“The Horse Started the Business”: The Progresso Story

By Joel Denker

“Only in America would it be possible for a man like Jeno Francesco Paulucci, son of poor Italian immigrants, to get rich selling Chinese food in a Scandinavian region.” So said Jeno Paulucci, the Minnesota-born founder of the Chun King Chinese food business, summing up his achievement. The World on a Plate, published last year by Westview Press, profiles Mr. Paulucci and a score of other ethnic entrepreneurs—Italian, Greek, Jewish—who changed American food. In this book, Joel Denker, a longtime food and travel writer and scholar of American folklore, traces the colorful culinary history of immigrants and the impact that their native foods and unique neighborhoods—from New York City’s Lower East Side to New Orleans’s Italian Quarter—have had on our culture.

Below is an excerpt from “That’s Amore: Italian Food in America,” the first chapter of The World on a Plate.

The burgeoning Italian community [in late 19th century New Orleans] clamored for tomato paste, an­chovies, cheeses, and other products that only their homeland could supply.  Sicilian importers like Giuseppe Uddo, the founder of Pro­gresso Foods, responded to this craving. The eldest of six children, Giuseppe grew up in Salemi, a small Sicilian village twenty-five miles from the Mediterranean. After the third grade, he quit school to help support his family. The nine-year-old drove a horse-drawn cart selling olives and cheeses in Salemi and nearby towns. Giuseppe was a vendi­tor, a traditional Sicilian vocation.

On one of his trips, the peddler met Giuseppe Taormina, a success­ful food merchant, who had many relatives in New Orleans. Taormina took to the young salesman and introduced him to his daughter, Eleanora. The two married and decided to try their luck in New Or­leans. Giuseppe and Eleanora, both then twenty-four, sailed from Palermo and landed at the Canal Street docks in 1907.

Since the food trade was “all he knew,” his son Frank said, Giuseppe went to work for his brother-in-law, Francesco Taormina, who had an import business. He lost the job when Francesco closed down to re­turn to Italy to fight in the army.  Eleanora’s cousins, also food mer­chants, hired Giuseppe to work in their warehouse.

The Uddos lived in a crowded tenement in the French Quarter, which was dubbed Piccola Palermo (Little Palermo). They shared a toi­let with the other dwellers. Laundry hung in the outside courtyard.

Giuseppe was stranded on Christmas Eve of 1909 when his em­ployers went bankrupt. He now had two young children to support and wondered what he would tell his wife. On his way home through the French Quarter, he met a Mr. Cusimano, who owned a macaroni factory in the district. Cusimano asked the disconsolate Sicilian what was worrying him. After hearing Uddo’s tale of woe, he offered him goods to start his own business and promised him credit to buy more.

Giuseppe was ready to strike out on his own.  He had a supply of olives, cheeses, and tomato paste but no way of transporting them to sell. He went back to Eleanora’s cousins and implored them: “If you’re going to go bankrupt, give me your horse.” They agreed and Giuseppe borrowed the money to buy Sal. A godsend, “the horse knew where to go,” Frank said. Since his father adamantly refused to learn English, he depended on the horse to take him on the sales routes to Italian customers. According to Frank, this was the beginning of Progresso: “The horse started the business.”

Giuseppe left home about 3 A.M. to travel to Kenner, Harahan, and other Italian truck-farming communities outside New Orleans. “The roads were terrible and the mosquitoes were so big, you could put sad­dles on them,” his son, Salvadore, told the New Orleans Times­-Picayune. After three days on the road, the peddler returned home and prepared his wares for another trip. He and his wife spiffed up and re­labeled the cans of tomatoes they had gotten from Cusimano.

As business grew, Uddo expanded his venture. He replaced Sal and bought trucks. He purchased a small warehouse in the French Quarter on Decatur Street, installing his family upstairs to live and running his peddling operation below. He also opened a grocery on the ground floor and placed his brother, Gaetano, recently arrived from Sicily, in charge.

Just before World War I, his father, Frank remembered, decided to “gamble everything.” Giuseppe took out a loan and bought three thousand cases of tomato paste. When an embargo closed Italian ports, Uddo’s sales boomed, and he used his profits to bring the rest of his family to New Orleans. His parents, Salvadore and Rose, and his sisters, Tomasa and Francesca, joined him. The patriarch made all his family members stockholders. Giuseppe “did not believe in paying salaries,” Frank said.

