffee, and lobster, somewhat — had developed a market among a small subset of wealthy Chinese shoppers, most of who had ties to the West.

It wouldn’t be long, however, before a group of local Chinese canneries began to wonder if the problem wasn’t the cans, but their contents. Enterprising local business owners began to research and develop canned regional specialties, and by 1915, merchants from Yancheng in the eastern province of Jiangsu were selling canned Shanghai-style drunken fish and crab, produced by local companies to meet local tastes. Soon, popular family dishes like winter mushroom chicken were being canned and sold by Chinese companies, and over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, well-known brands like Shanghai’s Guan Sheng Yuan rolled out new canned vegetarian dishes, including the stir-fried favorite “Buddha’s Delight.”

Ads for canned goods during this period often emphasized their freshness and supposed hygienic qualities. The main form of food preservation for Chinese at that time was pickling, in which large amounts of salt were used to preserve meat or vegetables. Because canned food was fresher than pickled food, and because it did not sap the fresh flavor of the ingredients the way pickling did, cans soon caught on, at least where they were widely available. And because cans were also easier to transport, especially before the advent of cold chain logistics, their rise allowed dishes popular in one region to travel far more freely and widely than ever before.

Take Ningbo bamboo shoots, for example. A Ningbo specialty, once canned, the dish spread from this Yangtze River Delta port city through the rest of the region, before eventually hitting Shanghai. In the process, the cuisine of the entire Delta region was altered. After consumers and businesses in the increasingly international metropolis of Shanghai embraced the dish, it spread even further: Ahead of the 14th Summer Olympic Games in 1948, Shanghai-made canned bamboo shoots were issued as rations for the Chinese delegation sailing to London.

Between 1950 and 1953, China’s participation in the Korean war resulted in a boom in demand for canned goods. A number of canneries sprang up to supply the country’s volunteer armies on the peninsula, and the canning industry expanded rapidly. After the war ended, however, those manufacturers faced a problem: with domestic demand for canned goods still quite low, who would buy their excess stock? The answer came in the form of exports, as high-quality domestic canned goods from China were sold on international markets. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, Chinese-made canned goods became one of the country’s key export industries, reaching dinner tables in the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and Japan.

At home, however, the high cost of metal in pre-reform China, to say nothing of the fruit or meat inside, turned canned goods into a luxury item, one generally reserved for pregnant women, the sick, and others in need of concentrated boosts of nutrition. Although not necessarily popular, they were rare and costly enough that gifting canned foods during major holidays like the Lunar New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival became a way to give “face” to respected relatives or peers.

That changed after China’s economy took off in the 1980s. After successive waves of marketization, consumers began viewing the largely unregulated food industry with suspicion, and increasingly cheap canned foods, somewhat unfairly, became associated with the use of dangerous additives.

The industry still hasn’t recovered, though not from lack of trying. Recently, Chinese canned goods companies have embraced the trend toward “national chic,” attempting to woo consumers by increasing their offerings and playing up Chinese cultural elements in their packaging. Other firms have emphasized the convenience of canned goods, positioning their products as “healthy” alternatives to oily, salty takeout dishes.

Through it all, the industry has remained a patchwork of local companies and delicacies. Chinese consumers never quite embraced this revolution on the same scale as their counterparts in the United States or Europe, but there’s no denying that canned goods reshaped tastes and brought together once disparate local cuisines. That’s worth celebrating, even if you’re not yet ready to make a meal out of canned fish-flavored pork.

Source: Sixth Tone

The Curious History of Potato Chip

Brandon Tensley wrote . . . . . . . . .

When Covid-19 forced people to stay home, many of us found solace in a snack: potato chips. The crispy treats enjoyed around a $350 million increase in sales from 2019 to 2020. When the chips are down, it seems, Americans gobble them up.

