The world is all too familiar with the shocking histories of Cap'n Crunch (not a real captain!) and Cheesasaurus Rex (not a real dinosaur!), but what about the lives of not-cartoon, totally real food mascots? We're here to give you the brief backstories of such grocery store celebrities as Uncle Ben, Little Debbie, and that shifty guy Paul Newman, because you deserve to know the truth. Find out what it takes to get your mug plastered on non-perishables after the jump.
Stop for the Gas, Stay for the Grub
While the California Raisins were sadly not a real Motown cover band, the Sun-Maid girl did once walk amongst us. Her name was Lorraine Collett Petersen, and she repped the raisin company basically since its beginning. See, shortly after Sun-Maid got going, Petersen and a bunch of other girls decked out in white blouses and blue bonnets hit the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Fran to hand out samples. But once they headed back to Fresno, the wife of an executive from the expo spotted Petersen wearing her mom's red bonnet and was like, "Guys, red's where it's at." Petersen posed for a portrait in the bonnet, holding a basket full of grapes, and the rest is shriveled fruit history.
No, Chef Boyardee was not made up by three dudes named Boyd, Art, and Dennis. (Do you even read Snopes, son?) He was Italian chef Ettore Boiardi, and he was a major boss. Boiardi kicked off his culinary career in the US by leading the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel before he was even 18yrs old. Then he supervised the catering of President Woodrow Wilson's second wedding, then he opened a massively popular restaurant in Cleveland, and THEN he founded Chef Boyardee with his brothers, spelling it phonetically for us simple Americans. After he sold the thing in 1946, he stayed on as a "consultant" and appeared in tons of ads until his retirement in 1978. Did we mention he also got a Gold Star from the US government for running his plant 24/7 during World War II to feed the troops? Forget Julia Child; when's Meryl Streep gonna play this guy?
Since selling cakes to kids is way less creepy when your salesman is also a child, Little Debbie creator O.D. McKee decided to make his four-year-old granddaughter the face of the latest snack cake sensation in 1960. The logo was based off of a photo of Debbie wearing her favorite straw hat, while the name was based off the fact that she was a small human called Debbie. 50+ years later, she's still involved in the family business, serving as an executive vice president at McKee Foods and making a LOT of Hostess jokes.
Unfortunately we don't have a snazzy photo of the real-life Uncle Ben, and that's because his story is one of the food industry's murkiest. To start off, there are technically two Uncle Bens. His literal namesake was a Houston rice farmer named Ben whose surname has been lost to history. Ben's quality crops caught the attention of food broker Gordon L. Harwell, who began using them to serve the WWII troops a special white rice under the brand name Converted Rice. Then, a couple years later, Harwell was having dinner in Chicago when he noticed a portrait of the restaurant's maitre d', Frank Brown, and decided he'd be the perfect face of his revamped company, Uncle Ben's Converted Rice. So when it comes time to found your own food company, remember: that pissed-off hostess at your favorite resto would probably love to be your mascot.
Alright, this one might be cheating a little. The man concerned, John Hewer, was Captain Birdseye from 1967 to 1998, but he was a land-lubbing actor, not a seaman (teehee). Still, the man's performance was so beloved that the fish stick slingers had to place an obituary for Captain Birdseye in The Times when they decided to give him the boot in 1971. They quickly realized they'd made a huge mistake and rushed Hewer back into his captain's hat three years later. Really, those Brits should've known it would backfire -- just ask Sir Arthur "But I Want to Write My PLAYS" Conan Doyle what happened when he iced Sherlock Holmes.
The man who wore suspenders long before they were trendy, Orville Redenbacher got into the popcorn game at the age of 12, when he started growing his own supply on the family farm. He kept experimenting through high school, college, his quarter-life crisis, and his midlife crisis until 1965, when he perfected his patented "light and fluffy" hybrid with business partner Charles Bowman. He then proceeded to slap his face on the packaging and appear in a slew of ads for the stuff right up until his death in 1995. Apparently the popcorn barons still haven't let him go -- they resurrected Orvy for a totally-not-weird-at-all-what-do-you-mean commercial in 2007.
Actor and most handsome man (sorry, Clooney) Paul Newman set out to add "world-class philanthropist" to his list of titles in the '80s with the creation of Newman's Own, a food company that donates 100 percent of its profits to charity. Much to his partner A. E. Hotchner's shock and dismay, they went with Newman as the packaging coverboy, too.