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December 14, 2021
Just Like Brandma Made

Your most beloved “family” recipe just might have been dreamed up by a corporation in order to sell products. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In 2018, a mini scandal erupted in the baking world when Stella Parks, blogger and best-selling author, introduced an alternate origin story for key lime pie. According to popular lore from the sunshine state, the dessert was created in Key West in the household of William J. Curry, a 19th-century millionaire. Some say it was the genius of a talented live-in cook, while others say it was his daughter-in-law who whipped up the dessert using local limes; either way, the silken, tangy custard so impressed his distinguished guests that its legacy has endured since. In BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, Parks attested that the pie was actually invented 1,500 miles away in New York City, in the corporate test kitchen for Borden Dairy—not a folksy pastry to entertain dinner party guests but a cold-hearted calculation to sell more cans of sweetened condensed milk to the masses.

Whether or not her theory is correct is beside the point. It is clear from reporting and telltale legacy that many of America’s favorite recipes today were born from commercial incentives. From the obvious Rice Krispies Treats and Jell-O salads, to beloved condensed-soup casserole and stuffing recipes passed down for generations, moving product has been a significant contributor to culinary innovation in America. Behind the labels, recipe developers at food brands have started food trends, crafted viral recipes, and steered America’s eating habits perhaps even more than cookbook authors with their free recipes, creating lasting traditions in home kitchens.

“Food companies’ test kitchens have developed many, many recipes that people call their own in their family,” says Jane Freiman, founder of Smart Kitchen Insights Group and the former director for the consumer test kitchen at Campbell Soup Company, where she worked for 27 years. “Many times, people are shocked and say, ‘That was a Campbell’s recipe? That was my mom’s recipe. That French onion dip? That ranch dip? That flag cake? That was by Kraft or Cool Whip?’”

The Campbell’s test kitchen was created in 1941, according to Freiman, around the same time as that of Betty Crocker, Lipton, and many other brands tasked with selling shelf-stable pantry foods or seasonings, often geared toward convenience. The goal for all of them was to create recipes that people would use in their homes, and use frequently, so that they’d keep coming back to the products. Back then, these test kitchens were typically called the home economics department, and they were part of the sales team at food corporations. Over the course of the ’70s and ’80s, many of them rebranded as “test kitchens” as home economics, as a field of study, morphed into consumer sciences. And according to Freiman, around 15 years ago, many of these test kitchens changed their names to “culinary kitchen” to reflect a professional chef’s point of view rather than a home cook’s.

Moving product has been a significant contributor to culinary innovation in America.

Though the labels may have evolved, the goals of the test kitchens have remained largely the same: showcase the product in a way that makes the recipe inseparable from it. So in the case of a Chicken and Rice Bake, one of Freiman’s hit ’90s recipes for Campbell’s, it’s the cream of mushroom soup that makes the rice so rich and creamy.

“So you have a series of checklists and questions: Does this recipe meet the business goals? Is the product the hero? Could it be made without that product?” says Freiman.

Freiman always wanted to work in a company’s test kitchen. Sitting around the dinner table when she was growing up, she was fascinated by the stories her father would tell about his day working at Corning Glass Works, where he got to pop into the test kitchen and maybe bring home some photos of a shoot or strawberries from the set. Determined to break into this field, Freiman studied home economics and took an internship at Good Housekeeping, but she found the magazine industry too fast-paced for her liking. Having published a few recipes from that experience, however, she was able to get her foot in the door at the test kitchen at Durkee Famous Foods in Strongsville, Ohio, before joining Campbell’s in Camden, New Jersey.

Perhaps the greatest culinary claim to fame to come from Campbell’s test kitchen is the green bean casserole. Campbell’s recipe is attributed to Dorcas Reilly, a supervisor of the home economics department. According to Freiman, the dish was originally created in 1955 at the request of a writer for the Associated Press, and it wasn’t intended to be a holiday dish. But over the years, it was promoted during the holidays, and it became well associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas. The product hero is, like many mid-century-created casseroles turned household classics, condensed cream of mushroom soup.

