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  • Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press file, 1995

    Charles Rex Arbogast Associated Press file, 1995 Spaghettios creator Donald Goerke poses in 1995 as Campbell Soup Co. marked the 30th anniversary of the pasta product at its headquarters in Camden, N.J. The company plans to close its soup factory in Sacramento.

  • Reed Stevens

On the Lighter Side: There goes my childhood, fueled by Campbell's Soup

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3E
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 - 9:38 am

Campbell Soup began making its revolutionary product – condensed soup – in Camden at the turn of the 20th century. The company started with the famous New Jersey tomato – a fat, luscious variety.

Subsequently the company moved west to California, and coincidentally, so did I. If you drive past the vast farm fields that shoulder Interstate 5, you pass convoys of farm trucks loaded 10 feet high with tomatoes on the way to the crusher.

The company says it is closing the original plant in Sacramento because it is outdated and expensive to operate. Furthermore, people don't buy soup the way they used to. I mean, when was the last time you opened a can of Campbell's cream of tomato, added a can of milk and lit the fire underneath?

Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm the last soupier. But I'm not ready to bid goodbye to my favorite childhood lunch.

While my umbrella dripped on the front stoop (I had run home from school), while I waited for the thick, pink goop to warm up, I flipped my sandwich (made with soft white bread) in the frying pan. I checked to see if the cheese was oozing. I stirred the soup before it boiled up and over the pot, turned off both pans, then settled down before my steaming bowl and a crispy, grilled cheese sandwich. Very satisfying to a 10-year-old.

Primary flavors

You couldn't fail if you used Velveeta. Even stuck to the pan, it was tasty. But if I had no cheese, I made a butter sandwich from two of those square slices of Wonder Bread, squeezed it shut, then daintily dipped the corners into the soup. Leaned over to catch the drips, burned my mouth, fanned my mouth and ate it all up, just like Goldilocks did with Baby Bear's porridge.

These are the primary flavors of my whole life: the sharp tomato cut by the milk and the sweetness of white bread – I'm not talking nutrition here – all enlarged by the umami of hot Velveeta.

No, I'm not talking gourmet, either. That would come later, when I learned to love the cleansing smell of basil and learned to appreciate tender pasta and unprocessed cheese in a real lasagna. I might not ever have appreciated grownup food if I hadn't started with Campbell's.

I raised two children on Campbell's Spaghettios. One kid favored the meatballs, the other the plain. Yesterday, because I worried that I might never again know that particular taste on my tongue – that I might forget their childhood – I opened a can of Spaghettios and tried to recapture its charm.

Tyranny by microwave

It's a pale, pale variation of cream of tomato soup, its flabby little pasta rings floating in a very thin sauce. So if Campbell's ditches that product, it's OK with me.

But the soup? Campbell's says people don't want cans that serve two; they want a single serving in an upscale microwave container. Maybe that's good for the environment, but my mom always, always, made meat loaf with a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom, an egg and two slices of white bread.

Cream of mushroom – crème des champignons – is to America what sauce béchamel is to Julia Child. This is a universal gravy for all the leftover meat, fish eggs or vegetables in the fridge. It can be stretched to feed more than two.

No leftovers? Add another kind of Campbell's soup – asparagus, perhaps cheese.

Later I learned to make béchamel sauce from scratch. But first cometh The Beloved Can.

Inedibly salty

Now I'm beginning to hoard those cans. Why, only yesterday I was alarmed to find that Campbell's old standby – the almost inedibly salty chicken noodle soup – was on sale for only 79 cents, way down from $1.39. They're clearing the warehouses. Calling Andy Warhol!

One day those shelves that once held so many cheerful red-and-white soup choices will be filled by organic or "heart healthy" soups, made with less sodium but more corn syrup. And they're thin, very puny, although they wear pretty green-looking designs. I don't use any of them.

I wonder if any of Campbell's 700 now unemployed Sacramento factory workers ever realized how much their soup has meant to people across the country like me. I hope the parent company in Camden takes good care of them. When they close down in Sacramento and there's no more cream of tomato – maybe too goopy for today's taste – my rainy day memories of Campbell's will linger until my stash runs out.

I could make my own, but it's not the same.

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