This 1970s commercial shows how to make a big production out of soup. Ann Miller was a much-loved dancer who was discovered before she even hit puberty right here in San Francisco at the historic and colorful Black Cat Cafe.

Eat your heart out, Ann Miller!

On the other side of the world, Campbell’s soup plays a quieter role. I found this lovely reuse of a can in an alleyway in Macau. Half filled with dry rice grains, the can holds incense sticks burnt as an offering to dead ancestors. The lazily drifting smoke serves as a bridge to connect the spirit world to the homes of faithful descendants. Perhaps someone’s grandmother loved creamy corn with chicken soup? Or perhaps the day-to-day tasks of honoring the dead has settled into the comfort of reusable containers?

campbells soup corn with chicken in alleyway in Macau

In my print studio are two drawers of old copper and zinc cuts, from the days when metal — not pixels — spread words and images around the world. Mixed in with farm manual illustrations, matchbook covers for defunct restaurants, and finely etched maps of roads crisscrossing San Jose’s orchards lay lots of product images for food adverts. Campbell’s iconic soup can is one of my favorites. While my childhood memories involved many more bowls of chicken and stars than tomato, Andy Warhol’s conflicted critique of mass production still holds my attention.

Even better, an actual can of pepper pot in my office reminds me of all the quirky, real-life, meaningful intersections between the distant past and the relevant present, our private stories and public memory.

Perhaps soup is not so humble a food after all.

campbells soup pepper pot

The Great American Soup 22 September,2008Thy Tran


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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