Look at the red-and-white label on the steel can. "Campbell's Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup," it reads. "Great for Cooking." Also imprinted on the label is a gold medal, won for "excellence" at the 1900 Paris International Exposition.
Pop open the can and the contents slide out, helped along with a spoon or fork. Oatmeal-hued glops, flecked with dark bits of mushroom, drop into the pot to form a thickish puddle. Turn the pot upside down and the puddle remains motionless. Among its other achievements, Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup defies gravity.
Not very appetizing, you say? Don't be fooled. "America's bechamel sauce" is a cooking ingredient as distinctive and beloved as any you will find. Old-fashioned, of course an iconic staple in the kitchens of home cooks since its introduction in 1934, the same year the Campbell Soup Co. launched its chicken noodle soup. Cream of mushroom soup and its sister condensed "cream-of" soups redefined home cooking in America and made the casserole a standard meal served to this day.
The back labels on cream of mushroom soup cans feature recipes for dishes such as beef and mushroom lasagna, and chicken with sun-dried tomatoes. But the go-to recipe is for cream of mushroom soup's companion dish, green bean casserole, the bean-bag chair of heirloom comfort foods. The two go together like well, love and marriage or a horse and carriage, having enjoyed a culinary symbiosis since 1955.
"(That's when) Campbell's home economists developed the recipe for the green bean casserole, which was called 'green bean bake,' " said Sheila Miller in an email. She's the manager of Campbell's consumer test kitchen at corporate HQ in Camden, N.J.
Naturally, the soup- casserole relationship peaks during the holiday cooking season.
"Thirty million households will include the green bean casserole as part of their holiday feasts," Miller said.
Preparing for the casserole rush, many Sacramento supermarkets had already assembled the appropriate end-of-aisle displays by Halloween. They stacked Campbell's cream of mushroom soup alongside cans of Del Monte French-style green beans and containers of French's french-fried onions. Hint, hint.
Cream of mushroom-based casseroles are an American family tradition, handed down from one generation to the next. No Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's feast would be completely traditional for many families without a green bean (or broccoli-cheese or potato-cheese) casserole, usually referenced from a gravy-stained recipe composed in grandmother's or great-auntie's tidy handwriting.
That template is personified in the Sacramento home of Jackie and Tom Eres.
A main side dish at many of their holiday dinners is au gratin potato casserole. Jackie Eres got the recipe from her mom or was it her aunt? and has made it "for as long as I've been married, about 47 years."
At their annual Labor Day cookout, the large Eres family quickly reduced the casserole to scraps. The recipe? Peeled and sliced cooked potatoes are layered with a mix of cream of mushroom soup, Aunt Penny's canned white sauce, sautéed onions and Cheez Whiz, then baked till bubbling hot.
"I like to serve it with barbecued hamburgers, pork chops or country-style spareribs," Jackie Eres said. "I don't usually serve it with turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas. For those holidays, we do a (cream of mushroom soup-based) broccoli-cheese casserole with water chestnuts, a takeoff on the string bean casserole."
Jackie Eres' two adult daughters serve the au gratin potato casserole to their families, too
"I've been making it since I first got married, 17 years ago," said Kim Nichols, an elementary school teacher in Lodi and mother of two daughters and a son. "We use it as comfort food in the winter, with a roast or a ham, though I think my mom makes it better than I do. It's something passed down in our family, and I'll pass it down to my daughters, too."
"It's something I grew up knowing how to make because I helped our mom in the kitchen," said Nichols' sister, Kelly Tatum, a stay-at-home mom in San Ramon. She's been married 14 years and has three daughters.
"I serve it as a comfort food in the wintertime, but we like it with hamburgers in the summertime, too. When we're in the kitchen making it, (my daughters) will ask, 'Why are we doing this?' And I'll say, 'Because it's family tradition.' They will definitely inherit the recipe."
Soup's staying power
Here in California, farmers markets flourish, restaurateurs proudly name the sourcing of ingredients on their menus, and the six foodie buzzwords resonate everywhere local, seasonal, natural, fresh, sustainable and artisanal. Easy to see why Sacramento was designated the nation's Farm-to-Fork Capital.
