Dear Straight Dope: My daughter asked me to find out whether Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s rice was a real person. What about Aunt Jemimah and the man on the Cream O’ Wheat container? Thomas Stewart, New York, NY
Well, Thomas, you’ve come to the right place, as food is one of the favorite topics around here. Unfortunately, your question doesn’t require a taste test. But don’t worry, we’ll tackle it anyway.
Uncle Ben does, indeed, appear to have been a real person. According to the official Uncle Ben’s, Inc. website (www.unclebens.com), he was “an African American rice farmer known to rice millers in and around Houston for consistently producing the highest quality rice.” Unfortunately, the site explains, the details of Uncle Ben’s life are lost to history, although they seem to be aware that he died sometime before the late 1940s, when Gordon L. Harwell, the first president of Converted Rice, Inc. (the predecessor of Uncle Ben’s Inc.) and his partner decided to call the rice that they had been supplying exclusively to the Armed Forces during World War II Uncle Ben’s® Converted® Brand Rice.
Unfortunately, no Aunt Jemima (no final “h”) ever actually invented or poured any maple syrup (or maple-flavored corn sweetener substitute). The Quaker Oats Company is the owner of the Aunt Jemima brand, and according to a spokesperson, although there have been three different women who played the part in various promotions, the character was not based on any real person. (Incidentally, the outline of the man on the front of the Quaker Oats containers is likewise the figment of someone’s imagination. Had Wilford Brimley been around in the late 1800s, I’m sure his portrait would grace the containers instead.)
Heading back into the non-fiction category we come to the chef on the Cream of Wheat containers (the “of” is spelled out; by writing “Cream O’ Wheat” you may have been confusing them with one of the other combatants in the Breakfast War, Malt O’ Meal). Checking the website for Nabisco, the owner of the Cream of Wheat brand (www.nabisco.com), we learn that the Cream of Wheat Cereal chef was a waiter in a Chicago restaurant where he was noticed by one of the founders of the Cream of Wheat Cereal company: “The fine appearance and features of the waiter seemed especially appropriate for a wholesome, and then, new cereal. It is believed that the chef was in his thirties when the photograph was taken around 1900. The passage of many years has eliminated virtually all records of the original model, his name, or background.” As this sounds remarkably similar to the fate of the records of the aforementioned rice miller, I’m somewhat inclined to believe that the chef’s name was Ben. In any case, the illustration of the chef was met with such great success that today he still appears as the product’s widely known trademark.
So, Thomas, two out of three ain’t bad. I’m glad you didn’t ask about Toucan Sam, your ratio wouldn’t have been quite so good.
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