Today’s rabbit hole begins with a community cookbook from 1973. This 41-page, spiral-bound book contains recipes contributed by the Watertown, Connecticut chapter of the Columbiettes, a Catholic women’s organization.
I was initially intrigued by the recipe featured on the cover: some kind of self-contained dish that was probably stuffed apples topped with mini marshmallows, maraschino cherries, and a mysterious, fluffy greenish substance that was possibly delicious and made sense in the context of the dish—but the longer I looked at it, the more all I could see was creamed spinach.
Bewildering? Yes. Potentially repulsive? Yes. Up my alley? Yes.
Disappointingly, I couldn’t find the dish inside (it seemed to be a stock cookbook cover photo, bafflingly). But never mind, because I found a better recipe.
Tomato soup cake.
We’re not talking savory here. This recipe is all sugar and spice, studded with raisins and walnuts, and finished with a cream cheese frosting. It’s similar to the 1950s Johnny Appleseed applesauce cake I made last year—but with the curious addition of a can of tomato soup.
The recipe is provided without commentary—or much in the way of instruction, for that matter, since there are no details on oven temperature or baking time. But that’s not out of the ordinary for a community cookbook recipe. Popular throughout much of the 20th century, community cookbooks were homegrown productions. They were compiled by women’s associations like church groups, PTAs, and Girl Scout troops, with the goal of raising money for a local cause. The authors weren’t professional chefs or food writers, but rather housewives contributing their most beloved home recipes.
Community cookbooks are especially fascinating to me for that reason. You can page through a vintage magazine or promotional booklet and be thrilled by the variety of unfamiliar and often bizarre recipes of the era, but there’s no way to know how many of these dishes actually made it into a household’s regular rotation. (I mean, how many jazz-age housewives were making pineapple salad mousse, really?) Community cookbooks, on the other hand, give us a glimpse of what a local community was actually cooking. These were the tried-and-true recipes, the classics, the crowd-pleasers.
All that being said, this leaves us the question: If this cookbook represents the best of what the 1973 Columbiettes of Watertown, Connecticut had to offer, how on earth did tomato soup cake make the cut?
I’d never heard of tomato soup cake before. I polled my friends, my coworkers, my aunt born in 1940s Ohio—none of them had heard of it either. My assumption was that tomato soup cake was just another wacky, midcentury-ish food invention: recipes that used prepackaged foods in unconventional and often bewildering ways, which emerged from the era ever so briefly and then were never seen again. Like the culinary equivalent of a swamp monster.
But as it turns out, a Google search reveals that tomato soup cake was actually A Thing. In fact, this curious dessert has a whole story of its own, with a beginning, middle, and end.
It finds its origins in the 1920s—preceding the golden age of convenience foods—and enjoyed enormous popularity for more than fifty years before nearly vanishing from the public consciousness. (Except in the South, where retro recipes occasionally refuse to die.)
So what’s the story behind this peculiar recipe’s rise and fall? Let’s begin by zipping back in time.
“It must have been a daring cook who first tried putting tomato soup in a cake.”
So mused a 1958 Texas newspaper column. Whoever that daring cook was, though, seems to be a detail lost to history. Recipes for tomato soup cake first began appearing in community cookbooks in the early 1920s, so we can assume she came from that era as well. (The recipe didn’t original from the Campbell Soup Company, as we might expect. They wouldn’t develop their own version of the recipe until 1940, and makes no claim of ownership for the idea.)
Beyond this, the origin of this recipe is anyone’s guess. Maybe it came from an enterprising home economist who was inspired by the European tradition of sweet vegetable puddings that dated back to the Middle Ages, and thought a sweet tomato dessert was worth a whirl. Or maybe it was a domestic scientist curious about the interplay between the acidity of tomatoes and the neutralizing effects of baking soda. Or maybe it was just a housewife who had drunk a little too much bathtub gin and was all, “Hey, let’s dump some soup into this cake!”
No matter the origins, the novelty of the recipe’s key ingredient clearly held appeal. “This sounds like a most unusual cake, and I shall try it at the first opportunity,” proclaims an article from the February 16, 1928 edition of the Pennsylvania newspaper The Evening News—the earliest dated reference I could find for the recipe.
“Unusual” is once again the word of choice in a mid-June edition of the Brooklyn publication Home Talk the Star, which featured the cake as a winner of its weekly recipe contest. Furthermore, the article proclaims, “The tomato soup cake…is meritorious in that it keeps fresh for at least a month.” (A month!) The article credits a Mrs. Alice McNamara as the recipe originator—which could be true, but according to my research, Mrs. McNamara wasn’t the only one to claim to have invented the recipe, so who knows, really.
(Also: I can’t help but be amused by the abrupt clarification on Mrs. McNamara’s ethnicity, smack in the middle of the recipe—“Her name, by the way, is Scotch.”)
Tomato soup cake reappeared in Home Talk the Star a year later, now with half the amount of butter, accompanied by a cream cheese frosting, and rebranded as “Mystery Cake.” Here still, the descriptor “unusual” remained:
As unusual as it was, it was around this time that tomato soup cake became a phenomenon, making its way into newspapers across the country. It was nearly always introduced as “weird” or “crazy” but consistently praised for its delicious flavor, ease of preparation, and appealing quality of staying fresh and moist for days (or a whopping month, if you’re Mrs. McNamara).
The recipe probably would’ve become popular on this basis alone, but the cake’s “most unusual” ingredient provided an additional benefit. The tomato soup made the cake rich and moist without the need for eggs or dairy, and hardly any fat—all that was required was a scant few tablespoons of butter. This economy of ingredients propelled the recipe to new heights in Depression-era America.
Yes, it was tomato soup cake’s time to shine.
“Tomato Soup Cake! Good? Indeed, Yes. […] Many will probably turn up their noses at the idea of making a cake with tomato soup. Of course, the combination does not sound particularly intriguing, but wait until you taste the cake and you’ll get the surprise of your life.” —Detroit Free Press, Michigan, March 3, 1932
“For some reason editors throughout the country report a deluge of requests for ‘tomato soup cake’. It sounds weird to the uninitiated, but try some and understand that such popularity must be deserved!” —Casa Grande Dispatch, Arizona, August 16, 1935
“And you probably don’t give a whoop, but right now I’ve got myself all in a lather over a recipe I found for ‘Tomato Soup Cake.” The name was what first attracted my attention, I’ll admit, but after reading over the ingredients and then finding it has a cream cheese frosting—well, I just must have a piece of Tomato Soup Cake.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, August 20, 1935
“Tomato soup—well, well, who would ever think that we would come to the time that we would be serving it for a dessert—but that’s just what is being done, and by the very smartest people. […] …and really it turns into one of the most delicious and yet one of the most economical of cakes. And with a topping of cream cheese made into a frosting—no one could ask for more.” —The Montclair Times, New Jersey, January 24, 1936
“People are sometimes amazed at the idea of it, but always delighted at the result. If you have a family who likes a delicious surprise now and then, take a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup firmly in hand and go to it!” —Daily News, New York, October 30, 1936
Tomato soup cake also earned a variety of new monikers throughout the ’30s—Husband Cake, Soup to Nuts Cake, Conversation Cake (“because it makes good conversation” according to the Democrat and Chronicle; I’d like to think most conversations began with “you’re feeding me what?“).
The name “Husband Cake” came from the revelation that, as you might intuit, men were fans of the recipe. This was noteworthy; in early 20th century America, cakes and pastries were considered “women’s food,” as historian Laura Shapiro notes in her book Perfection Salad. Meat and hearty fare were squarely within the purview of men, and only light, dainty sweets were considered acceptable for women’s appetites. So to produce an economical cake that the entire family—husband included—could enjoy? Winner, winner,
chicken tomato soup cake dinner.
The recipe continued gaining popularity, particularly as a holiday/Christmas cake. And by 1938, they were making a 100-pound version.
The ’30s were truly a good time to be tomato soup cake. Before we follow the recipe’s journey into the ’40s, let’s briefly pause and see what all this hubbub is about, shall we?
Get your spoons ready: it’s time to make tomato soup cake
I found dozens, if not hundreds, of variations of this recipe amidst all these newspaper clippings. Some used extra butter. Some indulged in an egg or two. Most were topped with cream cheese frosting, but some opted for mocha or caramel frosting instead.
I chose to use the recipe from the 1930 Home Talk the Star. Of all the recipes, it was the first one I could find immediately following the 1929 stock market crash, and the ingredients seemed especially Depression-friendly: no egg, no milk, scant butter. The recipe did indulge in a cream cheese frosting. I have a very short list of things I won’t eat with cream cheese frosting, so consider me sold.
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 can Campbell’s tomato soup
1 teaspoon soda
1 1/2 cups pastry flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup seeded raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Cream the butter and sugar. Sift dry ingredients together and add tomato soup, creamed butter and sugar, and raisins and nuts. Beat well and bake in a moderate oven. The icing is made by blending 1 cream cheese [sic] with 1 cup powdered sugar.