So how come high- sodium cream of mushroom soup as a cooking ingredient is such a force? Why doesn't it just go away?
"Its versatility is one of the factors that keeps it here," said Christine Bruhn, an expert in food science and consumer behavior at the UC Davis Food Science and Technology Department.
"And its taste. Mushrooms naturally contain MSG, so (mushroom soup) adds good taste to anything vegetables, meat entrees, casseroles. And it's convenient, which was important to our grandmothers, mothers and ourselves, and to our offspring as they're setting up their own households."
Does she cook with it?
"I do," Bruhn admitted. "Not for the green bean casserole, but in sauces and meat dishes (like stews). I make a dish called 'city chicken.' It's a wonderful meal for the winter and comfort food for my husband, who is from the Midwest. I'm a Californian, but I've decided it's pretty darn good."
"Cream of mushroom soup is an icon, and you cannot ignore it," said Tanya Wright, a home economics consultant for the California Department of Education.
"Growing up, there was that green bean casserole at every holiday meal. You can make a chicken casserole using cream of mushroom (or cream of chicken) soup as an ingredient and feed an entire family for an economical cost. It's not bad for you, but remember everything in moderation."
Amy Machnak is a trained chef and the recipes editor for Sunset magazine in Menlo Park.
"Cream of mushroom soup is nostalgic for a lot of people, including me," she said. "As a girl growing up in the Midwest, one of the staple dinners at our house was 'five can casserole.' It was five cans of whatever we had, mixed up and put into a casserole dish and baked for 45 minutes at 375 degrees, and that was dinner. One of those cans was always Campbell's cream of mushroom soup."
Cream of mushroom soup is not an ingredient that can be casually replaced with a made-from-scratch, more healthful substitute, Machnak pointed out.
"When people try to remake the recipes their mothers and grandmothers used to make (with high- sodium canned soup), they're disappointed because the flavor's not the same," she said. "Those (revised dishes) will never taste as good as the memories."
Though executive chef Randall Selland of the Selland Restaurant Group (The Kitchen, Ella) has no history with cream of mushroom soup, he did note, "It will always have a place in the American home. It's good to use as a backup to fix a (cooking) mistake. Everything is an interpretation which is what makes cooking so cool so why wouldn't you use it?"
Kurt Spataro is a cooking expert who does have history with cream of mushroom soup. "It was something we grew up with and a staple in our house," he said. Spataro is the executive chef and partner in the Paragary Restaurant Group, which includes Spataro on L Street in Sacramento.
"Our mom made a lot of entrees with it," he recalled. "One of the more memorable was with ground beef and sautéed onion. She would throw in a can of cream of mushroom soup, simmer it and put the concoction on top of steamed rice. It was pretty tasty, but my sister and I thought it looked like cat food. I'm not sure our mom appreciated us saying so."
One last thing: The Pacific Natural Foods company of Tualatin, Ore., takes pride in its Certified to the Source program, in which every product it makes is "only from a guaranteed source."
Among other ingredients, its organic condensed cream of mushroom soup contains filtered water, organic mushrooms, crème fraîche and sea salt.
Yet, wisely, even a contemporary, high-end food company won't leave seasonal tradition behind: On the back of the soup's BPA-free packaging ("A 21st century option to cans") is a modernized recipe for broccoli-cheese casserole, calling for bow tie pasta and chopped shallots.
"We know (the broccoli casserole) is a classic side dish, and we wanted to offer a modern interpretation of it," said Sibel Candemir, Pacific Natural Foods' senior brand manager of soup and broth.
"A mushroom soup-based casserole is beyond food," she added. "It's about the nostalgia."
Canned soup was once a luxury item
Campbell's soups came online in 1898, achieving national distribution by 1911. The red-and-white labeling was "suggested" by the uniforms worn by the Cornell College football team.
Campbell's introduced condensed cream of mushroom soup in 1934. The recipe for Campbell's famous green bean casserole debuted in 1955. You can't have one without the other.
Cream of mushroom was first marketed as a "luxury eating soup," but had become popular as a cooking ingredient and sauce by the 1940s.