Any search for the origins of this signature finger food must lead to George Crum (born George Speck), a 19th-century chef of Native and African American descent who made his name at Moon’s Lake House in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York. As the story goes, one day in 1853, the railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt was eating at Moon’s when he ordered his fried potatoes be returned to the kitchen because they were too thick. Furious with such a fussy eater, Crum sliced some potatoes as slenderly as he could, fried them to a crisp and sent them out to Vanderbilt as a prank. Rather than take the gesture as an insult, Vanderbilt was overjoyed.

Other patrons began asking for Crum’s “Saratoga Chips,” which soon became a hit far beyond Upstate New York. In 1860, Crum opened his own restaurant near Saratoga known as Crum’s House or Crum’s Place, where a basket of potato chips sat invitingly on every table. Crum oversaw the restaurant until retiring over 30 years later; in 1889, a New York Herald writer called him “the best cook in America.” Crum died in 1914, but today’s astounding variety of potato chips, from cinnamon-and-sugar Pringles to flamin’ hot dill pickle Lay’s, are a tribute to the man American Heritage magazine called “the Edison of grease.”

Still, historians who have peeled the skin off this story have hastened to point out that Crum was not the sole inventor of the chip, or even the first. The earliest known recipe for chips dates to 1817, when an English doctor named William Kitchiner published The Cook’s Oracle, a cookbook that included a recipe for “potatoes fried in slices or shavings.” And in July 1849, four years before Crum supposedly dissed Vanderbilt, a New York Herald reporter noted the work of “Eliza,” also, curiously, a cook in Saratoga Springs, whose “potato frying reputation” had become “one of the prominent matters of remark at Saratoga.” Yet scholars are united in acknowledging that Crum popularized the chip. It was in Saratoga that the chips came into their own—today you can buy a version of Crum’s creations under the name Saratoga Chips—and in America that they became a culinary and commercial juggernaut.

For a long time, chips remained a restaurant-only delicacy. But in 1895 an Ohio entrepreneur named William Tappenden found a way to keep them stocked on grocery shelves, using his kitchen and, later, a barn turned factory in his backyard to make the chips and deliver them in barrels to local markets via horse-drawn wagon. Countless other merchants followed suit.

It would take another bold innovator to ignite the revolution, the result of which no birthday party or football game or trip to the office vending machine would ever be the same. In 1926, Laura Scudder, a California businesswoman, began packaging chips in wax-paper bags that included not only a “freshness” date but also a tempting boast—“the Noisiest Chips in the World,” a peculiarly American marketing breakthrough that made a virtue of being obnoxious. The snack took another leap the following year, when Leonard Japp, a Chicago chef and former prizefighter, began to mass-produce the snack—largely, the rumor goes, to serve one client: Al Capone, who allegedly discovered a love for potato chips on a visit to Saratoga and thought they would sell well in his speak-easies. Japp opened factories to supply the snack to a growing list of patrons, and by the mid-1930s was selling to clients throughout the Midwest, as potato chips continued their climb into the pantheon of America’s treats; later, Japp also created what can be considered the modern iteration by frying his potatoes in oil instead of lard.

When Lay’s became the first national brand of potato chips in 1961, the company enlisted Bert Lahr, famous for playing the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, as its first celebrity spokesman, who purred the devilish challenge, “Betcha can’t eat just one.”

Americans today consume about 1.85 billion pounds of potato chips annually, or around 6.6 pounds per person. The U.S. potato chip market—just potato chips, never mind tortilla chips or cheese puffs or pretzels—is estimated at $10.5 billion. And while chips and other starchy indulgences have long been criticized for playing a role in health conditions such as obesity and hypertension, the snack industry has cleaned up its act to some extent, cooking up options with less fat and sodium, from sweet potato chips with sea salt to taro chips to red lentil crisps with tomato and basil.

Still, for many Americans, the point of chips has always been pure indulgence. Following a year of fast-food buzz, last October Hershey released the most sophisticated snack mashup since the yogurt-covered pretzel: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups stuffed with potato chips. Only history can judge whether this triple-flavored calorie bomb will be successful. But more than a century and a half after Crum’s peevish inspiration, the potato chip isn’t just one of our most popular foods but also our most versatile.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine