Does anybody remember those great old TV commercials for Ragú Spaghetti Sauce that featured the tagline “THAT's Italian!”? Like the one where “Cousin Marco” came all the way from Italy and, after feasting on linguine drowned in a potful of Ragú poured over the top of the pasta in a way no Italian would ever dream of doing, warmly proclaimed “It feels like home.” I do. But based on the news I read earlier today, I guess we will all have to start saying, “Sore wa Itariada.” (That's Japanese for “That's Italian,” in case you were wondering.)
Signore and signora Cantisano must be stirring in their graves.
Like many things co-opted and corrupted by the American marketplace, Ragú Spaghetti Sauce used to be the real deal once upon a time. Giovanni and Assunta Cantisano were Italian immigrants living in Rochester, New York. In 1937, they started making spaghetti sauce in their basement and selling it out of the trunk of their car. This was just a few years after Chef Ettore Boiardi, aka “Chef Boyardee,” started sending patrons home from his restaurant in Cleveland with little jars of his soon-to-be-eponymous sauce. Anyway, it wasn't long before the Cantisanos set up a factory to mass produce the stuff for a burgeoning American market. And then the corporate takeovers and mergers began. Chesebrough-Ponds, a conjunction of the original makers of “Vaseline Petroleum Jelly” and “Pond's Cold Cream,” bought the brand in 1969. They were subsequently swallowed up by Unilever, itself a conglomerate of the British soap maker “Lever Brothers” and “Margarine Unie,” a Dutch manufacturer of margarine. So now we have our “authentic” Italian ragù, lovingly concocted from an old Italian family recipe, being produced by people who make lubricants, face cream, and soap. Oh, and margarine, which, when you think of it, is not all that far removed from the other three chemical products. And if you have a really sharp eye and an incredibly picky nature, you'll notice that the diacritical mark over the “u” in the commercial sauce is an acute accent, while the mark over the Italian word for the sauce is a grave accent. Really. I don't know why; it just is.
Somewhere in the middle of all that merging, Ragú became one of the best-selling and most recognized brands of pasta sauce in America. And the product's clever marketing campaign that began back in the 1970s indelibly established “THAT's Italian!” as a cultural icon.
And now they have sold out to the Japanese. After an exchange of $2.15 billion, Ragú (and sister label Bertolli) now belong to Japan's Mizkan, a major manufacturer of various forms of vinegar and other condiments. I guess there is some consolation in the fact that the new parent company is at least a food maker whose corporate motto is “Bringing Flavor to Life.” The sale includes processing and packaging facilities in Owensboro, KY and Stockton, CA. Unilever has dumped a number of its food brands in recent months, including Skippy Peanut Butter and Wish-Bone Salad Dressing. It also wants to slim down and get rid of Slim Fast. The company is keeping Ben & Jerry's, though. (You didn't really think the stuff was still made by two guys at a gas station in Vermont, did you?) It's all part of their efforts to “re-focus” their “food assets” and “reshape” their North American portfolio. Whatever the hell that means.
I've always liked Ragú. It's the sauce I use when I don't make my own sauce. Of course, I don't buy the junk with all the meats and cheeses and vegetables and mushrooms and such already in it. I use the “traditional” variety and add to it the fresh herbs, spices, and other ingredients I need. From that standpoint, Ragú is okay as a base sauce. The ingredients are fairly simple and straightforward: tomato puree (water, tomato paste), soybean oil, salt, sugar, dehydrated onions, extra virgin olive oil, spices, Romano cheese (part-skim milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), natural flavor. I just hope the new owners don't adulterate it with cheap or unnecessary stuff to “improve” it. There are already a few complaints among consumers that Unilever has “done something” to the recipe affecting the flavor and/or texture. Could be. Like I said, I never use it straight from the jar, so I can't really tell.
So, the “traditional” “THAT'S Italian!” spaghetti sauce you grew up on is now being made by a Japanese company. Just don't tell me if De Cecco pasta sells out to China. I don't want to know.