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How (American) Chinese cuisine gave birth to the Minnesota-invented pizza roll

A story that brings together Chinese-American restaurant food, an Italian-American entrepreneur and a Finnish-American recipe developer.

The story of the pizza roll really begins with Chinese restaurants in the United States.
The story of the pizza roll really begins with Chinese restaurants in the United States.
Wikimedia Commons

You’ve probably eaten Totino’s pizza rolls, those bite-sized nuggets of fried dough, filled with tomato sauce, gooey cheese and a variety of savory fillings. You’ve even watched the Saturday Night Live sketches featuring Vanessa Bayer. But did you know that Totino’s did not invent the pizza roll? It was another Italian-American Minnesotan building on the work of other food innovators.

Chop suey and American Chinese food

The story of the pizza roll really begins with Chinese restaurants in the United States. According to Jennifer 8. Lee, in her book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” Chinese food joints, which first opened on the west coast, had spread to New York City by 1900. Lee observed, “Diners were being drawn by something dazzling! Something sophisticated! Something exotic! Something that had taken the country by storm. Something called … chop suey.”

Lee describes chop suey succinctly: “Thin squiggly white bean sprouts. Crispy, round water chestnuts. Gravy!” She goes on to say that, “Middle-class women examined newspaper and magazine recipes, trying to make their own brown sauce, vegetables, and rice taste as authentic as that of the chop suey parlors.” Chop suey recipes even made it into the 1942 Army cookbook along with other ethnic foods such as spaghetti and tamales.

After World War II, take out Chinese food, produced by Chinese-, Japanese-, and other Asian-Americans, flourished. Lee notes, however, “There was one small point that the restaurateurs were careful not to emphasize to their customers: the dish Americans knew as chop suey was all but unknown in China.” The same was true of other American favorites such as chow mein, egg foo yung, and fried egg rolls. They were all American-born Chinese foods, to use Lee’s phrase.

Chinese restaurant menu, Minneapolis, circa 1940s or 1950s.
Hennepin County Library Digital Collections
Chinese restaurant menu, Minneapolis, circa 1940s or 1950s.

Chinese food with an Italian accent

Luigino “Jeno” Paulucci, born in 1918 on the Mesabi Iron Range, was traveling northern Minnesota as a salesman for a food wholesaler in the early 1940s when he noticed one product in grocery stores that his company didn’t carry: bean sprouts, which were popular for home cooks making chop suey and chow mein. Jeno became obsessed with bean sprouts, believing he could produce them himself and turn a tidy profit. His first attempt ended in a stinking failure when he mistakenly used soybeans (a putrid mess) instead of mung beans (pleasing, crisp sprouts).

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In his next effort, in 1943, Paulucci scraped together $2,500 from friends and connections so that he and a partner could start Foo Young, a company which grew and packaged bean sprouts. By 1945, they had mixed celery, pimentos, water chestnuts and other vegetables with the bean sprouts to create Foo Young’s canned “chop suey vegetables,” which were a hit.

Luigino “Jeno” Paulucci, circa 1970
Minnesota Historical Society
Luigino “Jeno” Paulucci, circa 1970
By the late 1940s, Paulucci realized it would be more profitable to sell consumers canned chop suey and chow mein rather than just the raw ingredients. So, Paulucci brought in his mother, Michelina, a talented home chef, to work with him to create the recipes. According to L. E. Leipold, in “Jeno F. Paulucci, Merchant Philanthropist,” “Michelina Paulucci took ordinary chow mein and chop suey recipes and … added various condiments ‘a la Italienne’ [to make] something delightfully different.” As Susan Mundale and Carol Pine observed, in “Self-Made: The Stories of 12 Minnesota Entrepreneurs,” “It was Chinese food with an Italian accent.” It, too, was a hit.

By the late 1950s, Foo Young, renamed Chun King Company, had expanded into frozen foods as well. In particular, after observing the success of TV dinners, Paulucci created frozen Chinese dinners that featured chow mein or chop suey, white rice and a small egg roll. The egg roll was itself a tiny engineering marvel. The Chun King factory in Duluth hired Eugene Luoma to design a machine to “automatically extrude fillings onto a continuous sheet of egg roll skin, then fold, seal and cut the product into little pillows,” according to his sister’s memoir. The egg rolls proved to be so popular that Chun King started selling separate packages of frozen mini egg rolls.

Detail from a Chun King magazine ad, 1957
Detail from a Chun King magazine ad, 1957

But wait, there’s a Finnish twist

By the mid-1960s, Jeno was ready to sell the Chun King company and turn to other types of food products. 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.

Today, Ojakangas is known as the author of 32 cookbooks, a member of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame and holder of an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota. In the mid-1960s, she was a newly hired product developer at Chun King. Like Paulucci, she had grown up in northeastern Minnesota and was the product of an immigrant family, in her case Finnish.

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Ojakangas went to work and, as she describes in her memoir, “came up with fifty-five different ideas for fillings that I thought would appeal to the general public. I started out with popular sandwich fillings like cheeseburger, California burger, Reuben sandwich, fillings, even peanut butter and jelly—because I was told that the boss really liked his PB & J sandwiches. Five or six of the fillings were ‘pizza’ flavored, made with Italian sausage, pepperoni, or shrimp.”

Beatrice Ojakangas
Beatrice Ojakangas
On a July day at Jeno’s vacation mansion on Lake Kabetogama, Chun King executives filed in for a taste test. Ojakangas fired up the deep fat fryer and offered up samples of the dozens of options. When Jeno and the others bit into the pizza-filled eggrolls, the room when silent — and Jeno cried out, “That’s it!” Jeno’s pizza rolls had arrived.

In November 1966, Paulucci sold Chun King to R.J. Reynolds for $63 million. Among the conditions of the sale, Reynolds agreed to produce and package pizza rolls for Jeno at cost plus 5 percent.  According to Paulucci (quoted in “Self Made”), “Reynolds never did ask me what a pizza roll was.” He went on, “Three or four months after the sale, I told them I needed 50,000 cases of pizza rolls, and they almost went into shock. ‘How are we going to get the equipment,’ they asked me. ‘You already have the equipment – pizza rolls are nothing but egg rolls with pizza crust and filling,’ I said. They’ve been upset with me ever since.”

Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, along with Jeno’s frozen pizza and a variety of pizza snacks, were an immediate success. Jeno sold the company to Pillsbury in 1985 for $135 million. In 1993, Pillsbury combined all its Totino’s and Jeno’s products under the Totino’s name. Jeno’s Pizza Rolls disappeared and they’ve been Totino’s Pizza Rolls ever since, now produced by General Mills since they acquired Pillsbury in 2001.

Jeno’s Pizza Rolls ad, 1960s -1970s
Jeno’s Pizza Rolls ad, 1960s -1970s
One week after Beatrice Ojakangas’ success in creating the pizza filling, she asked for a 25-cent raise, from $3.50 to $3.75 per hour. The answer was no. According to Ojakangas, her boss replied, “Please don’t ask for that! We can’t afford it.”