Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Chef Boyardee Experiment

Forty years ago during the first week in August—on August 5, 1975 to be exact—three boys from the Bronx embarked on a camping misadventure in the woods of Harriman State Park. (For more on that experience, check out an earlier blog: A Bohack’s Injection.) Recently, I was reminded of something monumental that had occurred during that rendezvous with nature: The twelve-year-old me sampled a peculiar delicacy—something, actually, as American as apple pie—for the very first time in my life. How fitting to be in a wilderness setting and chowing down on Chef Boyardee—cheese raviolis to be precise, which we had purchased at a local supermarket before the trip.

The elder on this excursion into the wilds—a sixteen-year-old named John—had made this peculiar culinary selection. It was peculiar, at least, to my older brother and me, who had never before consumed anything in a can sporting a Chef Boyardee label. There was no reason that we—who were growing up with our paternal grandmother on the premises—would have ever entertained the notion of eating raviolis from a can. For she was master of too many dishes to count, and unequaled when it came to pasta “gravy.” But there we were on our first afternoon in the great outdoors. It was lunchtime and we were appropriately famished after having hiked a pretty fair distance with all sorts of camping accouterments.

So it was decreed: Chef Boyardee cheese raviolis would be it—a well-earned repast for having reached our destination in one piece. Renowned for my fussy eating habits, the oddsmakers had the likelihood of me even sampling the raviolis as very slim, and the possibility of me actually liking them even slimmer than that. Well, will wonders never cease, especially when one is communing with nature. I not only ate the raviolis that afternoon but loved them as well. In fact, I thought they were shockingly delicious. After that August day, I had my mother purchase Chef Boyardee on occasion, even if it was sacrilege to the Italian side of the family.

After swallowing that ravioli for the very first time in summer of 1975, my eyes were opened to so many things. For starters, I knew in a flash what that “hot lunch” smell in grammar school signified. When the cafeteria served up pasta dishes, it smelled an awful lot like Chef Boyardee, even if it was only a close cousin. I had always considered myself fortunate that I could both walk to grammar school and eat my lunch at home. But after the Chef Boyardee ravioli experience, I wasn’t quite so certain anymore. In high school—without the “go home for lunch” luxury—I was compelled to dine in the cafeteria and enjoy the pasta there—shells—every Thursday if memory serves. That sauce, too, was prepared from the Chef Boyardee recipe book.

I don’t eat Chef Boyardee all that much anymore. The magic flavor that tantalized my youthful taste buds forty years ago doesn’t make the grade in the present—let’s put it that way. Nevertheless, to commemorate such a big anniversary, I purchased a can of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli—it was on sale for a dollar at a local dollar store—and wolfed it down a couple of nights ago. It was edible, I suppose, because I ate the whole thing. Yet, there was something strange about the whole dining experience. It was like my adult incarnation was resisting even being in the same room with anything Chef Boyardee. The smell alone of the raviolis being heated on the stove top brought me back in time—not to the leafy woods of Harriman State Park but to my grammar school’s “hot lunch,” which I never got a chance to try. And perhaps that really was for the best.

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