Perhaps you’ve heard of Green Bean Casserole, the “homemade,” Pyrex-bound amalgamation of canned green beans, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and fried onions. On Thanksgiving, 30 million homes across America serve the dish. Yet despite its status as a Midwest holiday staple, the casserole actually originated in a test kitchen in New Jersey. In 1955, Dorcas Reilly, a home economist at Campbell’s Soup Co. concocted the recipe to show American families that Campbell’s products could be used for more than just soup. Today, the recipe accounts for 70% of Campell’s website traffic.
In the mid-50s, however, the recipe was disseminated in cheap advertorial cookbooks that were slipped into women’s magazines or sent through the mail. Without these advertising cookbooks, which were produced not just by Campbell’s but by nearly all mainstream food brands at the time, we wouldn’t have gloriously shaped aspics, or Jell-O salads filled with marshmallows and nuts, or “Hawaiian” (a.k.a. Spam and pineapple) pizza. Instead of family recipes passed down through the generations, these eccentric mid-century meals are actually the result of carefully concocted marketing schemes targeted squarely at women.
It’s the stories behind these recipes that food historian Christina Ward explores in her latest book, American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us To Love Bananas, Spam, and Jell-O. Alongside full-color images of ham-wrapped bananas and Velveeta-smothered burgers, Ward uncovers the origins of some of America’s most beloved—and most despised—foods.
“Advertising cookbooks have a unique place in American cultural history,” says Ward. “They came about with the convergence of cheap printing technology, the expansion of the country’s population, and a new movement of newly educated women who were experts in the field of food sciences.”
Instead of family recipes passed down through the generations, these eccentric mid-century meals are actually the result of carefully concocted marketing schemes targeted squarely at women.
According to Ward, the first credited branded advertising cookbook was for Hellman’s Mayonnaise. The proprietor, Richard Hellmann, had a small mom-and-pop shop in New York, and together with his wife, he began giving out recipes to customers featuring ideas for new ways to use mayonnaise. As Hellmann’s took off, other brands followed suit.
Advertising cookbooks would come to serve several purposes: they imprinted brand names in the mind of the consumer, provided instructional information regarding the use of unfamiliar foods and new appliances, and their detailed, standardized recipes could inspire brand loyalty in primarily female readers. And so throughout the 20th century, whenever a new food was introduced to the market, you’ll find an onslaught of recipes that followed. “It’s often about elevation,” says Ward. “Cooking shows are also guilty of this—you’ll see lots of canned, preserved foods high in fat that are elevated through recipes that then become nostalgic staples.”
Advertising cookbooks sold products. But they also left an indelible mark on American food consuming habits, many of which are still in place today. We asked Ward to share the history of three food products that we consider entirely commonplace, and the ad campaigns that put them in our homes for generations to come. Here she is, in her own words.
Orange juice for breakfast: Sunkist
“Sunkist as a brand was begun by a consortium of California orange growers. Like any fruit and vegetable commodity, the challenge is always getting it to the consumer as quickly and cheaply as possible. Rotten fruit won’t sell, and if the cost is too high, all profits are lost.
“In the early 1930s, which is before advertisers eagerly adopted and experimented with new theories of human psychology, Sunkist created ads for magazines that touted the health benefits of eating oranges. Scientists had identified vitamin C in oranges, and it was common knowledge that citrus would prevent scurvy. Sunkist took that simple fact and turned it into a campaign that suggested that for optimum health, everyone should eat an orange a day.
“Sunkist’s advertising cookbooks from the ’30s included health-based recommendations on how to eat and use oranges—which seems odd to modern eaters, but oranges were still considered a luxury food in northern climates away from California and Florida. Freshly squeezed juice served at breakfast was recommended as a delicious and easy way for a housewife to provide maximum nutrition to their families.
“Oranges are naturally high in sugars and fiber, but when they’re juiced they lose the fiber component. In the early 1940s at the start of World War II, many food producers were asked by the U.S. government to provide foods that had a longer shelf life and could be shipped overseas. Finding a way to send oranges to soldiers and sailors was a priority because the troops hated the taste of the bitter vitamin C powders they were forced to take to prevent scurvy.
“Sunkist refined the technique of extracting juice and packaging it in cans. But the preservation process of removing the oxygen also removed the taste. To solve that problem, sugar and chemical ‘flavor additives’ were added. The new concentrated orange juice was a huge success with the troops and later with general consumers, when the product was introduced after the war.
“So in the span of a few decades, a relatively healthy food became a super-processed, sugar-laden drink stripped of any real health value. The advertising promoting it as a healthy way to start the day became part of the American culture. Of course, food manufacturers and advertisers react and reflect our current culture, which sees them once again extolling the health virtues of a freshly squeezed, no-additives, pure product. We’ve come full circle, but the cultural assumption—drink orange juice with breakfast—laid down by the long arc of the advertising narrative is firmly established.”
“They straddle the line between reflecting who we are and who we want to be. I think that’s the common thread in all the food advertising; that it’s always aspirational.”
“Guaranteed Man-pleasing” beef Burgundy stew: The Rice Council of America
“Some of the most wrong-headed food advertising cookbook campaigns are only viewed that way in hindsight. A word about food councils—these were an innovation developed by legendary advertising guru Edward Bernays. He invented, for lack of a better word, the idea that a brand, or even a group of brands, could establish a nominally independent advocacy organization that then, under the guise of that independence, could proclaim the virtues of a product.
“The food trends of the’50s and ’60s were rooted in farming and Puritan-influenced plain cooking. There were lots of meat and potatoes. Potatoes were considered a healthy food because they provided a dense caloric count for hard-working men, whereas rice was considered both foreign and as not having enough substance. Again, these ideas were fostered by early food scientists and home economists, and food companies used anything and everything to sell a product.
“The Rice Council was, of course, advocating for more rice consumption. The 1971 cookbook they produced, Man-pleasing Recipes, was filled with hearty, meaty recipes designed to appeal to the wife of the meat-and-potatoes man. The text is wholly tone-deaf in today’s world. ‘Guaranteed man-pleasin’ is the tag line under the recipe for beef Burgundy stew.”
Aspirational avocados: The California Avocado Advisory Board
“A very successful food council campaign was the 1976 cookbook put out by the California Avocado Advisory Board. At the time, avocados were a regional food unfamiliar to the general consumer.
“These ideas were fostered by early food scientists and home economists, and food companies used anything and everything to sell a product.”
“The cookbooks and the supporting advertising did the job very well because avocados have become a regular part of the American diet in the past 40 years. But a look back at what the marketing folks thought would connect with consumers is mind-boggling: Avocados on the half-shell, avocado ice cream. Meanwhile, something like guacamole would be considered a bit odd to even include as a recipe because it was so very familiar to us.
“The California Avocado Advisory Board does have to answer for its art direction, as it’s a great example of the use of lurid colors and over-the-top design. Like all of the advertising cookbooks that flourished from the ’30s to the ’80s, they straddle the line between reflecting who we are and who we want to be. I think that’s the common thread in all the food advertising; that it’s always aspirational.”