Why do people buy industrial “convenience foods”? Because they’re convenient, of course. We’re busy, and we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Or, rather, we think we’re busy, and we think we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Sometimes that’s the case. More often, the needs we don’t have time to fill by our own labor weren’t really needs in the first place.
Take, for example, Campbell’s Condensed Soup. When that product was introduced in the 1890s, canned soup had been around for a couple of decades; what was new was the process by which the soup was condensed and the size of the can cut in half, which made the end product cheaper. The earliest ads, placed on streetcars, aimed at the working mothers who rode them, simply showed the can, gave basic instructions (“Just add hot water and serve”), and noted “6 plates for 10¢.” Some of the first magazine ads for condensed soup were placed in the American Federationist, a union magazine. A 1901 ad featured oxtail soup, which, like early soups, was intended as the backbone of a meal.1 For families with little time and little money, then, yes, canned soup seems to have been an obvious convenience.
But that’s only half the story. The other half is that home economists eagerly accepted the new convenience and sold it to middle-class women through the monthly magazines they edited. Not only did general-purpose women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping promote “progressive” cooking, but a few turn-of-the-century magazines devoted themselves entirely to cookery. These magazines offered not only recipes and in-depth discussions of culinary techniques and new products but also gave a month’s worth of daily menus in each issue. By 1904, Table Talk was specifically recommending Campbell’s soups in its menus as replacements for homemade—not every day, but once or twice a week. They didn’t suggest making a meal out of canned soup, even for lunch, but rather serving it as a first course. Here, for example, is Table Talk‘s dinner menu for Tuesday, February 23, 1904:
Campbell’s Celery Soup
Boiled Mutton — Rice Timbals
Tomatoes and Okra
Endive — French Dressing
Wafers — Cheese
All the busy housewife had to do, then, was whip up boiled mutton, rice timbals, tomatoes and okra, vinaigrette, and lemon jelly (not “Jell-O,” note) to have a lovely four-course meal for her family.2 Clearly, Table Talk was not aimed at people who genuinely lacked time to get dinner on the table. What’s going on?
The turn of the twentieth century saw the peak of a long rise in the complexity of meals. In upper-class French and English homes dinner had been served in courses since at least the sixteenth century, but until the nineteenth the formal English dinner consisted only of “removes”—soup, fish, and other light dishes—followed by the substantial main course, and then dessert. All the courses consisted of multiple dishes placed on the table at once, and guests helped themselves to what they liked, with no obligation to try everything. In the nineteenth century a course of cheese and salad was inserted before dessert, but otherwise the structure, called à la Française, remained the same. The rising middle class in both England and America aped the order of courses, even if they couldn’t afford the variety. When the middle class caught up, of course, it was time for the wealthy to move on to something new, and so by 1860 they had begun dining à la Russe, in the allegedly Russian style in which dishes were placed on a sideboard and handed round to guests one at a time. They added more courses as they added more forks and china, dividing the soup from the fish and adding entrées, a second lighter meat course, and a final array of ices.3
Middle-class families did their best to keep up, and the necessity of careful planning led eventually to the rise of published menus. Relying on the latest standards of taste and nutrition, home economists mapped out three meals a day, thirty days at a time, for American housewives. Here’s what American Kitchen Magazine recommended for Thursday, March 3, 1898:
- Breakfast. Fried Corn-mush. Syrup. Baked Potatoes. Creamed Salmon. Oranges. Dry Toast. Coffee.
- Luncheon. Eggs Poached in Tomatoes. Toast. Gingerbread. Tea.
- Dinner. Cream of Onions. Wafers. Lobster Croquettes. Brown Bread Bars. Peas. Lemon Pie.
Note how elaborate these menus are — and this was during Lent, which the author noted was “a time for fasting in quantity as well as variety”! Croquettes were all the rage in the 1890s, but they require making a thick bechamel, stirring in cooked meat and seasonings (and in this case, steaming and picking the lobster), then shaping, breading, and frying. Wafers (crackers) would have been purchased, but “brown bread bars” were homemade bread buttered and toasted—croutons, essentially. There were other nods to frugality, and the week’s menus showed thoughtful planning: lobster leftover from making croquettes went into in bisque the next day; extra haddock stewed for dinner was creamed for breakfast; leftover pot roast was served in the same form for lunch, then made into beef, macaroni and onion scallop for dinner. But the menus called for two fresh-made desserts nearly every day, and most dinners included a soup course.4 And that was for a weekday; Sunday dinners were even more elaborate. Here’s Table Talk‘s plan for Sunday, June 12, 1904:5
Toasted Wheat Flakes — Sugar and Cream
Lamb Chops — Potatoes au Gratin
Rolls — Coffee
Boiled Fresh Tongue — Sauce Piquante
Mashed Potatoes Asparagus
Wafers — Cheese
Sweetbreads en Coquille
Fruit — Fancy Cakes — Coffee
It isn’t entirely fair to describe these menus as the product of bourgeois pretensions, for every expansion in wants was justified by experts as a genuine need. The chemist and home economist Ellen Richards justified the customary plan in terms of the physiology of the day:
The appetite is to be stimulated, without being satisfied, by the first course, bouillon rather than corn soup. The warm fluid causes a flow of the gastric juice because blood pressure is increased. Relishes like olives or salted almonds serve to remove the flavor of the last dish, cleanse the tongue and palate, as it were, for the next dish, which comes as a fresh pleasure. The sweet (a very little of it) serves to remove the last traces of the oily matter of the salad or the fat of the meat, and to give a feeling of sufficiency and satisfaction with the meal.
