A dumb challenge can make one do crazy things. Once I felt compelled to prove to my father that I could finish a 10-mile charity race in under 2 ½ hours, mostly because he said I couldn’t do it. After successfully completing the race in 2 hours and 27 minutes – a finish time, I might add, that beat my better-trained, long distance-running best friend Michelle – I went home and planted myself horizontally on the couch for 3 days. See what I mean?
So imagine my disappointment when I recently saw a Campbell’s soup ad from the 1940s that attempted to conspire with housewives by stating: “Just between us girls…let’s admit we can’t make vegetable soup any better than Campbell’s!” The nerve. Had that gauntlet not been thrown down over 60 years ago, I would have immediately located the largest soup pot I could find and started peeling carrots and potatoes and shelling peas.
Mostly, the ad made me wonder how women reacted back then to this ‘you don’t need to cook yourself because we can do it just as well’ messaging. Were they relieved and running to the supermarket to buy a soup can or 17? Were they unfazed by it all? Insulted, perhaps? It’s hard to know. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the iconic book often credited – or blamed – for driving women away from the stove, was still 23 years away from publication. Come to think of it, the ad also predates two other ‘cooking isn’t exactly my thing’ type books: Poppy Cannon’s The Can-Opener Cookbook and Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book, published in 1951 and 1960 respectively. If women were resentful or grumbling about their cooking responsibilities in the 1940s, they were largely doing so amongst themselves.
Until recently I had been under the impression, from reading numerous well-established and respected sources, that feminism has been the driving force behind many women’s disinterest in cooking and other domestic activities. In this particular instance, however, Campbell’s seemed far more interested in jumping on the bandwagon of promoting convenience through industrialized foods and making a profit than of empowering women’s self-actualization.
Campbell’s was not alone. Beginning in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, many American companies began to capitalize on the developing food canning technologies that were helping to feed over 3.5 million soldiers during World War II. Imagine the logistical challenge of feeding so many mouths, especially when you consider that many of these soldiers were overseas and on the march. Canning shelf-stable and easily transportable food to feed fighting troops seemed an almost obvious development. The commercial application, once the war ended, was equally predictable. Condensed soups, a variety of canned meat-containing meals and frozen entrees were soon shrewdly marketed to housewives as a convenient and efficient way of getting food on the table for their families.
Some things never change. Convenience remains a significant driver in meal-related purchasing decisions to this day. It leads both men and women, and mothers and fathers, to forage frequently at fast food joints, casual restaurants, and at the canned, frozen and prepared food sections of their supermarkets. It certainly gets the job done and fills the belly when we lack the time to cook or the mental space to create a viable meal plan to get through the week.
But don’t let Campbell’s fool you. Opting for convenience does not mean we are not up to the task of making a rocking good soup if we put our minds to it. The key is just finding a good and simple recipe, and then making it. If it helps, consider it a dumb challenge.
Now…while this soup contains more ingredients than I usually care to deal with when preparing a dish, I continue to make it because it is so ridiculously delicious. It comes together very quickly and easily, although you may have to stop yourself from jumping into the soup pot as the pork is cooking alongside the ginger and scallions. Yes, it smells that good. It’s also a satisfying and warming alternative to chicken noodle soup for folks feeling under the weather.
making sweet & sour soup
Prepare 10 oz. of black rice ramen noodles by bringing a medium-sized pot of water to a boil.
Add the ramen blocks to the boiling water and cook according to package instructions.
As it cooks, the blocks will start to fall apart.
Drain when fully cooked and cool immediately under running cold tap water. Drain again and place in a bowl and add 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame oil. Mix well, cover and set aside.
As the ramen noodles cook, heat a nonstick skillet on medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds.
Toast them for a few minutes until they look golden. They should look like this:
Grate 1 ½ tablespoons (1 large thumb-size piece) of grated fresh ginger.
Slice up 6 scallions.
Mince both the white and green parts, as you’ll be using both.
Now heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat until swirling hot but not smoking. Add 3 finely minced or grated garlic cloves, the grated ginger, and the sliced scallions, and cook for 5 minutes or so. Then, add 1 lb. ground pork. Be sure to break up the ground meat with a potato masher.
Cook, stirring occasionally.
As the meat cooks, cut the tofu into 1/2-inch cubes.
Also thinly slice 8 oz. of cremini mushrooms (about 7 ot 8 medium-sized ones).
The meat will be cooked when it looks gray throughout.
Add 5 cups of chicken broth and bring to a gentle boil. Add the tofu and mushrooms.
Add 2 teaspoons sugar, ½ cup rice or apple cider vinegar, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, and 1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce and bring the soup back to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Taste the soup and adjust for seasoning. You can add more Sriracha sauce to increase the heat or more vinegar to heighten sourness. Once soup boils, lower heat to simmer.
Whisk 2 large eggs in a small bowl until well blended. Slowly whisk them in soup so they form strands.
Bring the soup back to a simmer. Divvy up the cooked ramen noodles among 6 bowls. Ladle soup on top and add sliced scallions and toasted sesame seeds for garnish. Serve immediately. (The soup is even more delicious the next day, although it will look slightly darker in appearance.) Makes 6 servings.