The revolution will be slurped. Forty years ago, when Andy Warhol turned a can of tomato soup into art, people were shocked that such a lowly commodity – stuff that people in undershirts ate – could be applauded in Park Avenue salons. But Warhol was one of the first artists to be interested in the way that name brands are bought and sold, and two things about the soon-to-be icon caught his attention: first, that the product’s convenience was perfectly Pop (just add water, heat and serve!) and second – even more Pop – was the fact that that someone like Liz Taylor consumed exactly the same assembly-line model as, say, a Czech immigrant (America really is a democracy!). Many years, dollars, and celebrities later, tomato soup ain’t what it used to be. Campbell’s Model T shares the market with a range of choices. Condensed soup is yesterday’s technology. Consider the soup that comes in cartons; compared to the cans, it’s more ‘homemade’, and more expensive. The packaging is less about graphic design than it is about tactile appeal, which would fascinate a Pop artist. Cartoned soup doesn’t need water or even heat – in theory, you could glug it down in the store. Liz probably wouldn’t do that, but Paris might. As Andy would say: Gee.
Modestly yet unshakeably convinced of their own worth as limited editions are this weeks’ expert superstars: Lyn Chua, test kitchen manager, Chatelaine Magazine; writer Ted Geatros, lifestyle industries analyst and brand product strategist at boutique communications agency, Cyclone Creative; and Lynne Valeriote, chef and freelance food writer. As always, space considerations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste tested and awarded between one and five stars.
Vine Tomato with Basil Soup
398 ml, $2.99
Lyn C: Bright orange colour; harsh herb aftertaste; and a texture that goes in two directions – it’s grainy and goopy at the same time. There’s a slight tinny odour; this one says ‘can’ instead of ‘carton’. I think there’s some thickener here; nevertheless Brand One has possibilities. Add it to cream of mushroom soup and you might have a workable rose sauce.
Ted: The smell is floral, with overtones of carrot. I’m not sure about the particulates, which are presumably meant to signal ‘garden fresh’ but could be anything. The colour is some sort of emergency orange, like melted down life preservers. I’m getting a gazpacho thing from this soup, because it gets better as it cools. I would describe Brand One as aspirational – it knows what the upscale touchpoints are, but it fails to hit them.
Lynne V: Texturally, my first impressions are all about flour, and carrot puree – Brand One seems on the thick side for a tomato soup. The appearance is a jack o’lantern orange – you could probably use a can of Brand One for all your Hallowe’en decorating needs. Overall, this is retro tomato soup – it tastes good on the tip of the tongue, but when it gets to the back it sours and flattens, and leaves you with a touch of Chef Boy R Dee.
Brand One Total – NINE STARS *********.
Creamy Tomato Soup
946 ml, $4.89
available at health and specialty stores
Lyn C: Ha! Nail this soup to the diner wall of shame! Brand Two is low rent. It’s thin – more like a broth – and it smells musty, not like tomatoes at all. There’s a tinny top note that sits on the flavour, and visually you feel like you’re spooning down warm salad dressing. Also there’s an extra quarter cup of water in there, like someone is trying to make a bad experience even badder and longer.
Ted: If this was one of those famous Warhol soup-can silkscreens, it would be a forgery. The taste is watery and the smell is like the anti-paradigm of classic tomato soup. The texture is too velvety and too uniform.
Lynne V: Kids might eat this. Or other captive audiences: people in hospitals, shut-ins. Brand Two looks like that strange salad dressing that nobody I know has ever tried – Catalina. If I had to sell this bland, chemical-smelling liquid as a salad dressing, and give it a Canadian name, I’d call it ‘Sudbury’. At last – the magic of Sudbury in a bottle!
Herbed Tomato Soup
500 ml, $2.99
Lyn C: I was in California recently for a tomato festival, and during the tasting sessions I fell in love with a new heirloom breed – a dark cherry spring. It’s a beautiful dusky red colour with a hint of cherry in the taste. Although there’s no fruitiness in Brand Three, something about the sweetness /acidity balance here reminds me of the very high quality product I sampled a few weeks ago. This is first-rate soup, with a lovely tomato aroma and appealing chunks of tomato, carrot, and onion.
Ted: Wonderful natural aroma – not crunchy granola-type ‘natural’ but an unforced freshness. The taste is clean and well balanced, as though the vegetables and tomato were recently combined. Nice mouthfeel, too, and the particulates do what they’re supposed to do – they float perfectly around the bowl and also evoke an impression of gardens and the good life: all the right references.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS****1/2
Lynne V: I think Brand Three contains more tomatoes, and ripe colourful tomatoes at that. You can see seeds and other bits swirling around among different types of herb. This soup is not as thick as the others, but somehow turns that into an advantage. It’s not too sweet – with a bit of tweaking you could go for a bouillabaise-type approach and let a few mussels steam in there, or clams.
Brand Three Total – TWELVE AND A HALF STARS ************1/2
Cream of Tomato Soup
398 ml, $2.99
available at health and specialty stores
Lyn C: This is the one with the most tomatoey smell, but the rest of it falls down. It looks like diluted ketchup, and the texture is so dense it could be the base for pasta sauce. I’m seeing some flecks of pepper, but that’s not enough.
Ted: It’s jagged on the palate – it sits there and doesn’t know what it wants to do, and then it disappears. Brand Four is extremely sugary; I’d be surprised if there’s no sweetner added here. I’m not sure how tomato-centric it is, but it’s oddly likeable, and the shrimp cocktail-like quality makes me think you could build on it. A smoky chipotle thing might help.
Lynne V: This one hits some of the right notes, even though the flavour doesn’t match the smell. The aroma is flat but there’s a lot of taste, or maybe I’m just responding to the super-red appearance. It’s sweet and salty, no herbs. Brand Four would caramelize beautifully, so I might use it as a base for stewed meats – I could see myself keeping it handy for
brisket or lamb shanks.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2
Brand Four Total EIGHT AND A HALF STARS ********1/2
Results: Big names come and go on Shelf Life’s unique little auction block, but few of them live up to their hype. This week, however, Shelf Life is pleased to announce that a product with plenty of push has actually made good on its advertising: Campbell’s Gardennay Tomato Soup really is as accomplished as they say. Baxter’s soup was the next best example of the genre; Amy’s Organic effort unfortunately couldn’t be mistaken for a masterpiece; and Imagine’s creation was the kind of art that had audiences calling for less.
Off The Menu: Soup’d! In the old days, you added items to soup, instead of having a load of focus-grouped ‘herbs’ added for you. All sorts of crazy stuff got dropped in the drink. Shelf Life quizzed a group of gastronomes about the strategies their mothers used to keep lunchtimes interesting. Most moms added crumbled crackers to the bowl; others relied on toast, ABC noodles, and even arrowroot biscuits. Rafts of grilled cheese were also good to go, as well as chopped gherkin and/or a pat of butter. But the Moms’ mania didn’t end there. The most inspired transformation of a can of old-fashioned tomato soup was in a dessert called, unsurprisingly, ‘Tomato Soup Cake’. Shelf Life unearthed the recipe: add 1 can of condensed tomato soup to the makings of a spice cake and prepare as per normal. This brill-o confection dates from the Sixties, and since it looks and tastes like a work of art Shelf Life knows just what to re-name it: Andy cake.