After the war, Uddo bought a factory in Riverdale, California, owned by the Vaccaros, the New Orleans fruit magnates, which man­ufactured tomato paste. He sent his brother Gaetano out to run it. The plant was the first in the United States to make the product, which had previously been available only from Italy. The war had taught Uddo that it was too dangerous for his company to rely exclu­sively on imports.

Giuseppe was always dreaming up new enterprises. He started New Orleans’s first movie theater, built a cigar-rolling factory, and opened a ship chandler’s business in Galveston, Mississippi. But he was “never a good follow-up man,” Frank discovered. Once he began making can­dles in the back of his warehouse, but they all melted in the city’s tor­rid heat.

The California cannery was turning out more tomato products than the company could sell in Louisiana. Uddo wanted to tap new mar­kets, especially in the rapidly growing Italian enclaves in the North­east. “There are more people in New York than there are in Rome,” he told Frank.

Giuseppe joined forces with the Taorminas, the members of an­other Sicilian trading clan, who had begun a struggling import busi­ness in New York City. Frank G. and Vincent Taormina, distant cousins of Eleanora Uddo, and their cousins, Frank R. and Eugene, were floundering when Giuseppe rescued them. Giuseppe advanced the Taormina “boys,” as he liked to call them, vital capital and brought his family to New York in 1930 to help out the firm. Three years later, Frank G. Taormina married Giuseppe’s daughter, Rose Marie. As Frank Uddo tells it, this alliance “cemented things” in the Uddo-Taormina company, the newly merged enterprise.

Francesco Taormina, Eleanora’s brother, sent olives, pomidori pelati (peeled Italian plum tomatoes), and other staples from Sicily to their Brooklyn headquarters. The California cannery sent carloads of tomato paste to New York for distribution. Olive oil was shipped from Tunisia, where Giuseppe’s cousin owned a factory.

Sicilian imports poured into Brooklyn. The business sold sardines, anchovies, and incanestrato, a cheese molded in a wicker basket (cane­stro), to ethnic groceries. It roasted peppers and marketed salted chickpeas (ceci), which Italians snacked on during feast days and other celebrations. Caponata was a signature item. The Sicilian appetizer, a traditional summer dish, combined eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and celery in a sweet-and-sour blend made piquant with capers, olives, and anchovies.

The company prospered. It developed a clientele among both re­tailers and wholesalers. The major Italian middlemen who worked the Northeastern market bought large orders of Uddo-Taormina toma­toes. “We were playing both ends of the stick,” Frank Uddo, who was now working with the company, said.

World War II boosted sales. “During the war you could pack any­thing and sell it,” Frank said. The company had to increase domestic production because “they couldn’t import any product,” John Taormina, Vincent’s son, recalled. In 1942 they bought an old factory in Vineland, New Jersey.

The southern Jersey plant was in the heartland of Italian farmers. Settlers from southern Italy got their start as strawberry and raspberry pickers or as railroad or brick workers in the late nineteenth century and soon saved enough to buy their own land. The rugged pinelands soil was soon producing a bounty of melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplants, and other fruits and vegetables. The farmers grew grapes and made wine. Emily Meade, the sociologist and daughter of Mar­garet Mead, visited nearby Hammonton in 1907 and marveled at the Italian innovations: “Italians have popularized the sweet pepper and introduced. . . a peculiarly shaped squash, .okra, Italian greens, and various kinds of mint.”

The Vineland plant, Frank Uddo said, had the “largest smokestack on the East Coast.” Workers canned and bottled roasted red peppers, sweet fried peppers, pepper salad, hot cherry peppers, tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, and other products. Flo Alvino, who was hired to do the payroll for farmer suppliers, fondly remembers her early, exciting years with the company: “Farmers’ trucks were lined up on the boulevard. You could smell tomatoes all over Vineland.” Inside the plant, “women were cutting peppers by the handful.” Others “lined up on both sides of the conveyor belt looking for blemishes.”

