CLOSE
Original image
chloe effron

Rose Totino, Patron Genius of Frozen Pizza

Original image
chloe effron

We don’t like to presume, but the chances are fairly good that you have a pizza in your freezer right now. After all, roughly two-thirds of all American households have at least one frozen pizza lurking in their freezer, according to industry reports, and sales of frozen and refrigerated pizza top more than $5.5 billion each year, shifting upwards of 350 million pies annually. 

And you’ve really got one woman to thank for that: Rose Totino, the apple-cheeked second-generation Italian nonna with a serious head for business. 

Rose Totino née Cruciani was born in 1915, the fourth of seven children; her parents had come to America from Italy just five years before, in 1910. She grew up in the Northeast neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lively European immigrant community, in a house with chickens and a sustenance garden in the backyard. Like other children in poor families, she started working at an early age, before leaving school at 16 to take a job cleaning houses for $2.50 a week. But even as a teenager, Rose had spirit: According to one story, retold in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, she took on Minneapolis Mayor George Leach to get her father’s city job back after he’d been fired for not being a “full-fledged citizen.” 

Her life changed when she attended a dance party at the Viking Dance Hall in Minneapolis. It was there that Rose met Jim, a baker with, like Rose, no more than a 10th grade education. When they started courting, she was earning 37 cents an hour at a local candy factory, but Rose left work when the couple married in 1934. Two daughters soon followed and the Totinos settled into domestic life. Rose became a den mother to a Cub Scout troop, often treating the boys to little homemade pies topped with cinnamon and sugar, and volunteered at her daughters’ school, joining the PTA. Through the 1940s, she frequently attended PTA meetings armed with what soon became her famous pizzas, delicious pies topped with sausage, cheese and fresh sauces, the kinds of pies that she’d grown up eating herself. 

Sugary pies for small boys and hearty Italian fare for PTA meetings soon turned into catering events for friends and acquaintances; as word got out about the Totinos' fantastic cooking, more and more people told them that they really ought to open a restaurant. So they did. By the 1950s, when the Totinos began exploring the idea of starting their own restaurant, pizza had already been in American for at least 50 years, carried over with the waves of Italian immigrants. But it had also stayed largely in Italian communities and in cities such as New York and Chicago; for most of America, pizza was still new, exotic fare that appealed to an increasing interest in “ethnic” cuisine. And in Minnesota, people had barely even heard of pizza – the story goes that when the Totinos applied to the bank for a loan (using their car as collateral), the members of the loan committee had no idea what pizza was, let alone why you’d want to open a restaurant to serve it. So Rose baked them a pie – and got the $1,500 loan they needed to open Totino’s Italian Kitchen. 

Rose and Jim opened the restaurant, then a take-out only establishment, in 1951 at Central and East Hennepin Avenue, in the Northeast community they’d grown up in. Rose had figured that selling 25 pizzas per week would just about cover the rent, but within three weeks, the Totinos were making enough for Jim to quit his regular job as a baker and go into the pizza business full time. Jim made the crusts, Rose handled the toppings and sauce, and everything went into their custom brick ovens.

The Totinos sometimes worked as long as 18 hours a day, so exhausted at the end of the night that they barely had the energy to stuff their earned bills into a brown paper bag, scrawl the date on it, and stagger home. But the Totinos were also canny about advertising their product. Rose won over the good, but not yet pizza-eating people of Minneapolis the same way she won over the bank loan committee, by handing out samples. She also went on local TV, demonstrating live in black-and-white the deliciousness of pizza. Within a few years, the Totinos were serving up 120 pizzas a day, 400 to 500 pizzas on the weekends, and they’d long since put in tables, covered in checkered cloths, and expanded into the storefront next door.

But by the end of the decade, the Totinos had hit a limit: There were only so many pizzas they could make in a day. Their customers, craving more pizza than the Totinos could handle, suggested that the couple get their pizzas, frozen and ready to be baked at home, into local supermarkets. 

