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Pizza rolls and the meaning of midcentury food
How a snacktime staple embodies a specific cultural moment
Hello, Snackers. They’re hot, their snackable, and they just might embody 1960s America better than any other food.
In 2021, a few months apart, two separate people on the subreddit r/AskAnAmerican asked excellent questions about the same snack:
The person who posted the first question added a bit of context to start the situation: “I have seen some images and heard about it, but is it just tomato sauce with cheese in bread?”
And, yeah, that’s pretty much it—there can certainly be other things in the filling (pepperoni, for example), but the basic concept is “tiny calzone.” It’s easy to understand why this would seem ridiculous at first glance, especially when the traditional place to find pizza rolls is a plastic bag in the freezer section of a big-box grocery store.
I grabbed that photo from Walmart.com, where you will also find instructions for preparing pizza rolls in an oven, an air-fryer, or a microwave. There’s nothing charming or romantic or intrinsically delightful about the vibe here.
You can buy little snacky hand pies around the world—pasties, dumplings, empanadas, samosas; the genre is a recurring theme of this newsletter—but while most are available in a frozen version, the one you’re usually thinking of comes from a little storefront, a roadside stand, or hot out of a simmering pot in grandma’s kitchen. They’re crafted with love and attention to detail. They tell a story of a place.
Pizza rolls come in a bag from Walmart.
And yet. If you look closer, they have their own tale to tell, one with fascinating layers and twists and turns. All told, pizza rolls just might be the closest thing that exists to an edible decoder ring for midcentury American cuisine.
The original pizza rolls were dreamed up by a guy named Jeno Paulucci. That’s him above. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the USA’s most famous embodiments of a self-made man. After growing up poor—in what every profile is required to call” humble beginnings”—he had become, by his own description, “the world’s greatest entrepreneur.” He was a billionaire and a fixture on Forbes lists of the wealthiest people in the USA; an author of multiple memoirs-slash-self-help-books, the first of which was titled How It Was to Make $100,000,000 in a Hurry; an advisor to presidents; a swaggering king of marketing.
Paulucci was born in 1918 in the tiny town of Aurora, in northern Minnesota, to immigrant parents from northern Italy. His father worked in iron ore mines and sold homebrew wine; his mother ran a small shop where she sold homemade pasta sauce and other products. Money was always tight—in one of his books, Paulucci recalled that their apartment had a single lightbulb and an abundance of cockroaches.
As a young man, Paulucci took a job in a lumberyard in Aurora, but by the early 1940s, he had moved out of the blue-collar world and gotten into sales, traveling around the region on behalf of a food wholesaler.
At the time, Chinese food was spreading around the USA (a topic we’ve previously discussed in Snack Stack, in the Chinese chicken fingers post from 2021). Dishes like chow mein and chop suey had already entered the national lexicon and eating them was a mark of sophistication. Even Edward Hopper got in on the trend with one of his paintings. In his book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, historian Paul Freedman observes that “exotic home cooking followed in the wake of the rise of Chinese restaurants as Chinese food became a central part of American dining in the interwar and postwar years.”
Paulucci was one of the cuisine’s many fans. But the young salesman noticed a gap in the market: there wasn’t much in the way of prepackaged canned or frozen Chinese foods in the USA and those that did exist were, he thought, too bland. So he borrowed $2,500 from friends and family and had his mom develop some new recipes for him—which essentially meant that she added Italian seasonings to chop suey and chow mein—and started selling the products.
Consumers loved it. By the early 1950s, Paulucci’s brand, Chun King (an Americanized variation of Chongqing, the city) had gone national and was flourishing.
Here’s an ad from LIFE, in 1958, which gives you a sense of the Chun King’s reach and exoticism-for-the-masses vibe:
Now. Take a close look at the egg rolls in the middle.
Imagine you’re an Italian-American entrepreneur in the Mad Men era.
Think about where your mind might go if you’re looking at this line-up of foods and trying to plot your next business venture, another product to tout as “excitingly different.”
