Old-Fashioned Tomato Soup

The Old-Fashioned Tomato Soup recipe comes from the book, “The American Gothic Cookbook” compiled by Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret from 2003. The book is made up of recipes from Grant Wood’s family, friends, fans, colleagues, and the man himself. The book is a result of two out of print books, The American Gothic Cookbook from 1979 and Recipes from Our Annual Fourth of July Potluck Picnic for Friends and Relations from 1980. It’s a wonderful little cookbook that has illustrations and lithographs of Wood’s famous works. There are so many dishes that range from traditional to a little zany.


I should have cooked this soup around Halloween. The ingredients and cooking process are so simple, but the “secret” ingredient made it froth and bubble like a witch’s brew! That same secret ingredient, baking soda, made me turn my nose up at the soup. If there wasn’t any baking soda, it would have been a simple and tasty soup. However, that’s part of vintage cooking, right? Sometimes recipes from the past are delicious discoveries, sometimes they are better left to the cooks of yore.

The reason that I chose this particular recipe to cook is because of the amazingly sassy recipe instructions. I’ll type them verbatim, and provide an abridged version later in the post. The recipe was submitted by MacKinlay Kantor, who was a reporter for the former Cedar Rapids Republican from 1925-1927 and knew Grant Wood. He went on to write the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Andersonville.

Here is his recipe as he wanted it presented:

“This is one which I learned from my grandmother fifty years ago, and it’s still just about my favorite soup, though I can never hope to duplicate Grandma’s perpetual triumph.

Maybe I should be handicapped as she was by having an old soft-coal range, fired up with cobs and kerosene, instead of a modern gadget-encrusted electric stove. But at least Grandma owned the advantage of using her own home-canned tomatoes–far better, in nostalgic recollection, than the cans which come from today’s supermarkets.

…There’s just going to be you and your wife or girlfriend. You’re mildly hungry for lunch, and think that you’d like to have about two bowls of the stuff apiece? O.K.

Take an ordinary sized can of tomatoes (number 2 20 ounces); use the solid pack or peeled Italian type if you can get them. Pour the tomatoes into a large saucepan where they will fill not more than a quarter of the interior, cubicly speaking.

Stir thoroughly, breaking up all large fragments. Then put the tomatoes over heat. You can use fairly quick heat on this, because you are going to be in there pitching all the time. If you scorch anything, it will be your own fault.

In another pan you have poured a quantity of milk roughly equal to the quantity of tomatoes. Some like more milk, some like more tomatoes. Conscience and further experimentation will guide you. Put this milk on another burner. 

Maybe the heat under the milk is just a little slower than that under the tomatoes? You must stand right there, eager-eyed, stirring both pans constantly to avoid the slightest scorch. Two spoons are a MUST: one for tomatoes, one for milk. That reduces curdling possibilities to a minimum. 

When the tomatoes are starting to bubble and the milk is steaming, pull the tomatoes off the burner and add one rounded teaspoonful of baking soda. Stir this thoroughly. It will neutralize the acid, and rosy froth will rise high.

Now lift off your milk, which will be at the boiling point (but don’t boil it) and pour it into the tomatoes in little driblets, stirring persistently as the milk folds in. The moment the milk is in, but the big saucepan back on the burner. Reduce your heat or the whole thing will boil over.

This is the time to add salt, sugar and fresh-ground pepper to taste. Yes, said sugar–no kicks from anybody yet! Unless a diet should impose restrictions.

How much salt or sugar do you want? I don’t know. I know how much I want in there: not very much, because it can always be added successfully at the table.

Keep stirring. Bring the mixture to the point of boiling, then remove from the fire and ladle it out into soup plates. Drop a lump of butter into each bowl, and sprinkle paprika liberally over the spreading gold. 

…That’s the basic recipe, but there are numerous variations. Some people don’t like all those tomatoes swimming around. Very well: put the whole mixture through a sieve, throw away the tomato pulp, and meditate on how you wasted it. 

This is so happily elastic, that it’s a joy. Once in a while you’d like to have it thick, weighty, creamy? Then, as soon as you have the tomatoes and milk together, fold in a small quantity of flour-and-water or corn-starch-and-water which you have already prepared in a double boiler. A lot of people feel that farinaceous powders of this variety aren’t really cooked until they have simmered for at least seven minutes. (I shan’t add this to the list of the ingredients in the recipe because Grandma didn’t make it that way.)

There’s another frill which I use sometimes. Simultaneously with the seasoning, add one small onion, diced fine. It’ll only need to be in there those few minutes in order to impart an oniony flavor to this pretty pink broth.

Not long ago I added a few oysters, and simmered them along with the broth.  There was just a suggestion of a combination Boston-Manhattan-oyster-stew-chowder about the whole business, and because the oysters had cooked for only a couple of minutes, they weren’t tough like those miserable dabs of plastic clams you get in most chowders.”


Old-Fashioned Tomato Soup

  • 1 No. 2 can tomatoes (I used a 20 ounce can of crushed tomatoes)
  • 20 ounces of milk
  • 1 pat of butter
  • Sugar (I used the smallest bit of sugar, I like the tang of tomatoes)
  • Salt (I used about a teaspoon)
  • Black Pepper (I used a lot of black pepper! Maybe a tablespoon?)
  • Paprika
  • 1 rounded teaspoon of baking soda


  1. Pour tomatoes into large saucepan with medium-high heat, if you aren’t using crushed tomatoes, break them up with your spoon.
  2. In a second pan, pour milk roughly equal to the amount of tomatoes on medium heat
  3. When tomatoes are bubbling, pull off heat and add the baking soda and whip into a froth. (I don’t know about you, but this took away the acidic taste that I absolutely love about tomatoes. It also made it a more unpleasant brownish color…)
  4. Lift off steaming milk and add to tomatoes a little at a time.
  5. Put back onto the stove on low heat.
  6. Add in sugar, salt, and black pepper.
  7. Ladle into bowls, add a pat of butter and sprinkle with paprika.




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