She added that “These sensations cannot be repeated too many times within an hour or two without losing their acuteness,” and therefore “Three or four dishes following each other, with the right relish before the first and second or second or third, is the wisest plan.”6
But this supposed simplicity masked serious challenges for the cook. Soup was once a product of leftovers, left to simmer all day untended and made into the backbone of a meal. Grains and root vegetables soaked up the grease; if secondhand meat gave a flavor less than pristine, herbs could cover it. Soup as a first course must be lighter — no grease, no fat other than cream (such would be indigestible anyway), no starch to dampen the appetite. Since it was also widely believed that condiments and strong seasonings unnaturally excited the appetite, the cook was left to her own art to make the soup taste good; there was nothing to hide behind.
Added to the rising culinary standards of the day, concerns like these made soup-making high art and science. Given a stove, a whisk, and a little time, it isn’t terribly difficult to make cream of asparagus or tomato. But other classics, like the humble split pea soup, had to be reinvented to make a proper first course: Mary Lincoln, founder of the Boston Cooking School that would make Fannie Farmer famous, instructed women to skip the traditional salt pork and to rub the boiled peas through a strainer, add cream or stock, then thicken the soup with a roux to make it “smooth [and] perfectly free from grease.”7 Even bouillon is not “just” beef broth; it requires careful selection of bones, long simmering, straining, and clarifying to remove traces of grease. Other experts went further and recommended consommé, which is beef broth or bouillon to which additional meat, vegetables, and sometimes tomato paste have been added after first being browned; it thus requires two long bouts of simmering, after which it must be strained, cooled, skimmed, and clarified by simmering it again with slightly beaten egg white, then strained once more. Such is classic French technique, and Fannie Farmer’s was no less laborious (or expensive, given the quantity of meat involved).8 The result is lovely and delicate, but it isn’t anything one could sensibly call home cooking.
Soup was thus the ideal vanguard for the convenience food revolution. No one needed a soup course; in practical terms it was dispensable—yet to get rid of it would have been an admission of failure. It was increasingly difficult to make, and it was desirable only if made perfectly. To the extent that consommé, for example, was made in homes it was made in home kitchens that had been professionalized by the addition of a full-time cook or by hiring sufficient household help to enable the housewife to make cooking her profession. But by 1900 domestic servants were harder and harder to come by, because the farm girls and immigrants who had once gladly worked as maids and cooks were now taking jobs in factories.
Enter Joseph Campbell, New Jersey fruit merchant. In 1869 he joined with Abraham Anderson, a tinsmith with a small canning company, selling mincemeat and canned vegetables in Camden from the back of a horse-drawn wagon. In 1876 their soup won a gold medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia—the gold medal that still appears on the cans—and Campbell decided to pursue a national market. He bought out his partner and brought in Arthur Dorrance, and it was Dorrance who made Campbell’s soup a success when, three years after Joseph Campbell retired in 1894, he hired his nephew, John Dorrance, an unemployed chemist. The younger Dorrance developed the means of “condensing” the soup by removing water from the contents, which made the resulting smaller cans cheaper to package, ship, and store. Within a year Campbell’s was selling five varieties of condensed soup, chicken, consommé, oxtail, tomato, and vegetable, in stores nationwide. Within a decade the company sold twenty varieties, and home economists helped sell them to the middle class. Table Talk called for gumbo, chicken gumbo, mock turtle, mulligatawny, beef, bouillon, clam bouillon, julienne, printanier (spring vegetable), tomato, celery, and asparagus soups as first courses for weeknight dinners, and also suggested canned tomato soup as a quick sauce for sausages.
Campbell’s, I’d suggest, became an icon not because it filled a genuine need but because it helped middle-class people remain fashionable, and thus became fashionable itself. Faced with reduced capacity and rising standards Americans might have chosen to simplify. But that, of course, would not have been progress. Instead, they convinced themselves that canned soup was just as good as homemade, and the march to frozen dinners was on.
- American Federationist 8:9 (September 1901), p. 398.
- Cornelia C. Bedford, “New Menus for February” and “How to Follow Table Talk’s Daily Menus,” Table Talk, February 1904, pp. 80–87.
- Peter Brears, “À La Française: The Waning of a Long Dining Tradition.” In Eating with the Victorians (Phoenix Mill, England: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2004), pp. 89–107.
- “Menus for March,” American Kitchen Magazine, March 1898, p. 233.
- Cornelia C. Bedford, “New Menus for June,” Table Talk, May 1904, p. 313.
- Ellen H. Richards, First Lessons in Food and Diet (Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows, 1904), pp. 41–42.
- Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884), pp. 149–150.
- Fannie Merritt Farmer, Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896), pp. 101–105, 106, 116.