My earliest memories are of being in the kitchen with my mom. Back then, she was Mama, not Mom. I remember watching her make pies, mixing up the crusts by touch, with her experienced hands able to tell if the dough was too wet, or too dry, without measuring. I would sit, transfixed, on a chair, as I watched her chop fruits and vegetables to make potato, macaroni, and Waldorf salads. Much of what I learned in the kitchen, the skills I used when I moved into my first apartment, was learned first by observing my mom as she worked, and then, by performing these tasks under her supervision.
The first thing I cooked for myself was prepared while I stood on a chair at the stove. I know that this statement will evoke criticisms of my mother’s parenting for putting me at risk, but I would like to point out that she stood next to me the entire time. In addition, standing on a chair was the only way for me to see the bottom of the pot or to safely reach the pot for stirring without pulling it off of the stove and spilling it all over myself and the floor.
For those who would preach about psychological harm brought about through this “parentification”, consider the following. I wanted to learn to cook, and my mother didn’t expect me to take care of myself or the family. It was as if I was her homemaking apprentice, and she was helping me to learn the skills I would need for my future.
The first thing that I cooked for myself, while standing on a chair at the stove, was Campbell’s tomato soup from a can. Tomato soup was a childhood favorite when served alongside a sandwich. I even liked to dunk my sandwich into the soup as I ate it.
I hadn’t eaten tomato soup for years when I saw it on sale for 2 cans for $1.00. I purchased several cans, took them home, and tucked them away in my pantry. On a particularly cold day, I opened a can, added the requisite can of water and grilled up a cheese sandwich to go with it.
As I sat down and ate my first bite, I was unsatisfied because the flavor of the tomato soup didn’t match my memory. The taste was wrong. It was too acidic and too watery. I remembered that my mom had never been a big fan of tomato soup, so I considered the possibility that as I had aged, my tastes changed, and I was becoming more like her. The rest of the cans of tomato soup sat in my pantry collecting dust.
One day, my young nieces were visiting at my house and playing with their cousins. As lunchtime approached, I asked if they were hungry. As I studied my pantry shelves, I saw the tomato soup.
“Would you like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches?” I asked.
“Yes, please.” They eagerly replied.
As I returned to the kitchen, the younger of the two girls called after me.
“Auntie, I like it made with Milk.”
I stopped and turned around.
“What did you say?” I asked
“I like the tomato soup made with milk.”
It was then that the light bulb came on in my head, illuminating a dark recess of my memory. That was the way Mom had always made tomato soup for me. She always used milk instead of water and had called it “Cream of Tomato” soup. Since I had used water instead, the tomato soup had lacked the creaminess and had been more tart than the soup I remembered.
“Thank you.” I said with too much enthusiasm as I hugged my niece and kissed her on top of the head.
I explained to my now confused niece how I had loved tomato soup as a child, but when I made a can for myself as an adult I had used water, and it hadn’t tasted right.
That day, as we shared a lunch of grilled cheese and “Cream of Tomato” soup, I thanked my niece for helping me remember the way Grandma had made soup for me when I was little. Later that night, I called my mom to tell her what had happened. She laughed and wondered why I hadn’t called her to ask how she had made it.
“It was a can of soup, Mom. It had directions on the can. I didn’t remember you did anything different.”
“Apparently, you didn’t read the entire directions on the label.” I could hear a smile in her voice as she chastised me good naturedly.
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you have another can of soup?
“Yes.” I was wondering where this was going.
“Go get it and bring it to the phone.”
I did as I was told, but since I had a cordless phone, unlike her prehistoric wall mounted and corded phone, I just wandered into the kitchen and opened the pantry to remove a can.
“Got it.” I said.
“Read the directions.” She prompted.
I rolled the can over in my hands so that the cooking directions were visible and began to read to her. There was no room for error. The directions were typed in all caps.
“MIX SOUP + 1 CAN WATER.” I finished the last with a slight tone of irritation. “What did I miss?”
“Keep reading.” Mom prompted.
Turning my attention back to the can, I continued.