A Campbell Soup Co. chemist is credited with inventing condensed soup in 1897, a major breakthrough in the competitive canned-soup market. "Condensing" the soup allowed it to be packaged in smaller cans and sold cheaper. Condensed soup is reconstituted by adding water or milk, doubling its volume. Also viewed as ingenious was "Campbell's foresight to position condensed soups in recipes, which started as early as 1910 with recipe pamphlets."
Condensed cream of mushroom soup comes in five varieties: original; with roasted garlic; as an entry in the Healthy Request line ("Officially 'heart healthy' and controlled for saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium"); 25 percent less sodium (650 milligrams vs. 870 milligrams in the original); and 98 percent fat-free. For nutritional information: www.campbellnutrition.com.
Cream of mushroom soup has or had "sister" cream-of soups also used as cooking ingredients: potato (introduced in 1941), spinach (1945, but short-lived), chicken (1948), celery (1948), asparagus (1956), corn (1958), vegetable (1959), shrimp (1972), onion (1975), chicken mushroom (1978) and broccoli (1989).
Other condensed flavors popular in cooking include beefy mushroom, broccoli-cheese, cheddar cheese, cream of chicken with herbs, fiesta nacho cheese and French onion.
Campbell's was among the first to print recipes calling for its own products
Beginning in the the early 1900s, the Campbell Soup Co. revolutionized home cooking with its line of condensed "cream of" soups.
At the time, canned foods were billed as a modern convenience for budget-minded housewives who appreciated every shortcut they could get to put dinner on the table for the family.
Which was fine, but there was a bigger picture: Canning was part of the early industrialization of America's food supply, consequently curtailing or eliminating our dependence on home vegetable gardens.
Campbell's pioneered the practice of devising recipes calling for use of a food company's products as ingredients, in this case cream soups. It compiled those recipes and created more for the 1963 cookbook "Cooking With Soup," with recipes tested by Campbell's Home Economics Department.
"It was the most famous and widely printed and circulated of all the Campbell's cookbooks," said Jonathan Thorn, the company's corporate archivist.
The spiral-bound book a promotional tool, really included 608 recipes for casseroles, stews, sauces and similar dishes.
Viewed today, "Cooking With Soup" is a relic from the home kitchens of our grandmothers and mothers, a fascinating window into the cooking habits of decades past.
"A can of condensed soup is a constant help in your kitchen," reads the book's introductory text. "Unexpected company coming? Reach for a can of soup, spaghetti and a can of tuna another good casserole is on the way!"
Thumbing through the pages is revealing. Canned tuna and salmon, ground beef, beans, potatoes, "frankfurters," cheddar cheese, chicken and chicken livers were popular ingredients. "A la king" dishes abounded. Margarine was suggested as an alternative to butter.
In the mood for a Tuna Shortcake? How about an Oyster 'n' Ham Bake, Hurry-Up Pork Hash or Bubbling Fish Bake? Try the Fleet's In Chowder when "cooking for a crowd," which calls for eight cans of condensed Manhattan clam chowder.
For quick onion gravy, combine onion, garlic, butter or margarine, condensed golden mushroom soup and water. "Serve over beef patties," the recipe advises.
Perhaps the simplest recipe in the book is for Rum Tum Ditty. It calls for condensed tomato soup, water, cheddar cheese and toast. Put the first three ingredients into a pot and heat slowly until the cheese melts. Pour it over the toast.
"If desired, garnish with hard-cooked egg slices," read the instructions. "Or sardines."
------------------------------ Like Coca-Cola and rock 'n' roll, Campbell's soup is an American icon known around the world. No wonder it's marketed in 120 countries.
The Camden, N.J.-based company's top-selling soup flavors are chicken noodle, tomato and cream of mushroom. Every year, 2.5 billion bowls of each are eaten in the U.S. alone.
Condensed cream of mushroom has been a staple in home kitchens for generations, showing up as a key ingredient in a wide array of dishes. Golden mushroom soup, with its beef-broth base, is commonly used as a substitute.
Try this Campbell's soup primer, compliments of corporate archivist Jonathan Thorn, and Sheila Miller, manager of the company's consumer test kitchen. More information: www.campbellsoup.com.