Pot Luck

Thanksgiving Slumming with Cream of Mushroom Soup

Thanksgiving and the annual debate over that damn green bean casserole with the Durkee’s fried onions on top is coming up fast. Will you offer an urbane alternative like green beans with prosciutto and pine nuts to your recalcitrant relatives, or break down and make it according to the back-of-the-can recipe with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup this year?

Some time back, when I was a more earnest foodie, cream of mushroom soup was anathama to me. I had eaten gallons of the stuff in my childhood. My mother made everything from tuna casserole to beef burgundy with it. But I had higher principles. The red and white can was nowhere to be found in my pantry. And then I tried to make creamed spinach.

I first discovered creamed spinach in a fancy chop house in Manhattan when I was an impressionable teenager. It was snuggled up alongside a big juicy medium-rare New York strip. I loved the way it mixed with the jus from the steak and oozed all over the crispy, salty potatoes. Once I started cooking, I was eager to whip up my own. The first attempt, in which I intuitively combined spinach and cream in a pan, was a total disaster.

Creamed spinach isn’t really made with cream, a chef friend explained, it’s made with béchamel. The recipe isn’t really all that hard, but it takes a half and hour and requires a few pots and pans. And then there’s all that sandy fresh spinach to clean.

“It’s a hell of a lot easier if you just use frozen spinach and Cream of Mushroom Soup,” my chef friend suggested. I was shocked. This guy worked in a famous fine dining restaurant. And he was recommending mushroom soup?

Then he said something I’ve never forgotten, “Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup is America’s béchamel.” Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen anybody eat a bowl of the stuff. Does it exist solely to thicken sauces? And if so, doesn’t that make it all right to use it? It’s an intriguing heresy, but it leaves the door wide open to Lipton Onion Soup mix and that entire way of thinking.

In the “convenience cuisine” cookbook by Andrew Schloss called Almost From Scratch, he argued that seasoning mixes, salsas and other stuff in cans, boxes, and bottles actually give home cooks the ability to attempt more ambitious dishes. When a chef walks into the kitchen, the onions are chopped, the stocks are made, the béchamel is ready, and so is the rest of the preparation. The kitchen help does the chef's mise en place--so why not let the grocery store do yours? Schloss suggested.

There is a backlash against foodies emerging in the wake of the financial meltdown. Sure, you could fry your own onions, prepare your own béchamel and substitute haricot verts in that infernal green bean casserole. You could also peel fresh pumpkins for the pumpkin pie. But when does it all become too ridiculous?

Is this the year we all reach for the can opener and fly the red and white flag of surrender?

-- Robb Walsh

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh