When my daughter was born a very good friend gave me the best ‘new mother’ advice I’ve ever received: lower your standards. If things are still too hard to manage, lower them again.
As I lunged towards my daughter who was smearing peanut butter into our velvet sofa (the purchase of which remains one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done) I thought of these words. As I slammed my foot down on top of one of her lego blocks and fell to the floor screeching a stream of incoherent swear words, I heard my friend’s voice repeat them. And as I gazed from my vantage point to under the stupid sofa at the litter of tissues, toys and gently festering bits of forgotten food while my daughter prepared to jump onto my head, I heard my friend shout, “too low! TOO LOW!”
Clearly, our household management was lacking. So today while my husband was still working and I had put the wild child to bed I decided to learn how to look after our home better, beginning in the kitchen.
Once in the kitchen, I had no idea where to actually start but fortunately in 1916 the American soup company Campbell’s released a promotional recipe book called Helps for the Hostess. This was aimed at families (well, let’s be honest – women) to help them raise their standards and create harmony throughout the home, mostly through the medium of soup. With hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that for Campbell’s the soup came first and the family harmony was more of a bonus.
Now, I didn’t really think soup was going to fill the crack in our kitchen wall, or solve the damp problem under the stairs, but the Campbell’s book was so overflowing with that very American brand of brisk optimism that I began to hope it could.
“A refined, well appointed home gives a recognized social standing which money alone will not achieve, among people who are worth while”, it declared right from the start. My God, I wanted to be worth while already. The book went on to assure me that with a few soupy additions to my cooking, I, a sweet and simple young wife, could now “charmingly welcome” my husband home after a hard day’s work with a “little dinner…the very fact that [I would have] prepared the meal and served it to him [would] add to the intimacy” of our 21st century relationship.
After I’d changed out of my work trousers into my best gingham frock, I set about researching the background to this gem. In 1916 the Americans had yet to join World War One, and so their cooking instructions lacked some of the frugality found in some British cookbooks of the same time period. The trouble for Campbell’s soup, however, was that they were struggling to fit into what the average American needed in their day to day life. Plain canned tomato soup, as convenient and relatively inexpensive as it was, just wasn’t speaking to the public on any sort of consumer level.
To shift more tins, Campbell’s changed their advertising to create the iconic red and white striped background and overlaid images of enticing food on top of this. Still, nothing. Frustrated, they began to target housewives who cooked soup from scratch, arguing that buying their soup would save them time and work. But, the equally frustrated housewives argued back, peeling and boiling vegetables for soup was a welcome break in the afternoon from surreptitiously swigging whiskey and sobbing into a pillow.
Then, Campbell’s had its breakthrough: what could any sane woman like more than impossibly large pig faced babies extolling the virtues of the soup with peppy slogans? Slogans that tapped into women’s insecurities about how well they were looking after their families. Slogans that implied the only way to be a good mother and wife was to fuel their families with soup. Slogans that gently suggested that wives would bring shame and humiliation on their husbands if they brought dinner guests home without much warning and there wasn’t enough store cupboard food to feed said guest.
The combination of disturbing pig kids spouting annoying rhymes about how the soup would make them strong and clever began to work on the women and business began to grow. As sales boomed, executives worried that there might be a limit to how much soup one household might reasonably need, so created a series of recipes that would encourage housewives to use more cans of the stuff in ingenious ways whilst simultaneously destroying what might otherwise be a decent meal.
Spaghetti a la Campbell is actually one of the more appealing suggestions in Helps for the Hostess. Wanting this meal to actually bring me closer to my husband rather than be the grounds on which he successfully filed for divorce, I had decided to skip over offerings such as ‘Tomato Aspic with Cucumber Filling’ and ‘Stuffed Eggs in Aspic’ and, something called ‘Rum Tum Ditty’ which as far as I could tell was just tomato soup with a whole block of cheese sinking miserably in the centre of it.
In what appeared to be a genuine attempt to make life easier for housewives, the recipe itself was really straightforward. As I was cooking it I could feel myself getting more charming and competent around the house. I did a tinkly laugh as I thought of how my husband might like it if I warmed his non-existent slippers by the fire for later, and how I would regale him with delightful tales of our delicate and naive daughter who had spent the day tenderly playing with her dolls and not at all jumping in puddles and throwing sand at pigeons in the park.
“I’ve made pasta”, I told him when he got home. “It’s got tomato soup in it.”
“Oh. Don’t we have anything else?” was the response. Hardly the warm and grateful attitude I had been expecting.
“No we don’t. You could have had aspic. You still can.”
Despite the rocky start, it wasn’t a bad weekday meal. Sure, the tomato soup made it a bit sickly sweet for modern day standards, and the cold raw pepper garnish was a bit odd, but the smoked ham added a nice subtle flavour to what was essentially a basic tomato sauce. In fact, it was so inoffensive that I forgot I was eating something experimental and my husband had seconds. Housewives of America must have thought it was alright too, because the company continued to go from strength to strength throughout the first half of the 20th century eventually buying out other American brands and incorporating them into the Campbell’s family. 1916 was still too early to be considered the era of convenience food, but with their tinned soup and quick family friendly recipes, Campbell’s was definitely paving the way by creating new and innovative shortcuts.
After eating we were too tired to clean the kitchen up. The silent mess under the sofa was still quietly rotting away and the lego bricks were still strewn with dangerous abandon across the carpet. We lowered our standards once more.
Spaghetti a la Campbell
1 can of condensed Campbell’s tomato soup
20 button mushrooms
280g of spaghetti
5 slices of smoked ham
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 cloves of garlic
- Boil the spaghetti in a pan of salted water with 2 cloves of garlic.
- Chop the onions and fry them in olive oil. Add sliced up pepper and mushrooms, leaving some of both raw to the side to garnish later, and cook until soft.
- Slice the ham into strips and add to the onions and peppers. Fry for 3-4 minutes.
- Add a can of Campbell’s tomato soup to the ham and veg mix and stir together.
- When the spaghetti is cooked, drain and add to the pan of ham and veg and add a 1/2 teaspoon of thyme. Stir thoroughly.
- Lay on a plate and add the left over raw sliced pepper and mushrooms and serve with Parmesan.