Martha Pearl Villas has been making it for years in her North Carolina kitchen. She has served it at bridge club luncheons. It has been a centerpiece of family bridal showers and wedding brunches. Eventually she will publish it in a book entitled “My Mother’s Southern Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences.”
But James Villas is bothered by the inclusion of two cans of condensed cream of chicken soup in that recipe.
“All real Southern cooks use canned soup in certain casseroles,” she tells her son, defensively. “Why don’t you taste it before ridiculing?”
James does exactly that and proclaims it “Delicious!” Still, though, full of big city food smarts, he believes he can do better. Instead of using canned soup, he makes chicken stock and carefully thickens it with half-and-half.
The result, he concludes, is altogether different, and inferior. His food snobbery is summarily deflated.
COVID-19 confinement has increased our dependence on long-trusted products like Duke’s Mayonnaise, Muddy Pond Sorghum, and Allan Benton’s bacon. And our larder has remained well stocked with a variety of canned soups. We rarely eat them as soups. Instead, they are essential recipe ingredients. Without an inventory of cream of mushroom soup at home, I feel deprived, vulnerable, somehow less prepared to face uncertainty.
As my late mother often said, “Canned soups got us through World War II.” I wouldn’t think of making the late Martha Culp’s broccoli casserole, which I’ve done several times this winter and spring, without a can of cream of mushroom soup to bind all the ingredients, including, by the way, vinegar, which makes the dish. I can’t imagine my Aunt Nelle’s hot chicken salad without a can of creamy chicken mushroom. Her cornflake-crowned salad reminds me, too, of the era when the South discovered canned water chestnuts.
Of funeral food, Mississippian Jill Connor Browne, founder of the Sweet Potato Queens, once wrote: “If there’s a balm in Gilead, I’d be willing to bet it’s made with cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta, or Cool Whip.”
My mother’s signature dish, a term that is probably too fancy a one for this context, was cubed steak and gravy. Canned soups were its foundation. The gravy was a blend of canned French onion soup, golden mushroom soup, and a soup can of water. That’s it. She would season a plate of flour with salt and pepper only, dredge the meat in the flour, brown it in oil, and then put it in a baking dish topped with the soup mixture. After about an hour, covered, at 350 degrees, the gravy was thick and rich and wonderful over mashed potatoes or rice. When I found cubed pork steaks a few years ago at a local Food City, I made that substitution, and we like this modified version even better. Were my mother still living, she likely would have commented about how I always have to add my own imprint.
I have no idea where my mother got this recipe, but my guess would be that great repository of recipes, the United Methodist Church. I know she was serving it at least as far back as the summer of 1979, when she fortified me with cubed steak and gravy and “company potatoes” before I boarded an airplane for Cleveland, Ohio, to do some catalogue work for American Greetings. She even adapted her procedure for the slow cooker, and the dish became an expectation at every family gathering.
If you’re like we are, maybe during this pandemic you’ve reached into the depths of your freezer to retrieve some forgotten homegrown okra. Or maybe you found some unopened apple butter in the far reaches of the pantry. More than likely, newfound foods have become even more precious to you.
We find ourselves toasting every slice of bread now, even the heels. For us, this pandemic has been less about hoarding and much more about making the most of what we already have. The inherited guilt from our Depression-era families over wasting anything has gained new life.
Anticipating hard times, however they come, is in our DNA around here. That’s why we cure hams. That’s why we boil apples into long-lasting apple butter in the fall. That’s why we stock up on canned soups with expiration dates two years away.
Canned soups may have started out as shortcuts, but they have become symbols, part of our relearning of profound lessons taught by generations before us.
Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”