“Will I ever have my green bean casserole?” asks Freiman, of her career in recipe developing. “I always wonder.”

While it may be somewhat uncomfortable to discover that a beloved recipe was less indebted to Aunt Bonnie than to a brand, there’s also a continuous exchange between home cooks’ ideas and those of cooks who are paid to serve them ideas from brands. Recipe developers are people, after all. And there’s a lot more to what makes them tick besides, well, the bottom line.

“I think a lot of what we do is reflecting back to people what they want to cook,” says Sarah Beth Tanner, the creative development chef for Urban Accents spices, which was recently acquired by Stonewall Kitchen, a specialty pantry goods brand. When she’s not creating recipes for seasoning blends and mixes—there are more than 200 of them to her credit in her five years with the company—she loves to devour food magazines and TV. “I love that challenge of finding what I know people are excited about right now and making a product that does that,” says Tanner.

Before the pandemic and the acquisition, Tanner would ring a dinner bell in their ten-person office in Chicago whenever a recipe was ready to be tested and get feedback from the whole team. And she loves Thanksgiving and holiday recipes. Many recipes—like a winter squash stuffed with quinoa and kale—were created to utilize the brand’s best-selling turkey seasoning rub in different ways. It’s the type of product that some people find inseparable from Thanksgiving itself.

“Sometimes people will say [in customer reviews] that they can’t find it and they’re afraid their Thanksgiving will be ruined,” says Tanner. “Folks have their traditions based around something we created, and it’s really satisfying.”

For Tanner, that satisfaction comes from helping people cook at home rather than getting takeout. And since many of the products they feature are shelf-stable shortcut ingredients—Tanner says the term “participative convenience” is used a lot at the company—the main competition for a recipe featuring, say, pizza seasoning blend might just be the local pizzeria.

Knowing her audience and their needs, Tanner approaches her recipes hoping to give people an idea that feels accessible and familiar, but with an extra dimension that just makes it a little more special. Each recipe has been rigorously tested if it’s been published or included on a product’s package, she says. Product and recipe reviews are constantly read on the website to glean feedback. Language is very carefully chosen so that each recipe is foolproof.

“I imagine someone who’s running low on time, and they’re going to cook more because it’s nutritious and soul-soothing,” says Tanner.

Thanksgiving turkey solutions seem to be a popular flex for food companies. For chef Helen Roberts, the challenge was in selling a product that wasn’t associated with classic American cooking to an American audience every day of the year: soy sauce. As the test kitchen manager at Kikkoman, where she worked for 37 years, Roberts created more recipes than she can even estimate, sometimes five in a day.

The most popular one was her turkey brine recipe, which calls for an entire bottle of soy sauce. She said that this was not only popular among cooks, according to feedback over the years, but it created the largest sales for the brand.

“Other recipes, they would use, like, only one tablespoon, and that’s not going to move product—and isn’t that the point?”

Roberts had recently joined Kikkoman’s product team in 1981 when she discovered that she was a supertaster. Impressed with her ability to distinguish sauces in tastings, she was offered a job in the test kitchen, where she again wowed colleagues. At the time, she says, the test kitchen’s recipes mostly consisted of taking a sauce from the product line and “brushing it on chicken”—whereas Roberts would introduce a spice cake she’d made using the or a meatloaf with the plum sauce. She made French toast with the panko bread crumbs and deep-fried Twinkies with the tempura mix. Her unexpected creations may have even helped steer the brand’s strategy, rather than the other way around.

“It’s a Japanese company, but they were more interested in saying, ‘Let’s feed America what they want to eat, not try to teach them to cook Japanese,’” says Roberts. “I was using soy sauce as a flavor enhancer, but not cooking Japanese.”

Many customers were wary of the latter notion, the company learned from feedback. With the turkey brine recipe, for instance, many were skeptical about turning their all-American holiday fare into an Asian-themed entrée—as evidenced at roughly 1:30 of this TV clip. Hence, part of Roberts’s goal was to convince customers that their stew or hamburger would simply taste better with the products and downplay their Japanese provenance.

