Artful Tomato Soup

What’s for dinner? Pop art.

While in NYC last week I met my dear friend Jim–a longtime freelance writer and resident of this renovated city–for lunch at Eataly. We picked the perfect day: a Monday afternoon when there was room to roam throughout this Italian food emporium, no lines and open seating on the rooftop beer garden.

But we opted for La Pizza restaurant. I think we were both craving tomato sauce. Jim had just handed me a bag containing these 2 cans of Campbell’s tomato soup. Not just any cans, but commemorative objets of the silk screen images Andy Warhol created of Campbell’s soup in 1962. (A 50-year retrospective of his work is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Jim didn’t buy them at the Met, however. He traveled the lengths of Manhattan–from Queens to the Bronx hunting down these cans for me at Target. Yes, that Target.

“I remembered that your kitchen is yellow,” he said.

“Cool! I am going to put them on my shelf,” I said. “I’ll send you a picture.”

On the day of my departure I placed the colorful cans into the top of my suitcase and didn’t think about them again until…TSA agents pulled me aside to check out what was inside my rollerbag. Not only were those two cans suspicious in shape and material, they contained way more than 3 ounces of liquid.

I had to laugh. Cans of soup! What a ridiculous thing to have in my carry-on luggage! How to explain that I had promised Jim who had gone on a pilgrimage to obtain them for me.

Funny thing is, the TSA agents were nonplussed and kindly detailed my options, none of which involved tossing the cans then and there. (Clearly, they’ve seen weirder stuff.) I henceforth received a private and patient escort to check my bag and return expedited back through security. (We’ve come a long way since 2001.)

In Seattle, I opened the pull-tab cans (great upgrade in cans since the 1970s), drained the soup and put them into my carry on for the puddle jumper to the regional airport closest to my Oregon home.

The smell of that soup was a retrospective of my own upbringing. It always tasted a little funky to me, essence of tin can and overprocessed tomatoes. Reading the ingredients label now, it strikes me that the particular flavor of Campbell’s tomato may be the wheat flour. But I loved it all those years ago on those rainy fall days back in Massachusetts, and that scent comforted me again somewhere between NYC and home with my family–where I longed to be.

First chance I got, I took a quart of my home-canned tomatoes from 2011 and made a batch of creamy, warming soup for our supper. I served it to the girls with sides of thinned sour cream and pesto, so that they could make art in their own bowls.

Making art at dinner? I think both Andy and Jim would have enjoyed it to the hilt.

Recipe: Quickest Tomato Soup

Serves 4

I make this recipe from home-canned tomatoes, but you can substitute 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes.

1 quart home canned tomatoes with their juice
1/2 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or basil
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream thinned with milk for swirling, optional

1. Combine the tomatoes, onion, thyme and paprika in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to simmer until the onions are softened, about 20 minutes.

2. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup. Or, for a very smooth soup for swirling, transfer the soup into a blender. (Warning: hot soup tends to shoot out of the blender. These instructions are detailed to prevent spills and burns. If in doubt, let the soup cool before blending.) Put on the lid and cover it with a kitchen towel to avoid splattering. Pulse the soup 2-3 times with very short bursts, then puree until very smooth.

3. Pour into wide soup bowls and serve with the sour cream, if using for fun.

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