Growing up in Shrewsbury in the 1970s, our weeknight dinners were pretty straightforward affairs: chicken Kiev or London broil; Prince spaghetti or tuna casserole. And while we often switched up the side dishes from Birds Eye frozen corn to Birds Eye frozen peas, one thing remained consistent — we always had Near East rice pilaf, and it was always prepared in the same Revere Ware saucepan that my parents received as a wedding gift in 1966.
I loved Near East as a kid. In fact, I still do. That salty, nutty mix of rice and toasted orzo along with its accompanying paper flavor pack of onion, garlic, and bouillon. So in love was my family with Near East that when we left Shrewsbury for Cincinnati in 1979, my mother packed a case of the rectangular white boxes, with their famous wheat stalk illustrations and simple earth-tones, into our station wagon, fearing we wouldn’t be able to find it in the Midwest. Luckily we did, and Near East remained a dinnertime staple well into my 20s, when I started eschewing frozen vegetables and pre-made rice mixes for fresh roasted green beans and arugula salads.
I still pick up a box of Near East every once in a while, mostly for nostalgia’s sake; a reminder of simpler times, and simpler dinners. But it wasn’t until recently I learned the company itself was started out of an Armenian grocery store in Worcester — just a few miles from our old house in Shrewsbury — in 1962. It was the brainchild of one of America’s most unsung female entrepreneurs, an Armenian immigrant named Hannah Kalajian. And while her story once appeared on every box of Near East, these days it’s largely been forgotten. That’s a shame, since — at a time when some question whether or not the American Dream still exists — her story is an encouraging reminder of just how potent, and how possible, that dream can be.
In her out-of-print autobiography, “Hannah’s Story” (Armenian Heritage Press; 1990), Kalajian writes that she was born Heranoush (Armenian for “sweet fire”) Gartatzoghian, one of five children, in Duzce, Turkey, in 1910; that in 1915, her father, Mateos, a beloved local butcher, was taken away to a labor camp by Turkish soldiers, where he would perish. By 1920, Kalajian and her family were forced to flee their hometown as word spread that the Turks were coming and the realities of what’s now known as the Armenian genocide became all the more palpable. Her mother, Cohar, knew that if they didn’t leave Duzce right away, they would face the same fate her husband did. Or even worse.
After securing refuge in Constantinople, Cohar, unable to care for all her children, placed Kalajian in an orphanage. They would reunite a year later only to flee the Turks again, this time to Lebanon. In 1924, Kalajian secured passage on an ocean liner bound for New York, where she lived with a married older sister. She applied for a job at Bloomingdale’s, and when the hiring manager couldn’t pronounce “Heranoush,” she changed her name to Hannah. Soon after, she met George Kalajian, a family friend and fellow genocide survivor. After a 10-day courtship, they married and, by the early 1940s, ended up in Worcester, where George opened an Armenian grocery store and luncheonette called George’s Spa and Market. While the luncheonette started out selling mostly coffee and doughnuts (its most avid customers being the employees of a nearby lumber mill), it expanded to daily specials of chop suey, beef stew, baked beans, and Armenian rice pilaf, a customer favorite.
It was Kalajian’s favorite, too. After all, pilaf had always played a special role in her life; just the idea of it nourishing her through the turmoil of her childhood. While enduring the 100-mile walk from Duzce to Constantinople, her mother provided her starving children a glimmer of hope by setting an imaginary pot over an imaginary fire, and stirring it. “Now the pilaf is cooking,” she would say. “It will be ready soon! . . . Can you smell it?” In her book, Kalajian writes that the tactic worked. “I am sure I can smell the hot pilaf and see the glow of the flames,” she writes. “Somehow it is easier to go to sleep with the taste of home in our heads.”
Kalajian first came up with the idea of selling a pilaf mix commercially on a visit to California. As she told a newspaper reporter in 1974, “In the markets, the big thing was package mixes. . . . I said to myself, Why not a pilaf mix, a real one? If they can do it, so can I.” Her idea came just in the nick of time, too. In the mid-’70s, the roads around the Lincoln Street market were rerouted, leaving it on a dead-end street with little foot traffic, and cutting it off from the lumber mill entirely. Fearing their market could soon go out of business, Kalajian got to work developing a perfect package-friendly recipe that would become the Near East pilaf we know today.
“It took her a year,” her daughter Carol Kasparian told me on the phone recently. “She researched every aspect of the business. She talked to the rice commissioner to learn more about packaging; she learned about shelf life — she even designed the box!” Originally, the pilaf was made in the market’s second-story apartment with dried brown rice, broken vermicelli noodles, and Lipton chicken stock. “It was a real Mickey Mouse operation,” Kasparian remembers. “All these Armenian ladies working in that tiny room.”
To market their product, Kalajian relied on Kasparian (her only child still living at home) to drive her to grocery stores and markets all over the East Coast with a card table and an electric pot packed in the trunk for cooking demos. “Even though Mom had a license, she was always afraid to drive,” says Kasparian. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and before long, hundreds of Stop & Shops, Star Markets, and even the Macy’s in New York City were carrying it. “We had articles in papers, and it seemed like food writers were always doing stories about us,” says Kasparian. After outgrowing the small bedroom above the market, Near East relocated to a larger space in Worcester, and then, in 1977 a plant in Leominster. By the 1980s, Near East was among the top-10 best-selling supermarket items in Boston.
Kasparian, who lives in Northborough, has been out of the rice business for a long time. (Near East was sold to the H.J. Heinz Co. in 1986, and is now owned by PepsiCo.) When I asked her if she still buys the pilaf, she said she prefers making it from scratch, the way her mother, who died in 1990, once did: frying some hand-crushed vermicelli noodles in butter, adding brown rice and a few cups of chicken stock, and simmering it for about a half hour. When I asked what she thought about the billion-dollar multinational corporation her mother’s small Worcester-based business is today, she voiced but one concern: While Kalajian’s story is still mentioned on Near East’s website, her name no longer appears on the packaging as it once did. “I worry that most people who buy it now don’t know who she is,” she says. “Or who she was.”
Browsing the aisle of my local grocery on a recent Friday, I noticed there were several varieties of Near East pilaf to choose from — Mushroom & Herb; Roasted Chicken & Garlic; and Toasted Almond among them — but I went straight for the one marked “Original.” It had been a tough week and I was craving something simple and familiar. Back home, I simmered the pilaf in the same Revere Ware pot my mom used when I was a kid and served it to my wife and daughter alongside a precooked rotisserie chicken and some fresh green beans. Sitting at the table with my small family, I thought about my own parents and those dinners we shared back in Shrewsbury more than four decades ago. I went to sleep that night happy — a taste of home in my head.Keith Pandolfi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.