I was curious what the crumb would taste like on its own, so I made two versions: one loaf with the mix-ins, and one without.
The batter mixed up to a copper red hue. It smelled like spice cake…and also like tomato soup. Not offensive, necessarily, although it was a little confusing to the senses.
But if you think about it, the idea of this cake should make sense. Spice cakes containing vegetables are common enough, so why not tomatoes? What’s more, tomatoes are technically a fruit—so following that logic, doesn’t tomato spice cake have even more legitimacy as a dessert? (I’m looking at you, zucchini cakes and carrot cakes.)
I was optimistic. Cautiously so, but still.
So how was it?
Good enough to entice another bite! The tomato soup receded into the background, and the predominant flavors were the sweet raisins, warming spices, and walnuts. It tasted more or less like a traditional spice cake.
I must also add here that the cream cheese frosting was pretty incredible. I want to say that it took all of my willpower to resist dipping my spoon directly into the mixing bowl—but that would imply that I have willpower. (I do not. I dipped the spoon.)
But that’s just my opinion. Here’s what my friends and coworkers said when I asked them to take a taste:
“Reminds me of a carrot cake or pumpkin loaf! Would eat again!”
“I went in thinking I wasn’t going to like it…but I do.”
“It’s so weird. Not in a bad way. I taste the tomato, but it actually tastes good.”
“It’s very Christmassy.”
“It’s good. It’s weird because my brain is referencing tomato soup, and I can’t separate the taste from that. I think it tastes like Campbell’s tomato soup specifically, not tomato. Campbell’s soup has spices in it and that’s interfering with the taste.”
The last taster makes a good point. According to the Campbell’s website, Campbell’s tomato soup contains celery extract, garlic oil, and “natural flavorings” that would make sense in a soup, but not necessarily in a dessert. I don’t know if the Depression-era Campbell’s included similar flavorings, but if so, that’s probably what the spices, walnuts, and raisins were for: strong flavors that would overwhelm the palate and push the notion of “tomato soup” firmly out of mind.
It’s easy to see how tomato soup cake became the darling of the Great Depression. The concept is interesting, the ingredients are crucially cheap, and it actually tastes pretty decent.
But that only takes us through the ’30s. Tomato soup cake’s popularity would endure for at least another fifty years, long past the penny-pinching years of the Depression. So what explains that?
The Forrest Gump of cakes
I think tomato soup cake could best be described as the Forrest Gump of cakes: in the right place, at the right time, over and over again.
World War II yanked America out of the Depression, but with the war came food rationing, which included essential baking ingredients like sugar, shortening, and butter. Tomato soup cake would have made for a wartime-friendly dessert, given the meager amount of fat required. (It still needed sugar, but American housewives were keen to get dessert on the table, and by now tomato soup cake had earned a spot in their hearts. The cake’s popularity, combined with its minimal impact on a family’s butter rations, might have made it a worthy indulgence.)
1945 brought both the end of the war and the beginning of a major shift in the American kitchen. For sixteen years, housewives had had to make do with very little, and now America was entering not only an age of abundance but also an era of culinary technological revolution. Refrigerator/freezers, electric ranges, and other appliances were entering homes in record numbers. Prepackaged items like canned goods and prepared mixes (e.g. Bisquick, cake mixes, and powdered drinks) had already existed for some time, but were popularized in American homes during the war. As America entered the Atomic Age, convenience foods came to be seen as the “food of the future.”
It was a smart housewife who prepared dinner for her family using what the supermarket aisles had to offer. It was nutritious. It was hygienic. It was time-saving. And it was trendy.
And here, once again, tomato soup cake fit the needs of the nation.
Convenience foods continued to reign supreme through the ’60s, and tomato soup cake’s popularity soared to even greater heights. As a reference point: I could find about 700 references to tomato soup cake in archived newspapers from 1930-1939 via Newspapers.com; thirty years later, that number had jumped by 50 percent, to nearly 1100.
In 1966, Campbell’s published a “definitive” version of the recipe. It was also around this time that people were sharing a more “modern” adaptation of the recipe: combine a package of spice cake mix with a can of tomato soup. Maybe add some eggs, if the package instructs. Voila, instant dessert.
Here’s where it gets weird.
Wait, pause on that last one.
“Remember how smug you felt when your friends couldn’t guess what made your Spice Cake so special?” exclaimed women’s editor Betty Vance in a 1964 edition of The Tampa Times. “That was your reward in those days for daring to make the novelty Tomato Soup Cake. This is another one of ‘those’ recipes, a believe-it-not—until you taste Taffies.”
