Campbell's goes retro with its tomato soup recipe

Campbell’s limited-edition tomato soup is made from a 1915 recipe.

Deep in the vaults of Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, employees came upon a bound ledger bearing the company’s century-old recipe for beefsteak tomato soup, written in longhand and created by longtime company president John T. Dorrance.

Struck with nostalgia, employees decided to make a batch, and headed in summer 2016 to South Jersey farms to buy up massive quantities of the fat, juicy tomatoes typically served nowadays sliced on a sandwich, preferably with a dollop of mayo and a sprinkling of salt.

Campbell’s R&D staff also had to tinker with Dorrance’s 1915 recipe, cutting the salt to conform to today’s palates and calling on retired workers for advice on old equipment and deciphering vague measurements and instructions. Dorrance’s recipe used no added water — only juice and pulp.

The result was tasty, so Campbell’s decided on a limited run last year. Ten thousand 24-ounce jars, bearing a replica of an old red-and-gold label including a drawing of two farmers carrying an enormous tomato, were sold last winter in Cracker Barrel stores.

For this winter’s soup season, Campbell’s has stepped up production, making 113,000 jars from 200,000 pounds of beefsteaks it bought from Wuillermin Farms in Hammonton, Atlantic County. That, of course, is still a drop in the bucket for Campbell’s, which says it produces 85 million cans of tomato soup each year. The heritage jars will be sold this fall in stores in the Northeast United States. The company could not yet provide a specific date or a retail price.

Camera icon CAMPBELL
Farmer Ed Wuillermin grew the beefsteak tomatoes for Campbell’s heritage tomato soup.

For Ed Wuillermin, 67, the nostalgia literally hit home. As a teenager, back in the days when Campbell’s relied exclusively on local produce, Wuillermin drove his grandfather’s tomatoes the 32 miles to Camden for production at Campbell’s plant. The company now buys tomatoes from California, which has a longer growing season.

Wuillermin and his brother, August, contacted late last year, farmed the 2017 beefsteak crop on four acres out of their 250 acres in production. He said Campbell’s found them through a neighbor, who works for the company’s pilot plant.

They started the tomato plants in a greenhouse in early March and began planting in stages starting in early May. “This season was a bit trying because of the weather conditions,” Ed Wuillermin said. “But we got the 200,000 pounds.”

The entire crop was harvested, cooked, and jarred within two days in September, the company said.

“This was more than a passion project,” said Sarah Rice, an archivist at Campbell’s who assisted the R&D department. “It’s exciting for me as a history nerd.”

Dorrance had come up with the beefsteak soup recipe after a culinary trip to complement Campbell’s product line. Then, as now, it was packaged in glass jars, not cans, and not condensed — all the more significant because Dorrance had made a name for himself while working for Campbell’s by inventing condensed soup in 1897. He went on to run the company from 1914 to 1930.

The interpretation of Dorrance’s heritage recipe calls for beefsteak tomatoes, wheat flour, and sugar, and is flavored with onions, coconut oil, salt, butter, allspice extract, black pepper extract, celery extract, capsicum extract, clove oil, pimento leaf oil, citric acid, soy lecithin, parsley oil, thyme oil, laurel leaf oil, and garlic oil.

Compare that to Campbell’s current condensed tomato soup, which contains tomato puree (water and tomato paste), high-fructose corn syrup, wheat flour, water, salt, potassium chloride, “flavoring,” citric acid, lower-sodium natural sea salt, ascorbic acid, and monopotassium phosphate. The label also indicates that it’s partially produced with GMOs — a controversial concept that didn’t enter the food lexicon until the mid-1990s.

Nutritionally, both soups are similar, ounce for ounce, including the sodium levels — 480 mg for a half-cup serving.

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Side by side: Campbell’s current condensed tomato soup and old-recipe tomato soup.

As for taste, a highly informal blind test at our house found a mixed bag of responses. Some preferred the heritage’s pronounced vegetable undertones — nuanced was the word — while that quality simply turned off others.

I liken the taste to another Campbell’s product, V8 Vegetable Juice. Predictably, it does have a fresher vegetable flavor than the canned soup.

When that realization set in, I actually slapped my head and said, “I could have had a V8.”