Fifth Quarter

Fearsome Feast: Pepper Pot Soup

How a can of Campbell's soup haunted our dining editor's childhood.

By Alice Levitt April 27, 2017

Andy warhol campbells soup i pepper pot ysqce5

Andy Warhol must have been afraid, too.

Image: Andy Warhol

My mentally ill father generally only emerged from the basement to eat. Often, he did so with the song, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" on his lips, part of his Depression-era aesthetic that he dubbed "working class hero." It also included mostly sporting free T-shirts and torn jeans, which in some ways means he was the first hipster. Another trapping of that posture, despite the fact that we lived in tony Greenwich, CT, was a love of fifth quarter foods.

"Fifth quarter" is the butcher's term for offal. And when I was growing up, my father always seemed to have a crock pot bubbling with grey viscera. The fear that I felt at his paranoia and anger were closely tied to the hissing pressure cooker filled with fetid sauerkraut and organ meat. It was as if a witch's brew were always cooking in my family's kitchen.

Dad was also a food hoarder, so the basement was choked with decades of canned goods that we had moved from house to house. When I was in fourth grade, my teacher had to call my mother to ask that I bring something else to the food drive in place of the expired brains I had proudly proffered. Another time, he exploded a can of brains in the microwave, leaving tissue that may or may not have ever been fully removed from the machine's crevices. But his favorite purchase was one that he stockpiled for a reason: Even 30 years ago, it wasn't easy to find cans of Campbell's pepper pot soup.

International diners may know pepper pot as a Caribbean stew. In fact, a version flavored with cinnamon and chiles and served with roti is one of Guyana's national dishes. Campbell's pepper pot, on the other hand, is descended from a dish known as Philadelphia pepper pot. According to historically based legend, that dish was invented for George Washington's army. The general at the time wrote, "Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place, this Army must inevitably ... Starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can." To keep the troops going, Washington's baker scraped together a soup of offal and vegetable scraps, the story goes.

The paucity of available ingredients tells you the patriots who (ostensibly) first ate the dish were none too picky. And when my dad boiled up a pot, it smelled to me like a too-long-postponed funeral for an entire barnyard—with a zingy dash of tomato paste. There is a very specific type of B.O. that, when I smell it, can only be described as "like pepper pot."

In some ways, the soup defined my childhood trauma. It was fitting, then, that when my mother finally gained the strength to divorce the man that had abused her for almost 30 years, we filled a dumpster with his hoarded food. There were cans of pepper pot that had moved from Connecticut to Vermont a decade earlier. And they were purged at long last. 

Most food memories we keep from childhood are pleasant, that Proustian madeleine, grandma's fried chicken or the cheesy slices from elementary school pizza day. But the ones that are traumatic are no less important, and certainly no less memorable.

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