Cherry Dapple Taffies were frosted spice cookies containing a special ingredient: canned asparagus. They were the first prize winner in an asparagus recipe contest sponsored by the New Jersey Asparagus Industry Council in September 1964. (The prize: “300 jars of processed foods.”)
“Come on, be brave, bake some,” teased Vance.
Well, how could I resist?
1 1/2 cups asparagus cuts and tips
2 1/2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 3/4 cups light brown sugar
2/3 cup shortening
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 1/2 cups raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
Drain asparagus. Sift together flour, baking powder, soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside. Cream sugar and shortening throughly. Blend in eggs, asparagus, lemon extract. Add dry ingredients; mix well. Stir in raisins and walnuts. Drop by teaspoons onto greased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Serve the “taffy” cookies plain or frosted. Makes five dozen.
Melt one cup butterscotch morsels with 1/4 cup water and two tablespoons butter. Add two cups powdered sugar and 1/4 cup finely chopped maraschino cherries.
The canned asparagus, soft to begin with, nearly dissolved into the batter during the mixing process. And unless my eyes were playing tricks on me, the batter took on a sickly, greenish tint.
I wasn’t optimistic.
The frosting was a combination of butterscotch morsels, butter, powdered sugar, and finely chopped maraschino cherries. Mixed together, it looked curiously like pimento cheese.
“Did I tell you what was in these?” I asked my friend Joe, shoving a Tupperware of Taffies in his direction.
“No,” was his wary reply. “They look scary.”
He wasn’t wrong. They smelled all right, though—good, even, like brown sugar and sweet spices. But how would they taste?
“Darn tasty!” was the verdict among my friends and coworkers. Here are some of the reviews:
“I never would’ve guessed there was asparagus in it. It’s delicious.”
“I can taste the asparagus, but I couldn’t pin down the flavor until you told me. They taste really good. I like them a lot.”
“The frosting is too sweet, but the cookie is delicious. It’s really soft and tender.”
“So wait, there’s asparagus in the cookies? I couldn’t tell. They’re really delicious with a delightful fruitcake vibe.”
“I like these more than the tomato soup cake.”
More than one person thought I had served them oatmeal raisin cookies. And I can see why they’d think that. Like the tomato soup cake, these asparagus cookies include multiple dominant flavors that are working overtime to conceal its mystery ingredient: raisins, walnuts, spices, and a potent butterscotch-and-maraschino frosting. But unlike the cake’s tomato soup, I’m not sure what the canned asparagus actually adds here, which some other ingredient could not. Sure, the cookies are tasty, but I think that’s in spite of the asparagus. Sure, the cookies are tender, but why not just use oats? Why include asparagus at all?
I can only imagine some exasperated ’60s housewife, whose children absolutely refuse to eat their vegetables, and Taffies are her last resort.
Indeed, Taffies failed to capture the nation’s heart like tomato soup cake could. They made it into a couple of newspapers in the ’70s and ’80s and then were never heard from again.
Anyway, back to tomato soup cake.
The popularity of tomato soup cake began to dwindle after the ’70s. By then, the counterculture cuisine of the ’60s had hit the mainstream. Families were gravitating toward fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and soy foods like tofu. People were beginning to think differently about the choices they made in the kitchen, and a can of tomato soup mixed into a cake didn’t quite have the same “wow” factor that it used to.
As American consumers returned to the culinary ideal of fresh, homemade foods, tomato soup cake fell more and more out of favor, and by the new millennium, it was nearly forgotten.
Except in the hearts and minds of those who had grown up with it. I looked at a lot of present-day recipes for tomato soup cake as part of my research for this post, and in each of these, it was the comments section that stood out most. Voice after voice chimed in to share their own particular memory about tomato soup cake: mixing up the ingredients with their mothers and grandmothers, the dessert’s place on the family Christmas table, how it was their father’s favorite dessert. For many, tomato soup cake seems to have a kind of charm beyond its surprise ingredient. It was a part of their childhoods.
I’ll close with a quote from a comment on the Campbell’s Soup version of the recipe, which speaks to the magic of tomato soup cake better than I can:
I’m so glad that this recipe is still circulating. This was my Dad’s favorite from the time he was a child and up until he passed away in 1979 at age 61. It takes me back to Christmas Eve celebrations of yesteryear and listening to his older sister tell the story of how if he didn’t get his tomato soup cake he would pout and not really enjoy Christmas at all! I’m in my fifties now and I can still remember the joy and love on their faces because of this special cake. Thanks Campbell’s for a treasured memory.