As a professional food historian (I made this job up myself), I feel it is my duty to celebrate certain seminal events in the culinary world, and January 2014 marks an especially important anniversary. Eighty years ago this month, a modest food company and manufacturer debuted a canned soup featuring the simple combination of noodles, broth and chicken. Campbell's "Noodle with Chicken Soup," as it was initially called, has grown to be not only a staple of pantries across America, but also perhaps one of the most iconic representations of American domestic cuisine. Which is why, perhaps, Andy Warhol in 1962 chose this seemingly pedestrian canned good as a subject in his artistic exploration of consumer culture in the United States.
Since 1934 the company has dramatically expanded its lines of soups and stews, and chicken noodle is one of many flavors of Campbell's you'll find on supermarket shelves. That doesn't mean, however, that classic chicken noodle has diminished in popularity. Last year, Americans purchased more than 200 million cans of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, and I'm pretty sure I know why.
Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup is not the best chicken noodle soup on earth. I know many a grandma, celebrity chef or savvy home cook out there probably produces superior versions, with more sophisticated flavor profiles and fancier stock and poultry bits. But for me, and I think for many people, there's something about canned Campbell's that invites a particular type of nostalgia. In my case, it's pleasant remembrances of lunches "cooked" by my mom on snow days during elementary school and restorative (and affordable) fare I ate while down and out with the flu in college. Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup is what I eat to recover in the hours after an endurance event when my stomach is too queasy for anything else, and Campbell's chicken noodle soup helps me reacquaint my digestive system with the world of food after imbibing some not-so-fresh oysters or questionable beef.
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The print and television advertisements (see illustrations) for Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup of course play upon its associations with home, family and hearth, but unlike other media campaigns for food, the sentiments surrounding the soup are, I think, more sincere reflections of real experiences as opposed to contrived "reality."
So, happy birthday, Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. A can is sitting in my larder as we speak, ready to be supped by yours truly next time I want some liquid comfort with a side of sweet reminiscence.