#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 17
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
We follow Sally the Map App’s cranky instructions for finding a giant spaghetti fork and find ourselves, instead, at the Omaha Zoo–smack dab in the middle of the zoo parking lot with no fork in sight. Brent uses The Force instead and we find a Little Italy village of houses near downtown and park the Jetta in the residential courtyard.
To our left is a 13-foot stainless steel fork with spaghetti in its tines. We sit in the car for a moment, deliberating, and one of us deduces that, “Look, if they didn’t want us to take pictures of it, they wouldn’t have put it there.” I’m not sure which of us says that, but it sounds an awful lot like me. That settles it, and we get out of the car. For most of our shenanigans up to now, we’re pretty much on public property or have the owner’s express permission. Today we’re in someone’s yard, without permission, in the interest of discovery and trying not to look like troublemakers. We walk a fine line.
The fork is named Stile di Famiglia in Italian, or Family Style in English, named for the serving style of passing and sharing large plates of food around the dinner table. It was made by artist Jake Balcom, and commissioned by the Homeowners Association of the Towns of Little Italy. It’s whimsical, and evocative of a time when “several Italian family restaurants defined the social life of the neighborhood,” according to an Omaha public art website found by the Googs.
Even the neighboring houses with their large windows, flower boxes, and close placement to each other resemble a gathering of intimate friends around this fork and pasta.
We peel ourselves away and start our search for a bronze Chef Boyardee, but Sally sends us to the zoo again, a backtracking, we discover, of about 20 blocks.
“We’re seeing a lot of this parking lot,” Brent says as he turns us around.
“I’m checking us in on Facebook,” I tell him. “There, we’re at the zoo parking lot,” I show him my phone. Now it’s official. We vow to plan a return trip to Omaha just to see the zoo and especially the Desert Dome, which is visible for miles as we drive in Omaha.
Against Sally’s protests and our own excitement at spending a day at the zoo, we head toward downtown, stop in the beautiful Visitor’s Center where they let us touch things, and find Chef Boyardee outside the ConAgra campus in its wide plaza, the ground of which seems to be winking at us—the ConAgra Foods logo.
The story goes that Chef Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was born in Italy, and followed his brother to the Plaza Hotel in New York City where Ettore worked his way up to Head Chef. In 1915, he directed the catering of President Woodrow Wilson’s wedding at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. But the Chef’s story, according to Wikipedia, is only getting started.
The Chef opened his own restaurant in Cleveland where he was known for sending his guests who would ask home with milk jars filled with his spaghetti sauce. In the 1920s, he helped his inlaws, who owned a chain of local grocery stores, to engineer his canning process and put his Italian foods on the shelves locally and beyond with the help of their wholesale partners. To keep up with demands, they opened a factory in 1928, and ten years later, production was moved to Milton, Pennsylvania where greater quantities of tomatoes and mushrooms could be grown.
Then—hear this–during WWII his factory was commissioned to produce army rations for the Allied troops, requiring the factory to run 24/7 and earning the Chef a Gold Star Order of Excellence from the U.S. War Department. When the war ended, it was decided that they sell the company rather than reduce production so that no jobs would be lost. That’s decency in America, and it’s a chord deep inside each and every one of us.
There’s a lot more to the Chef’s story: the unacknowledged Order of Lenin award, the sale of the company, investment in steel mills, money lost and gained, television commercials… How it came to Omaha the Googs wouldn’t say, but then, don’t all things eventually come to Omaha?
The bronze Chef is purposefully placed. He’s not in the plaza center and is not up on a pedestal, but is standing, ground level, on the edge of the circular plaza, facing any and all activity that may gather there.
With the statue’s kind face and with our familiarity having grown up on all things Boyardee, Brent and I find ourselves hugging the statue as if we’ve run into a long-lost relative on the streets of Omaha.
(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12, Segment 11, Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8, Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)