What makes sense for a brand’s CEO might not always sync with a home cook, and that’s where the recipe developer can work to build a bridge. But what are the consequences of allowing commercial incentives so much influence over our cooking habits—especially when the foods they feature are not particularly healthy or fresh? And should it make any difference if the impetus for key lime pie was perhaps not local limes but a long-lasting milk product that required no refrigeration (but did require marketing to familiarize people with it)? After all, a good recipe is a good recipe—and many good things have been created in the service of capitalism. But the work of company test kitchens may have had an enduring effect on America’s cooking habits that we have been slow to unlearn. That is, these test kitchens’ goals have largely succeeded.

“Right around this moment, I can’t even tell you how many people are looking for some sort of healthy alternative to cream of mushroom soup because they have no conception that they can make green bean casserole without it,” says Alana Chernila, the author of The Homemade Pantry and other cookbooks where she has developed recipes for food products that people normally buy. You might call her an evangelist for not cooking with shelf-stable convenience foods.

She says that she was inspired to start creating homemade hacks for processed foods while raising her small children, trying to avoid the unhealthy additives and chemicals often found in them.

“There’s a reason why Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup is so delicious—it’s because there’s so much crap in it,” she says, referring to the 37 percent of the recommended daily value for sodium, the high proportion of commodity cooking oil, and more ingredients or quantities that you likely wouldn’t reach for when cooking soup from scratch. While some food additives may have been wrongly maligned over the years in America—looking at you, MSG—there’s no denying that we’d be better off making béchamel with fresh milk and butter and adding mushrooms. If only we had the time.

What makes sense for a brand’s CEO might not always sync with a home cook, and that’s where the recipe developer can work to build a bridge.

Chernila is sympathetic to the home cook who can’t juggle it all, and she points out that, for many households, free recipes on the back of a box may be the only ones accessible to them. And like many cookbook authors and food bloggers, she’s done her share of sponsored recipes for brands. But it’s not all about the brand.

“Even when I’m tasked with creating a recipe for a certain peanut butter, for instance, I’m still a human being with feelings, and I might be drawing from all sorts of things, like my grandma’s peanut butter cookies,” she says.

“You have to really enjoy the product. If you don’t, it’s hard to do any kind of recipe development,” says Freiman. While she admits that condensed soup and processed foods in general have less of a healthy glow than they did in the 1940s, most brands are evolving at least some of their products to meet today’s health and diet attitudes. And nutritional fads come and go. During the fat-free craze of the ’90s, Freiman developed the idea of cooking potatoes in Swanson chicken broth for mashed potatoes instead of adding butter or milk. (Anecdotally, this is a habit I’ve seen perpetuated in many home kitchens, including my own family’s in the ’90s.)

The fear and shock that some people have when they find that their favorite recipe was made by a brand may come from the notion that they’re produced by faceless, nameless corporate entities—like a lab filled with robots. But that’s not the case. In-house recipe developers at brands may not have their name attached to recipes on product labels or brand websites. And they may not rise to name recognition through their best recipe efforts in the way that an influencer or blogger might.

But the standards for recipe testing in corporate test kitchens are often much higher than those for cookbooks, and that’s thanks to investment from the brand. Recipe developers have to run their ideas through numerous procedures and approvals before a recipe is deemed good enough to slap on labels—so having a financial interest in recipe quality may serve home cooks better than they think.

“There’s a lot of trial and error,” says Roberts, of each recipe she tested for Kikkoman. “But the nice thing about it is that even the errors came out good enough that they were always eaten.”

Shelve It explores the world of groceries, from the fluorescent-lit aisles to the nooks and crannies of your cupboard. We dive into why certain ingredients got pantry staple status, the connection between cookbooks and buying habits, the online-ification of grocery shopping, and what gets shelved along the way.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbooks The Food of Taiwan and Sheet Pan Chicken, and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She co-wrote Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories. She has won a James Beard Award and IACP award for her writing at TASTE.