You know what else was getting popular in the 1950s in the USA? Pizza. It was the era of the red sauce restaurants, with giant meatballs and bottles of Chianti held in the straw baskets known as fiaschi and the Rat Pack on the jukebox, but pizza was carving out its own niche as a result of American GIs in Italy heading home to the States with a taste for this delicious tomato-y pie.
Paulucci understood this trend, too, and looked to capitalize on it, just as he had with Chinese food. And he knew just how to translate his first success into his second: egg roll wrappers.
The success of frozen pizza, in general, and Minnesota’s Totino’s company, in particular, caught his eye and he wanted to move quickly into that arena. He would, of course, develop his own frozen pizza, but Paulucci had another idea. Chun King churned out thousands of mini egg rolls per day and Jeno figured that an egg roll wrapper could be filled with just about anything. He told his vice president of research and development to turn this idea into reality. The VP, in turn, assigned the task to Beatrice (Luoma) Ojakangas, by coincidence, the older sister of the engineer who had developed the egg roll machine for Chun King.
Jeno’s Pizza Rolls launched in 1968. The image above, from LIFE, was one of the brand’s first ads. If you squint, you can make out the list of flavors available: sausage, pepperoni, lobster, and shrimp. (By 1969, Jeno’s had added sloppy Joe and chiliburger varieties.)
There’s a lot to unpack here, starting with the preparation method. Grilling…is not the first way I’d think to prepare pizza rolls (wouldn’t the filling ooze out?), but it’s clear that the brand was trying to check as many boxes at once: “elegant and easy” and also “deliciously wacky.” Jeno’s, the company, clearly understand the inherent quirkiness of putting pizza inside egg roll wrappers and was leaning all the way in on the idea of zany exoticism to share with your friends. (By the way: someone please make grilled pizza roll kebabs and send me a photo.)
It’s dinner-party food that scoffs at any concept of tradition or authenticity, blending two of the popular cuisines of the cultural moment, with—in this ad—a bit of Hawaiian appropriation for a tiki-trend bonus that also ties in with the Chinese-Polynesian food fad of the day.
Pizza rolls were also very clearly marketed as a convenience food. Like Easy Cheese and Chex Mix (two other snacks we’ve covered in this little newsletter), they was a classy party food that could be prepared in a matter of minutes, a shortcut to wowing your pals with your chic culinary choices as you discussed the latest developments in the space race or what, exactly, was going on with the album cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
If the general feeling toward pizza rolls in the 2020s is that they’re for busy kids or stoned adults (as is the consensus in those Reddit discussions explaining the food to non-Americans, which I think tracks with the broader cultural understanding of who eats them today), in the 1960s, they were something different: a new and nifty treat you could serve as a canapé.
In the opening pages of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, Freedman makes a point I had never considered but instantly felt correct: American food, as a broad-brush concept, is defined not by a specific set of dishes or flavors but by its incredible variety.
Obviously—obviously—you can find lots of tasty food in the USA and plenty of regional specialties. But many of those local delicacies have faded away over the years, and as a nation, our signature thing is that you can get, for example, dozens of kinds of orange juice at any time of the year and hundreds of yogurt flavors, and seemingly every grocery store and strip mall has foods that originated in various far-off corners of the world.
Even many of the dishes most commonly associated with modern American culture have clear, well-known roots in other countries: hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, pizza. They may be intrinsic to our society now, but at one point, they were part of that broad, troublesome category of “ethnic foods,” like the ones you’re still likely to find in a dedicated aisle of your local grocery store.
In many ways, then, pizza rolls are the perfect American food: a slightly ridiculous and nontraditional dish that pulls from multiple cultural sources outside this country. Their very existence, and the way in which they’re sold, symbolizes the abundance of the USA—its richness of cultures, its excess of resources, its delight in just kinda making things up and seeing if they work. Pizza rolls are remarkably similar to other cheese-and-meat-encased-in-bread creations around the world—but, all things considered, they’re unmistakably a product of this specific country, more American than apple pie.