We all have them. The ratty sweat pants that we grab when we crave comfort. The T-shirt from a concert 10 years ago that’s held together by faded shreds of fabric and love.
Don’t try to deny it.
And don’t try to deny the can of cream of mushroom soup that’s in your pantry right now.
No, canned cream of mushroom soup is not sustainably raised, hormone-free or even remotely healthy. Yes, it represents everything that food-obsessed people (justifiably) rail against. The only thing authentic about it is that it authentically illustrates the apex of American processed food (Velveeta and pizza rolls being close contenders).
But during the holidays, someone is buying it. Lots of someones, actually: Campbell’s Soup says that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the biggest time of year for the soup’s sales. Last holiday season, 107 million cans were sold.
I’m guessing that most of it goes into the inimitable green bean casserole, that 1955 creation designed to encourage homemakers to use Campbell’s products. Salty, crunchy and a little sweet, the casserole sparks the same parts of the brain that make nacho corn chips and honey-roasted peanuts irresistible. And there’s a vegetable in it — three if you count the canned fried onions on top and the pencil eraser-sized bits of mushrooms in the soup.
Once a year, I need it.
I ignore the people who post homemade green bean casserole recipes on their blogs, saying how easy it is to make your own cream of mushroom soup, steam fresh green beans and fry onions for the top. That’s just showing off.
Besides, the result will not taste the same. I’m not saying it won’t taste good, but it won’t be the casserole of memory. And the holidays are all about memories, just like that t-shirt and sweat pants, which your spouse won’t let you wear outside the house.
This is a great time in the world of food writing and research, when the history and contributions of diverse groups to what we eat are being rightly recognized and documented. Believe it or not, cream of mushroom soup has a place in history as well, particularly women’s history.
The soup appeared in 1934. By 1943, it and other canned soups were so widely accepted for cooking that a guide to combining them appeared in the respected “Joy of Cooking,” according to “The American Century Cookbook” by Jean Anderson.
Cream of mushroom soup appeared in 1934. By 1943, it and other canned soups were so widely accepted for cooking that a guide to combining them appeared in the respected “Joy of Cooking.”
In the 1930s, the growth of home economics classes fostered a scientific approach to nutrition and cooking. “Scientific cooks wanted to see woman lighten their burdens,” writes Laura Schenone in “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove,” a history of women and food.
The availability of electricity and products like refrigerators grew, along with convenience foods, such as sliced bread and prepared peanut butter. Women no longer had to make their own basic foods or shop daily. The freedom of getting meals on the table faster and easier loomed.
Women became important as a consumer force. Appliance manufacturers and food companies began setting up test kitchens and hired home economists to develop recipes and products, marketing directly to women.
But there was a catch.
Cooking did take less time as the decades went on, but companies wanted women to keep cooking and buying their products. So the ads created higher standards, painting pictures of perfection in the kitchen that didn’t exist in the real world. They pushed the buttons of emotional connections to food, saying it wasn’t enough to just open a jar or pop a can of crescent rolls, but to express love through a more time-consuming combination of products.
“In a strange paradox of modern life, the new world of commercial foods promised freedom and then reminded women that they were not so free,” Schenone writes.
So, be unashamed about the green bean casserole, even give it a little respect as a historical artifact.
And hide those sweat pants and t-shirt before your spouse goes looking for rags to wash the car.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.