Robert L. Withers April 21, 2006
It’s cold and rainy. Yesterday was 85 degrees and today is 69 degrees. Yesterday I was outside in the sunshine, today I’m inside and chilly. I’ve done some good writing this morning but now my eyes are bothering me, the result of a cataract that will be removed in another week. The headache will probably be with me the rest of the day.
Lunchtime. I’m yukked and need some comfort food. I haven’t had Campbell’s tomato soup with saltines in a long time. Sounds like a good idea. My comfort food group is pizza, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas, tomato soup and grilled chasse, and ice cream. If Vickie is around to do the grilled cheese then I’ll have that with my tomato soup, otherwise just soup and saltines.
Meatloaf is a bit much to fix for one person, besides it takes too long. We do have frozen pizza and I am capable of eating an entire pizza, but that wouldn’t be healthy (though it would be pleasurable) and if I ate the whole thing I’d probably nap the rest of the afternoon. Tomato soup is the way to go.
In the pantry I select a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. I guess Campbell’s has me brainwashed because I can’t imagine eating another brand of tomato soup. Oh, I know there are a lot of fancy brands out there and we do purchase other brands when it comes to other kinds of soup, but eating a tomato soup other than Campbell’s would be like saying, “Why that’s as American as baseball, Toyota and apple pie.” See what I mean?
I guess watching all those TV commercials in the 1950’s did it. The little fat Campbell’s chef running around with a big smile on his mouth singing, “Uh-um good, uh-um good, that’s what Campbell’s soup is, uh-um good.”
A few years ago at an office Christmas gift exchange where you draw numbers and pick a gift, the kind where you can steal another person’s gift, my eye lit on a set of Campbell’s soup mugs. I didn’t want the cutlery, the wine glasses, the lottery scratch tickets, or the screwdriver set, I wanted the little fat chef painted on the side of the four soup bowls. Go figure.
Do you think the 1950’s Madison Avenue types knew that I’d be purchasing Campbell’s soup in the twenty-first century because of their little jingle and fat chef? Did my parents have any idea that the smiling chef was making a home in my head? Whether the advertising types in the 1950’s knew the power of their propaganda or not you can bet your sweet bippy that they know it today. I’m surprised hospital nurseries aren’t sponsored by McDonald’s or Barbie or Power Rangers with logos plastered on walls and ceilings and with music videos playing 24/7.
I can see diapers, receiving blankets and pacifiers with corporate logos on them. A visit to daycare reveals little Johnny with Ronald McDonald on his butt, and Susie is displaying Barbie in places where no self-respecting lady would want to be seen, while Howard is sporting a rendering of a Tonka toy dump truck on his rear end. Get it? Dump truck?
This Campbell’s soup can looks pretty much the same as one from the 1950’s. The big difference is the top with a rollback tab on it. No need for the twenty-first century seeker of comfort food to wrestle with a can opener, which can be an experience in itself.
I roll the top back and coax the contents into a sauce pan. I say coax because the condensed soup has an aversion to leaving its comfy home. I would expect no less. This isn’t like those foofy soups that don’t require adding water or milk. This is real condensed soup that requires added liquid. It takes a chef, someone with culinary aptitude, to work with condensed soup.
After I coax ninety-seven percent of the congealed mass from the can to the sauce pan I fill the can halfway full with water and then fill the rest of the can with milk. I know some folks like it either all water or all milk, and I’m told that my classmate Frankie Oliver once tried chocolate milk with his Campbell’s tomato soup. You wouldn’t be too grossed out by the chocolate milk thing if you knew the other things that Frankie tried, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that I’d never eat in a restaurant where Frankie was cooking.
I pour a little of the can’s contents into the saucepan and stir, then a little more and stir, then a little more. As I stir the liquid and the congealed matter blend together, more and more looking like soup. I think the reason people purchase soup that doesn’t require this process is that they are intimidated by it. After all, lumpy soup is nasty, a bad presentation and not pleasant to the palate. The pressure of blending liquid with concentrate is akin to the pressure of balancing the right amount of milk with cereal. I know people who simply can’t stand the pressure.
I turn the burner on medium, finish the blending process and place a lid on the pan.
Back to the pantry I go and retrieve the saltines. I open a fresh sleeve of crackers and sample one, letting it dissolve in my mouth.
I check the soup, stir it and replace the lid.
I call my wife at work to see how she’s doing.
I check the saucepan. The soup is still getting hot. I sprinkle some pepper in the soup. This is going to be good. Proper comfort food for a wet and cold day.
I put a sweat shirt over my short sleeved shirt. Man it’s cold today. I look in a mirror and see that the collar of my shirt is sticking out of the sweatshirt. Kind of tacky. Suppose I should get visitors? Of course I never have visitors, unless they are strangers with religious pamphlets, but then again, you never know. I mess with my shirt collar. I mess with it some more. This isn’t working. Do the colors match? The sweatshirt is red and the shirt is yellow. What would Vickie say? Can I wear this combination out to dinner tonight? Will she make me change?
I can’t get the collar right. I’ll just take the sweatshirt off and mess with it later. As I step out of the half bath I glance into the kitchen while picking up a hissing noise.
A Niagara of soup is pouring from the saucepan, cascading down the stove front onto the floor and racing across the stovetop and adjacent countertop like high tide at the Bay of Fundy. My comfort food is reprising the Great Escape. At any moment I expect to see Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle across the kitchen in the guise of the little fat Campbell’s chef.
The two dogs are eyeing the red ocean dripping onto the floor. Knowing the soup is hot I sharply command, “No! Back! No!”
How many paper towels does it take to absorb a can of Campbell’s tomato soup? I lost track at twenty.
My comfort food had turned ugly. All but a quarter inch of soup had boiled out of the saucepan.
After the mess was sopped up I contemplated dumping the remaining soup down the drain but couldn’t do it. Certainly I must have some fruit of reward. I ate the remaining spoonfuls from the pan.
There were other cans of tomato soup in the pantry. I could go and begin the process again. The little fat chef was singing in my ear, “….that’s what Campbell’s soup is, uh…um good.” Where was the little fat man when my soup was boiling over?
No, I’m not going through that whole thing again. Once is enough today. There are frozen dinners out in the freezer, I’ll get one of those.
I turn the oven on to 350 degrees and head to the garage where the freezer is located. Walking back into the house I read the heating instructions:
“Conventional oven bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Microwave oven cook on high for seven minutes.”
I’m tired and I’m hungry. I know it will taste better if it’s cooked at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. That is the way frozen dinners are meant to be cooked. Swanson’s taught me that back in the 1950’s with their advertising for TV dinners. Swanson’s is still in my brain along with the little fat Campbell’s chef.
I’m hungry. I turn the oven off, take a knife and slit the plastic on the frozen dinner, put it in the microwave and set the timer for seven minutes.
Maybe I’ll have pizza tonight.