Looking for new recipe ideas? Feel like you are in a cooking rut?
Forget the Internet and turn off the Food Channel. Go to your pantry and look at the back of boxes of cereal, crackers, bags and canned goods, as well as packages of any thing else stored in there. What you will see are recipes — lots of them. Depending on the product, they range from appetizers to soups to casseroles and salads.
Many have been favorites a long time. Oatmeal cookies? Look on the back of the Quaker Oats cereal box. The standard recipe for chocolate chip cookies is on the Nestle package of chocolate chips. Is there anyone in the world who hasn't made that iconic California dip of Lipton dried onion soup mixed with sour cream? And for a killer chocolate cake, my go-to recipe is on the back of the Hershey's cocoa container. It has been there for decades.
True, these recipes filling our pantry are all product-driven, and while we may have become more sophisticated in how we cook and eat, these back-of-the-box recipes have been part of our culinary scene for a long time. How long? It is hard to pinpoint exactly but most likely in the late 1800s. At that time there were sometimes little recipe cards that came with the product until someone around the turn of the century figured out it made more sense to put the recipe on the package.
That also signaled the birth of the test kitchen. In 1923, W.K. Kellogg hired a home economist to set up a company test kitchen to develop new recipes using their cereals. The goal? To use a particular product in as many ways as you could and make it taste delicious. Kellogg was one of the first food companies to do this, though others soon followed. These days, the big food conglomerates have test kitchens and recipe developers. They also know that the best way to make the public aware of them is to put the recipe on the back of the box or can. It was true back then and is still today a great marketing strategy.
The Depression years saw food companies try more creative ways to stretch the food dollar. If a cook had leftovers, Campbell soup suggested ways to mix them with soup to make a casserole, again with suggestions on the label.
One of the most popular recipes came on the Ritz cracker box. Called Ritz Mock Apple Pie, it was an immediate hit when it appeared in the mid 1930s. Apples were expensive and the crackers at 19 cents a box were fairly affordable. By adding a variety of additional ingredients, including lemon juice, it mimicked the taste of apple pie. Some years later Nabisco took it off the box but there was such a public uproar they put it back on. Hard to imagine, but that is still the most requested Nabisco recipe, ever.
One of the most enduring back-of-the-box recipes is Lipton's California dip. While it originated in California, hence the name, it went on the Lipton dried onion soup package in 1958. The dip, the most simple thing to make ever, took the country by storm and was seemingly served at every gathering. Even now, it is estimated that 220,000 envelopes of the mix are used every day, with sales peaking between mid-November and Super Bowl Sunday.
These recipes, interestingly enough, can be a not-so-hidden resource. On a recent trip up and down the aisles of Fareway, Cub, Silver Lake Foods and HyVee, I checked labels in no particular order and this is what I found: Both national and store brands have recipes on the back, most of the time. They are also very simple and short — which they have to be to fit on a label.
And this was disturbing: Some of my tried and true recipes were missing, like the pie crust recipe that came off the Crisco label. Where is it? Thank heavens my copy is in my recipe box.