Chun King Chow Mein, Sold by an Italian American
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Posted on 23 Aug 2017 21:30

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While Chinese immigrants were starting Chinese restaurants in the United States during the early part of the 20th century, the potential for mass distribution of ready-prepared Chinese dishes was not readily apparent. One of the first to see it was a man of Italian ancestry. Luigino 'Jeno' Paulucchi started the Chun King corporation during the later 1940's. His first product was canned Chow Mein, using bean sprouts grown locally by Japenese immigrants, and leftover celery trimmings. He patented his unique product, which had the 'chow mein' or noodles, in a separate compartment from the vegetables.

By the middle of the 1950's canned Chinese food was one of the most popular "international foods" sold in grocery stores. Paulucchi had grown up in the grocery business, and after serving in Asia during World War II, he came home thinking about how much his fellow soldiers like chop suey. Jeno started the company with a borrowed $2500. At first, his sales were to local Minnesotans, selling to, of all people, a Scandinavian market, but he soon went national. 1 His first large supermarket account was Food Fair.

The quality of his canned innovations was, at first, questionable. As mentioned, he bought cast off celery trimmings as a primary ingredient.

Author Joel Denker in The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine, recounts a story that Jeno himself told of a mishap that could have cost him the Food Fair account. In Philadelphia, Paulucchi was trying to demonstrate the quality of his chop suey. He opened the can for the store's top buyer but luckily he was able to block the view of the can's contents. Good thing. He was able to extract and eat the grasshopper floating at the top, saying "This looks so delicious I think I'll have the first bit myself."

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Also according to Denker, Chun King was one of the first companies to use television spots to advertise ethnic food and had television hosts like Gary Moore and Arthur Godfrey push its products. One Chun King commercial developed by comedian Stan Freberg featured an announcer claiming "Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King chow mein" while the camera panned to show ten smiling doctors in white coats, nine of them Chinese. 2

Many Chun King commercials were developed by comedian Stan Freberg, such as the one below.

By the late 1950's and early 1960's, Chun King had become the leading brand of canned Chinese food, controlling 80% of the market.

Canned and frozen Chinese food was not the only innovation by Jeno Paluchi. He also developed that favorite microwave snack, pizza rolls, along with Jeno's frozen pizza and Michelina's brand of frozen Italian foods, sold by his food company, Luigino 's. Just after he invented pizza rolls, in 1966, Jeno sold the Chun King brand to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. RJR merged with Nabisco in 1985 to become RJR Nabisco and then, in 1989, sold off the Chun King brand, which was later sold to Hunt-Wesson in 1995, owner of Chinese food brand La Choy. ConAgra, the owner of Hunt-Wesson, eventually phased out the Chun King brand. Jeno's was eventually acquired by pizza brand Totino's, which continues to successfully market pizza rolls.

Where Did Jeno Get the Name Chun King?

Most likely, the name Chun King was meant to allude to the city of Chongqing, which was the war capital of China in the 1940's. Jeno probably learned of the city during his military service. 1

Sources
1. Liu, Haiming. From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: a history of Chinese food in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2015.
2. Denker, Joel. The world on a plate: a tour through the history of Americas ethnic cuisine. Lincoln, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2007.
3. Zhao, Xiaojian, and Edward J. W. Park. Asian Americans: an encyclopedia of social, cultural, economic, and political history. Santa Barbara, CA, Greenwood, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

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