1904: Convenience becomes fashionable

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.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

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: Continue reading “1904: Convenience becomes fashionable”

Fight the power cream of tomato soup

We twenty-first-century Americans are all, whether we like it or not, products of a certain amount of marketing. If we grew up with television, or even with magazines, certain notions of what we ought to eat and when are embedded in our brains, and half of them were invented out of whole cloth by Madison Avenue.

So, for example: it got cold this week, I left the windows open all night, and by lunchtime Monday the house was still cooler inside than most people would heat it in the winter — and felt even cooler than that from the shock of the sudden temperature change. And I felt strongly that I simply must have a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of cream of tomato soup. Continue reading “Fight the power cream of tomato soup”

Ten thousand year tomorrow corn chowder

It is summer, and corn is coming into season. I am not ashamed to admit that I have a corn problem: When I see corn, I have to buy it. I buy a dozen ears, even if I have no idea what to do with them. And though I do love corn on the cob, I have my limits. Sometimes, too, corn deserves to be more than a side dish, slathered with butter, gnawed in and flossed out. Corn deserves a little love.

And so, today, we are going to make corn chowder. We are going to take our time about it. Corn chowder is a simple thing, which means that it deserves to be made carefully, thoughtfully, attentively, because it has no ornament to distract the senses, no frivolity or luxury to excite the mind. Simple food can be only what it is, and so it must be all that it is and should be, else it is not worth eating.

We will make enough to serve eight, because, presumably, we can find some friends to help us eat it. (If not, there’s always lunch.) Continue reading “Ten thousand year tomorrow corn chowder”