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Back-of-the-Box Recipes

It is easy to disdain the recipes we find on the backs of those boxes, cans and jars that most of us have in our pantries. Such recipes are usually seen as relics of the 1950s when the can opener was presented as the cook’s best friend, a cunning shortcut to gustatory pleasure. In that era, canned condensed soups were stars of the kitchen and were cast in such leading roles as sauces for meat dishes and casseroles or, when combined, as new kinds of soups of dubious appeal.

But I have found that not all recipes found on products are bad or even quick. I remember the time when I stumbled across a lengthy recipe for a chicken and bean soup I had noticed printed on the plastic wrapping on the backs of chickens that filled a huge bin in my local supermarket. At the time I wasn’t in the mood for that dish since I just had finished off the leftovers of a large roasting chicken. But the soup recipe stuck in my mind, so that a few days later I decided to buy one of those chickens.

When I returned to the market’s chicken bin and turned over one of the birds, I saw that the recipe was for a boring salad and I realized that a new batch of chickens had arrived. Hoping to find the chicken and bean soup recipe, I began flipping over one chicken after another, growing increasingly frantic when I kept running into the salad recipe and at the same time berating myself for not having bought the right chicken in the first place.

So there I was, hunched over and burrowing within the chicken bin, quite overwrought, yet aware enough to realize that I would need a believable alibi if the store manager happened by and asked me what I was doing. “I think I lost my ring,” I would deceivingly reply.

When I finally got to the very bottom of the bin, I found one lone chicken with the soup recipe, and since I figured that the bird was past its expiration date I spent the next several minutes scribbling the recipe onto the back of an envelope, leaving the chicken behind. This recipe is now a mainstay winter dish at my house.

A perfect way to find a lost recipe

Another time I got a pleading request from a friend who had lost the recipe for a blintzes soufflé dish she had first tasted years before at a brunch I had given, and she wanted to make the dish for guests she was expecting. I had found the recipe on the back of a frozen package of blintzes, but had long since abandoned blintzes soufflé as I moved on to frittatas and stratas when I needed an egg main dish.

I no longer had the recipe, but had a good idea where I could find it. Realizing that people often submit back-of-the-box recipes to community cookbooks, I looked through my collection, found the recipe, and sent it to my grateful friend who, to this day, continues to serve that dish.

This leads me to realize that people really love certain foods that some of us scorn or at the very least think of as passé. And, in my opinion, Jell-O is one such nominee. There was the time when I was invited to a 1950s-style food event and promised to bring along a Jell-O mold. As it happened, I was away on a long weekend, leaving town on Thursday and didn’t want to make the dish so far in advance of the Sunday party.

When I arrived back home, I discovered that I had just two packages of Jell-O on my shelf, one green and the other red. Since I was short of time I decided to combine them and make the speedy version of the dish that involves ice cubes for quick jelling. When it began to jell, I whipped it up and added some sliced canned peaches, and the whole thing firmed up in time for the party.

The dish turned out to be some unprecedented shade of reddish-brown, but instead of fretting, I dubbed it “mahogany salad” and was on my way. To my utter surprise and amusement, my Jell-O mold was hugely popular and quickly devoured by the party guests.

Unchanged and still kicking: California dip

Another reminder of the sustained popularity of back-of-the-box recipes is that steadfast dip made up of dried onion soup mix and sour cream, what is sometimes called “California dip.” It is one of the few dips I enjoy, since I always like to know what I am eating, and many such concoctions now being served are filled with snippets of unrecognizable foods I find unappetizing.

I hadn’t thought about that onion soup dip for a long time, so I took the trouble to read the back of dried onion soup mixes when I was in a supermarket last week and, sure enough, the recipe was there. Though it has been around for more than half a century, “California dip” seems here to stay because people love it. And so I rest my case.

Back-of-the-Box Chicken Soup

Serves 10

For the chicken:

1 chicken (preferably a stewing hen)
1 onion quartered
1 carrot
1 rib celery
Salt and pepper

For the soup:

1 pound dried navy beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
2 celery ribs, sliced
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon oregano
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
Parsley for garnishing


  1. Place chicken and vegetables in a large stock pot and cover with water (12-14 cups).
  2. Cook for at least two hours until chicken is almost falling off the bone.
  3. Remove chicken to cool. Reserve broth for the soup.
  4. When chicken is cool, remove flesh from bones and cut into chunks.
  5. Add the beans, onion, celery, garlic, oregano, bay leaf and salt and pepper to the broth.
  6. Cook the soup for 2 hours or more until beans are tender, then add chunks of chicken. Add parsley just before serving.

Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.

Photo: Back-of-the-box chicken soup. Credit: Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.