“MICROWAVE: Heat, covered, in microwavable bowl on high for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. Careful, leave in microwave 1 minute, then stir. Is that enough?” I asked, impudently. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but I never completely got over the adolescent need to express my irritation.
“No, I want you to read all of the directions.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “Stove: Heat, stirring occasionally. Creamier Soup:” I felt all surliness depart as I read the words. “Use 1 can of milk.” She was right, I hadn’t read all of the directions. Oops.
Then, as if to avoid impending ‘I told you so.’ I continued reading the Beef Taco Skillet recipe that was on the back of the can. At least, I think that was what was on the back of the can. I could be wrong.
The ensuing discussion about the merits of that particular recipe helped me avoid the I told you so that I totally deserved. We both concurred that we didn’t think we would like soggy tortillas, though I have made a similar recipe for a “taco skillet” that I now love. As we continued our conversation, my mother confessed that since I left home, she didn’t have tomato soup in her house.
We discussed how the directions on the can had changed over the decades. She said that all of the instructions used to be written out. She sounded almost offended that it now read “Mix soup plus 1 can water.”
“Sounds like it’s a math problem, not a recipe. It sounds rude.”
My mother was outspoken about how she disliked the modern way of doing things. “The old timey ways are the best.” was one of her favorite sayings.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of your soup can label, here are the directions from the label of a can of Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup from 1965.
Directions: Empty soup into pan, stir in one can of water. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally. Makes about 2 1/2 cups of soup.
Cream of Tomato Soup: Prepare as above using milk or cream instead of water.
There was even a recipe for Tomato Sauce: Empty soup into pan. Add a little water, if desired. Heat, stirring occasionally. May be seasoned with prepared mustard, horseradish Worcestershire or herbs. Serve on hamburgers, pork chops, fish, etc. Makes about 1 1/4 cups of sauce.
It’s interesting that the directions for the soup were written in more formal language. There was no plus sign, and it even specified how much soup you would have when you were done. I think my mom was right. The directions seemed more polite back then.
As we chatted about Campbell’s tomato soup and other mundane things, my mother recalled that one of her sister’s had made a Tomato Soup Cake and said that it was good. My mother and her sisters were always sending recipes back and forth to each other whenever they found something that tasted good and was unusual. Mom assured me that her sister promised that the cake was good, the flavor resembling a spice cake. The sound of sorting papers ensued as she dug through her collection of recipes and continued until she found the correct one. She slowly dictated the ingredients and directions as I wrote them down. I confess that I have never tried this cake. I had planned to make it this week, but my kitchen was invaded by ants, so I have no first person testimonial or promise for you as to it’s quality. Should I ever get a chance to try it, I will post a picture as well as a review, but for now, I leave you with this warning.
BAKE AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Of course, I doubt it could taste bad. After all, it is a cake. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could try the Black Magic Chocolate Cake recipe over at midcenturymenu.com. It also contains a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup.
For those who prefer their tomato soup as a savory dish instead of dessert, check out Bon Appetite’s “12 Easy Ways to Dress Up a Can of Tomato Soup.”
Here’s the recipe for the bold and the brave. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below. As always, thanks for visiting Patty Cake’s Pantry.
- 2 cups of all purpose flour or 2¼ cups cake flour
- 1⅓ cups sugar
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1½ teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 can (10¾ oz) condensed tomato soup
- ½ cup Crisco shortening (The white stuff)
- 2 eggs
- ¼ cup water
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Grease and flour the baking pans that you will be using.
- Measure all dry ingredients into a bowl and stir to combine.
- Add soup and shortening and mix with electric mixer set to low or medium for 2 minutes (300 strokes when using a spoon or a whisk.)
- Make sure you scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to get it all mixed up.
- Add the eggs and water and beat for 2 more minutes. (Another 300 strokes).
- Remember to scrape the sides of the bowl again.
- Pour into 2, 8 inch, round cake pans or 1, 9x13", pan. (Make sure that pan(s) have been greased and floured.)
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Allow the cake to rest in the pan for 10 minutes before removing from the pan and placing on a rack to cool.
- This cake is supposed to be frosted with a cream cheese frosting, but according to my mom, my aunt said it was good with just a plain white buttercream frosting.