Since farm vegetables were seasonal, the company started looking for a year-round product. Soups were the answer. From family recipes, it produced hearty, fibrous minestrone, thick with vegetables, beans, and pasta, and lentil soup, made from a bean beloved by the Romans. They developed a version of pasta e fagioli (pasta fazool), a mixture of broken-up pasta and beans in a tomato and salt-pork sauce that Italian immigrants subsisted on. Flo Alvino called it “mac and bean.” After the war, the Vineland plant started turning out the country’s earliest ready-to-serve soups: This ‘was the beginning of Progresso soups. “The sideline became our major line,” John Taormina pointed out.

From soups, they moved to beans, another peasant mainstay. A novelty for many Americans, they were a meal to the Italians. Fava beans, another favorite of the ancient Romans, became a filling dish after being mashed, mixed with greens, and dressed with olive oil. The Vineland business marketed cannellini, pinto, chickpeas, and black beans and changed the American diet.

Shoppers were now less fearful of ethnic products. Returning GIs “had been exposed to Italian food,” said John Taormina. More and more consumers in postwar America, including many from immigrant backgrounds, were now doing their buying at the supermarket. By marketing primarily to small grocery stores, however, Progresso was losing business. The company, plant manager Vincent Taormina ar­gued to his colleagues, had to crack the chains. Other officials coun­tered that this would mean losing older customers who could not compete with lower prices in the supermarkets. “You’d lose the foothold in the Italian deli,” John Taormina summed up their views.

Vincent Taormina carried the day. Progresso “made the leap into the supermarkets” in the late forties, John Taormina said. In the New York area, Acme was their first customer, and other chains followed. Frank Taormina went on the road, calling on stores in the South. He made a pitch to the Winn-Dixie chain. “I talked them into opening an Italian section in all their stores.” This became the Progresso for­mula-displaying its array of products in one space-and the example encouraged other immigrant enterprises. “This was the whole start of the ethnic foods that you see today,” John Taormina observed.

A new brand name began appearing on the company’s products. The Progresso label was based on a pastel painting Giuseppe Uddo had bought for $150 many years before at the Progress Grocery in the French Market. Drawn by one of the brothers who owned the shop, it portrayed “progress” through the rise of new forms of transportation. The symbol of improvement appealed to new and older Americans alike. Having the same name as the most popular Italian-American newspaper, II Progresso, also made it attractive to ethnics.

Progresso advertised on radio and television. It hired an advertising agency that sent a soundtruck through Italian villages during World War II to record “letters” from family members to their American rel­atives. The Grande Famille, the radio program Progresso sponsored, broadcast these messages on Northeastern radio stations in the late forties. The company also sponsored Bishop Fulton Sheen’s television sermons during the fifties.

Once unusual, the products Progresso unveiled in the supermarkets have become commonplace. Its canned tuna in olive oil was a Sicilian favorite that gained a wider following. An early twentieth-century Si­cilian entrepreneur, Ignacio Florio, who was the first to manufacture the canned fish, made it an everyday item on the island. Tonno, the is­land’s favorite fish, enriched pasta, rice, and bean dishes.

Pine nuts, minced clams, capers, artichokes, and other specialty products also grew into household staples. Bread crumbs, both plain and Italian-style seasoned with fennel, garlic, and other spices, became one of the company’s largest sellers. Olive oil and bread crumbs, which “were big in the Italian community in New Orleans,” Frank Uddo said, gained national popularity.

The Uddo and Taormina clans fought over the control of Progresso after the death of Giuseppe Uddo in 1957. The founding father, a rock of stability, had kept the two sides at peace. When animosities threat­ened the survival of the business, the owners agreed to sell the firm to Imperial Tobacco, a Canadian corporation, in 1969. Pillsbury, which owns the company today, acquired it in 1995.

Michael Uddo, Frank’s son, is carrying on the Progresso tradition at the G and E Courtyard restaurant in New Orleans, located right around the corner from Giuseppe’s old headquarters. [The eatery is now closed.] He has vivid memories of growing up in the import business. “Something was al­ways coming in,” he recalled. He filled containers with olive oil and packed Greek olives, sometimes gorging on them until he was sick.

“Everything was done through the family,” Michael said. “We were required to be at meetings because we had stock.” The clan gathered for lunches of braised veal tongue, roast chicken with garlic and rose­mary, and other dishes prepared by his grandmother, Eleanora. Michael models his restaurant on Sicilian traditions. “It’s based on the same principles-rustic Italian food.”