Food by VICE

How Back-of-the-Box Recipes Became Beloved Comfort Foods for So Many Americans

When I'm feeling lonely in Brooklyn, I can buy a brick of Velveeta and a can of Rotel and be transported back to my grandma’s South Texas kitchen.

by Kelsey Lawrence; illustrated by Adam Waito
Oct 5 2018, 1:00pm

I wish I remembered entire relationships as well as I can recall the multisensory experience of watching my grandma heat up Velveeta cheese and the diced-tomatoes-and-green-chiles can of Rotel in her bright-yellow Pyrex bowl. She would carefully cut that fantasy cheese into eight rectangular chunks, and I would watch the yellow bowl and the yellow cheese twirl around in the microwave. Her “cheese dip,” as we call it, is a family favorite, and if you’re familiar with the Tex-Mex obsession with queso, you know this to be Velveeta and Rotel’s “Famous Queso Dip.”

If you grew up in America in the last 80 years, give or take, there’s a good chance you’re the product of Bisquick pancakes, Nestle Toll House cookies, Jell-O salads, Libby’s Pumpkin Pie, Betty Crocker cake mixes, Campbell’s Green Bean Casserole, Chex Party Mix, or, in my case (and Dolly Parton's!), pounds of melted Velveeta. Though decades old, these recipes continue to evoke a certain kind of American convenience and suburban comfort—even if some of them feel like unhealthy relics now.

“I think there are definitely people cooking the way we always have cooked,” Laura Shapiro, food historian and author of What She Ate and Something from the Oven, says. “For all the changes in American cooking since the end of the last century, there’s still [the same] version of meatloaf in a million households, and people are still opening a can of soup. These things don’t change so much.”

American palettes have been acclimating to the flavors—or lack thereof, some might argue—of industrialized food since the early 19th century. Campbell’s started producing canned soup and vegetables in 1869 in New Jersey. Heinz Tomato Ketchup was first introduced in 1876, and a cough syrup manufacturer and carpenter trademarked a gelatin dessert called Jell-O in 1897. The early 1900s also saw the inventions of Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise in 1913, Kraft cheese in 1915, and Bisquick was inspired by a Southern Pacific Railroad chef in 1930.

People had to figure out how to use these new products during this industrialized age of cooking, and there was some skepticism. Betty Crocker was conceptualized in 1921, with her guarantee that women at home could get a “perfect cake every time you bake—cake after cake after cake.” It is that perfect consistency, that few-ingredient ease that has made back-of-the-box “convenience cuisine,” as food writer and professor Emily Contois dubbed it, and that comfort has brought generations back to these foods. They now, in many ways, feel like part of our collective heritage—recipes of commercial provenance that feel just homemade enough and unique to our families, in spite of the fact that they’ve been duplicated millions of times.

A frustrated housewife in a Bisquick ad from 1947. Photo: Getty Images/Underwood Archives

“Their biggest rise in popularity is likely in the 1950s and 1960s when the ‘convenience cuisine’ of the period takes off, as the food industry sought domestic markets for processed foods created during WWII,” Contois, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa, writes via email. “These market forces converged with technological shifts, like increasing home freezer ownership, as well as social trends like more women working outside of the home. These back-of-the-box/can/package recipes would have originated earlier than that, however, in the 1920s and 1930s.”

With the rise of home economics as an official field of study, there was an increase in scientific cooking, cuisine with emphasis on nutrition and sanitation. “A lot of these graduates went into the food industry,” Shapiro says. “In a really intensive way, in laboratory classes, they had studied all the science and chemistry and biology and physiology that goes into food and nutrition. They were very well-equipped to go into these industrial kitchens and figure out what to do with the new products.”

Rice Krispies Treats, for instance, were a dessert invented in 1939 by two kitchen testers, Malitta Jensen and Mildred Day, at the Kellogg Company home economics department as a fundraiser for the Camp Fire Girls. Campbell’s Famous Green Bean Casserole, now a Thanksgiving staple, was reportedly created by recipe supervisor Dorcas Reilly in the Campbell Soup home economics kitchen.

“The practice of putting recipes on packaging has been a common practice of ours since the 1920s and maybe earlier,” Cathy Swanson, cookbook editor for General Mills, says. “Recipes were first tested and created in the Washburn Crosby Gold Medal Flour test kitchens located in the Washburn A Mill by home economists. These kitchens would eventually evolve into the General Mills test kitchens and the Home Service Department. The final transition of these kitchens would be the Betty Crocker Kitchens. The Home Service Department was a group of home economists whose job was to ‘bring homemakers everywhere the benefits of General Mills’ research, products control, product testing and practical, helpful service for home.’”

Other recipes that are now classics—many of which ended up printed on the backs of boxes or in pamphlets or women’s magazines—came from Pillsbury Bake-Off Contests or chefs who later sold their creations or allowed them to be promoted by corporations. The most famous back-of-the-box recipe, Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (“You should never touch that recipe,” Shapiro says emphatically) came from a restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts. Ruth Graves Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie at the restaurant she owned, the Toll House Inn, around 1938, and it remains, simply put, perfect.