Good idea – sort of. The Totinos had saved about $50,000 and plunged it all into a new venture, Totino’s Fine Foods, in 1962. They bought a plant in Fridley, Minnesota, and started making frozen pasta dinners – not pizza yet – but production was slow, the cost of ingredients was rising, and the end product not good. Within a year, they very nearly declared bankruptcy. “We lost our shirts,” Rose told the St. Petersburg, Florida Evening Independent in 1983. “We even debated about filing bankruptcy.” Instead, they doubled down.

Mortgaging everything they had, they eventually secured a loan from the Small Business Administration to buy new machinery that would allow them to make pizza crusts quickly. Back in business, this time they focused on the food that had made their name: pizza. (Family lore claims that the Totinos needed to figure out how to make a bunch of frozen pizzas quickly. Jim, spying his old pedal-operated record player, tried putting the frozen pizza on the turntable, and gave it a spin while squirting the sauce and tossing the toppings on. Fun, but unlikely?) 

Within three months of launching their new product, they were steadily and rapidly making their way back into the black. Supermarkets across the Minneapolis area stocked their pizzas, and by the mid-1960s, Totino’s sales coverage had expanded well beyond the Twin Cities; they’d even had to open a second plant to handle the demand. Before the decade was even half over, Totino’s was the top selling frozen pizza brand in the United States.

The Totinos didn’t invent frozen pizza; several patents for methods of making pizza dough that could be frozen and cooked at home predated their business by at least a decade. And they weren’t even the first frozen pizza brand on the market; that honor goes to the New Jersey-based Celentano Brothers (the label still manufactures frozen Italian fare of the stuffed shells and parmigiana variety, but no pizza). But what the Totinos did do was to make frozen pizza edible – and for that reason, hugely successful. When the Totinos first started, freezer aisle pizza tasted about as good as the box that it came in, only probably a bit soggier. Rose and Jim, however, began experimenting with new ways to keep their crusts as crispy as they were at the restaurant and eventually worked out a method that they later patented. (Rose gave much of the credit for Totino’s taste to Jim, saying that he was the chef and she was the people person in their husband and wife team.) 

At the height of their success, the Totinos sold their empire to Pillsbury in 1975 for a reported $22 million. In the interview with the Evening Independent eight years later, Rose cited Jim’s failing health and that the couple “had no sons to take over the business” as the reasons they sold out. That’s a statement that seems odd coming from the woman who, by all accounts, was an exceptionally adept manager with serious business acumen, and who had gone on to, at the age of 60, become Pillsbury’s first female corporate vice president.

Rose decided to stay with the company she and her husband had built, using her “people person” skills to make Totino’s domination over the frozen pizza market complete (for a time). She brokered deals, sold the line to supermarkets, even toured the budding talk show circuit. And as VP for research and development, Totino and several others filed a patent for their “Crisp Crust” technology, a method of making sure a “fried dough” pizza shell stayed crispy and didn’t suffer from a “somewhat leathery or cardboard like texture” after cooking, in 1977. (The patent, which was held by Pillsbury, was granted in 1979.) She even featured prominently in the company’s advertisements for Totino’s pizza, dressed in the part of the baking Italian nonna wearing a wholesome red gingham apron and a cheery smile.

Jim died in 1981, and Rose finally moved out of Northeast Minneapolis. She stayed with Pillsbury until she reached 70, the company’s mandatory retirement age, although according to some sources, she was a regular presence at Pillsbury’s offices into the early 1990s. The brand that she built is still going strong: Totino’s has sales of over $380 million a year, making it the second most popular frozen pizza brand on the market. (The original Totino’s Italian Kitchen, run by a Totino grandson, was a beloved and storied part of the Minneapolis culinary scene until it moved from its Hennepin Avenue location in 2007 to the suburbs, where it closed for good in 2011.) 

Rose died in 1994, at the age of 79. In 1993, the year before her death, she became the first woman elected to the Frozen Food Hall of Fame (which, by the way, is a real thing that actually exists). “Never beyond my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d ever grow this big,” she said, in her interview with the Evening Independent. “We didn’t plan on setting the world on fire. We just knew how to make good pizza.”

Original image
Courtesy New District
arrow
Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Original image
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

Original image
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
arrow
Food
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
Original image
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios