Friday, November 16, 2012

Asian Flavors from an Italian connection

By Phyllis Louise Harris
November/December 2012

The son of Italian immigrants, Jeno Paulucci grew up on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota where life was anything but easy. In his biography How it was to make $100,000,000 in a hurry Jeno  says, “I was the son of an immigrant laborer, living in a five-dollar-a-month…flat filled with cockroaches and mining dust…on the edge of the iron dumps.” It was a difficult life where he began working at an early age unloading boxcars for one dollar per car or for an armload of speckled fruit. He built his own little red wagon out of discarded parts and pulled it along the railroad tracks picking up stray bits of coal to fuel the family’s stove. At the age of ten he started his first business by layering discarded scraps of colorful iron ore in vials and selling them to tourists for a quarter, fifty cents or a dollar: that is until the mining officials decided he was selling stolen scraps.

 In 1933, during the peak of the depression, the family opened a grocery store in the front room of their house in South Hibbing. It was the first home the Paulucci family owned, purchased from the mining company for $125 because it was to be torn down and used for firewood. The business was a success and continued in operation for twenty-two years, long after Jeno had earned fame and fortune.

 In addition to helping in the family business, Jeno got a job as a janitor in the Downtown Daylight Market where he was often paid in food. Then he started hawking fruit in a stand in front of the store where he was so successful he began earning cash: first three dollars then five dollars. His success came to the attention of the store’s owner, David Persha in Duluth, and he was transferred to the chain’s flagship store where he began to realize his talent in sales. He also knew he needed to build his own business.

After high school and a year of college, Jeno began traveling throughout Minnesota selling for a food distributor. It wasn’t long before he branched out on his own packaging and selling garlic throughout the state. It was on a garlic sales trip that he encountered a community of Japanese who were growing bean sprouts in Minneapolis. The story of how he turned bean sprouts into a $63-million Chinese food business is part of the story of the growth of Chinese food in Minnesota and throughout the country. And it is just one of more than seventy stories in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875.

Asian Flavors is a culmination of my twenty years as food editor of Asian Pages and the more than 500 articles I wrote for the paper. It is a history/cookbook created in collaboration with my culinary partner Raghavan Iyer who is also part of the story of Asian food in Minnesota.  The book is a tribute to the Asia Pacific Rim community and the wealth of traditions it has brought to Minnesota. We are very excited about Asian Flavors and hope you pick up a copy soon.