Not too long ago, I stood helpless in the doorway to my pantry, staring at my dwindling stores. What had once looked abundant now looked pathetic following two months of quarantine, and I felt inspirationally stunted. So I started pulling out boxes, one by one. And then I started reading boxes, an old art I had forgotten about, because, as an ambitious home cook, most of my recipes arrive through different avenues now: by suggestion, by experimentation, or by the pulsing drive to rid my fridge of still-usable scraps. Eventually, on a dusty box of tapioca, which I only use for pie-thickening, I found a curious recipe for cream: Whip egg whites into meringue; thicken tapioca with egg yolk, sugar, and milk over medium heat; fold in egg white; chill.
The result was a gorgeous, sweet mess, like a bubbly, frothing pastry cream, something I never would have discovered or thought to make on my own. I layered it with frozen blueberries, brought to life with the last of my lemons, and made a crumble with the dying final sheets of matzoh from Passover (plus butter, plus sugar). The parfaits, as I came to see them, brought me incomparable joy. Here was an ethereal dessert made with ingredients I had but did not truly know. What a pleasure to mine the contents of my own pantry, only to be surprised by the outcome.
Packaged foods became popular at the turn of the 20th century, and in the U.S., the rise of advertising grew in tandem with the rise of industrialized food. The back-of-the-box recipe, its own kind of advertisement, likely dates back to the early 1900s, too, although both a food historian and an expert I spoke to agreed that it is hard to find much specific information about the genesis.
During this time, the expertise of women who had attended college in the early 1900s to study home economics — a term that was coined in 1899, during the Lake Placid Conferences — was suddenly a marketable commodity. “You had this whole crop of educated women,” says food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson. “Companies started hiring them to work in their test kitchens.” With teams of women using their college educations to take a scientific approach to recipe development, and a society tacking from homemade to semi-homemade foods, American life was ripe for a moment of national recipe exchange.
General Mills was among the first known test kitchens to develop these recipes for the backs of boxes, and it passed them down to its internal baking brand, Betty Crocker. The idea, from the standpoint of General Mills and others, was to use back-of-the-box recipes to promote packaged foods, so that consumers would have reason to continue using these products. And it worked. “Brands developed the recipes to find ways to get consumers to try their product and then to keep buying it,” says Emily Contois, author of Diners, Dudes and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture. “Some of the recipes were (and continue to be) big hits, while others are strange artifacts of their moment.” A can of Carnation, for example, advertised a recipe for mac and cheese using its evaporated milk.
During the lean years of the Depression, and the wartime years that followed, back-of-the-box recipes were so common that box recipes often became family recipes. The recipe for the famous Toll House chocolate chip cookie, for instance (present on a bag, and not a box), was invented by chefs Ruth Graves Wakefield and Sue Brides in 1938 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. The recipe predated the major boom of midcentury industrialized food in the United States, but when Nestlé put it on the back of the bag it became the archetype for chocolate chip cookies — and an enduring reminder of the power of this kind of marketing.
But, Emily Contois says, the recipes “really take off in the 1950s and 1960s”; a recipe passed on from generation to generation may, in fact, owe its very foundation to some long-ago midcentury test kitchen. My own family’s passed-down recipe for cranberry sauce, used every Thanksgiving since before my birth, takes its bones from the back-of-the-package recipe on Ocean Spray cranberries. Ocean Spray opened its cranberry cooperative in 1930 in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, and likely began putting the recipe for its whole-berry sauce on bags cranberries sometime around the middle of the century. The farthest my family can trace it by memory is to the 1960s.
Read the backs of boxes and you can track the country’s culinary trends and passions. Betty Crocker cakes from the ’40s and early ’50s, like the Old-Fashioned Custard Pie, originally advertised wartime restraint: To save on sugar, the first incarnation of the recipe proudly suggested alternative ingredients. In the 1960s, when the problematic Tiki trend, which used Polynesian iconography to sell a loose idea of “the tropics” to tourists, was at its peak, ”tropical” ingredients, like rum, coconut, and pineapple, took hold. Some of those ingredients were later included in the psychedelic Jell-O craze of the 1970s.
But the passionate devotion to back-of-the-box recipes trails off once we reach the digital age. Back-of-the-box recipes, while once omnipresent, have fallen out of favor. We still rely on grocery stores and basic pantry ingredients, of course, but the recipes we use now become reliable go-tos or part of family lore for different reasons. We see food through the lens of the internet, where inertia and zeitgeist point us to compelling still lifes and their accompanying recipes. Popularity is rewarded through likes and shares, and we have forgotten about the dusty backs of boxes. If there’s something you need, the internet can provide you with an easy answer.
Arguably, we’ve moved past analog pantry cooking for other reasons, too. Our culinary world is different. It’s fresher and more market-dependent than it was in the industrial era. “Something that’s different today is that we have incredible access to an incredible abundance of ingredients,” Wassberg Johnson says. In some ways, cooking today is fly-by-night, with ingredients dictating meals. Maybe back-of-the-box recipes don’t reflect the kind of cooking that we aspire to achieve now, in our seasonally fresh, well-curated kitchens.
But if back-of-the-box recipes were birthed as a marketing ploy that is, on its face, purely American, their evolution was American, too. They became solution-based remedies, pantry vignettes, short stories to get us through the repetition of mealtime. And then they became woven into our history, before we aspired to be better cooks who used better ingredients. Today, faced with less, and not more, the dilemma of how to cook lies with us. Why eschew the simple grandeur of inspiration that hides within our own homes? How many times have we picked up casual ingredients — a box of pasta, a can of beans — and ignored the recipe on the back? I can tell you, flatly, that I have done this hundreds of times, convinced that the cooking advice proffered was too pedestrian for my sophisticated tastes. But that tapioca cream made a forceful argument: I was missing out on a compilation of secrets that was hiding in every pantry around the world. How many other delights had slipped through my fingers?
Cooking doesn’t need to be complicated to be valuable. There’s value in opening your pantry, reading the box, and doing what it says. In the process, pay homage to the home economists who built the empires of test kitchens, the ones who worked behind the scenes to create things we didn’t know were possible. I don’t know which magician to credit with the tapioca cream, and so I can never pen a proper thank you, but perhaps an entreaty is enough: The back of the box is a small, tangible, and modest song worth singing.
Hannah Selinger’s IACP award-nominated work on food, wine, travel, and politics has appeared in the New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, the Washington Post, Curbed, the Cut, and more.