"When [my great-grandmoter] passed away, family members were like, ‘What was her pumpkin pie recipe?’ For a while no one knew what it was because it wasn’t written on those index cards. I was like, ‘It’s not on the index cards, it’s on a can.’”

“As soon as a homemaker would try one of these products, she would look on the back of the box to see how to do it,” Shapiro says. “If the recipe appealed to her, it went into her recipe folder and started showing up at potlucks and church suppers, and then it started showing up in community cookbooks or charitable cookbooks. It became American cooking.”

Walking down the aisles of the new grocery store in my neighborhood, I checked the backs of products that have lined shelves for decades. Many of the recipes were still there, in some form. Bisquick had a photo of its Strawberry Shortcake (though the recipe wasn’t printed), and the instructions for Chex Party Mix were on the Wheat Chex Box. Libby’s still shares its pumpkin pie recipe (how could it not?), and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup featured a Green Bean Casserole recipe. And, of course, a package of Nestle’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels tells you how to make chocolate chip cookies.

That famous chocolate chip cookie recipe peeks out from the underside of a package of Nestle chocolate chips. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Poring over retro ads for skin-crawling Jell-O salads with vegetables and tuna encased in green gelatin—or the “57 Prize Winning Recipes from H.J. Heinz Co.” cookbook—it’s a reminder that dreams of a Jetsons future, or wartime utilitarianism, sometimes got in the way of palatable cooking. Shapiro muses why some fell by the ketchup-ice-cream-sundae wayside.

“There were some recipes that there was no time of day to eat it—a thing where you put something on Ritz crackers or something they do in the Heinz book where they combine apple jelly and ketchup,” she says. “They put it over ice cream. You really wouldn’t ever do that.”

The packaged-food dishes that did last, and their accompanying products, feel entirely ingrained in American cooking and American pantries. It’s hard to imagine a time when something like Bisquick felt so newfangled, there had to be recipes dreamed up to make it seem useful.

“Based on [female home economists’] knowledge of cooking, nutrition, and home technologies, they were called upon to develop new recipes to feature commercial products, as a marketing strategy,” Contois says. “These recipes worked within a common cookery grammar, but sometimes it had to be bent a bit to make space in a single recipe for multiple canned, boxed, and/or frozen ingredients. This sometimes resulted in recipes that now find themselves on listicles of ‘gross’ historical recipes.”

In the way Blue Apron can’t exactly be considered homemade, the idea of combining cheese and Bisquick and ground beef to make an Impossibly Easy Cheeseburger Pie isn’t really homemade, either. And yet these halfway homemade dishes have history, and they evoke personal memories for each of us.

These dishes share the characteristics of being easy, quick, and appealing to the widest common denominator’s palette. Very sweet, very salty, not fussy. “That’s the other great claim on popularity that a lot of this stuff has,” Shapiro says. “They’ll call it a main course or salad, but it’s totally sweet and clearly just another version of dessert, which is the main thing Americans want to eat.”

In a world of Blue Apron, of farmer’s markets, of local food movements, of many dietary restrictions, many of these packaged-food recipes seem beautifully archaic. The ones that we still prepare the way our moms or grandmothers did are largely, as Shapiro surmises, the desserts. Ava Paloma, an actress and NYU student, pledges her allegiance to Libby’s Pumpkin Pie.

“I don’t even know how to make pumpkin pie, I just know that I buy that every year and then I make the pumpkin pie that my great-grandmother made,” she says. “She was an amazing baker, it wasn’t like she was lazy, but that was just the recipe and everyone loved her pumpkin pie. When she passed away, family members were like, ‘What was her pumpkin pie recipe?’ For a while no one knew what it was because it wasn’t written on those index cards. I was like, ‘It’s not on the index cards, it’s on a can.’”

The idea of what constitutes homemade cooking depends on who you talk to. In the way Blue Apron can’t exactly be considered homemade, the idea of combining cheese and Bisquick and ground beef to make an Impossibly Easy Cheeseburger Pie isn’t really homemade, either. And yet these halfway homemade dishes have history, and they evoke personal memories for each of us.

With the internet and Food Network, I’m not sure who is looking for cooking inspiration on the backs of boxes anymore. Paloma, who’s in her thirties, says she doesn’t look for recipes on packages, but her great-grandma’s pumpkin pie is her great-grandma’s pumpkin pie, regardless of whether it originally came from the label on a can. Now, it’s been passed down to her, with memories of being seven years old in her great-grandma’s kitchen. “It’s kind of about tradition,” she says.

Velveeta por vida. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

I also don’t cook from the backs of boxes, but I am exceptionally comforted to know that when I am feeling lonely in a grocery store in Brooklyn, I can buy a brick of Velveeta and Rotel and be transported back to my grandma’s South Texas kitchen.

“Some of these recipes will fall away, but others have ingrained themselves in American food culture in ways that may be far more lasting,” Contois says. “For some, green bean casserole forms an integral part of Thanksgiving tradition, bursting with regional identity for Midwesterners in particular. For others, Rice Krispies treats aren't just a no-bake dessert of puffed rice, butter, and marshmallows, but a treasured childhood memory.”