Alphabet soup is 150 years old. This is how we started spelling with our food
It really is as easy as your ABCs. Alphabet soup uses a different mold to make pasta in the shapes of letters. Though it’s called everything from Alphaghetti to simple Alphabet pasta, the result is the same: food you can spell with.
Alphabet soup seems like an iconic piece of kitsch, canned by Campbell’s and eaten around 1950s lunch tables. But the history of pasta-driven literacy is much longer than you’d expect. In fact, alphabet soup goes back 150 years, and people have been playing with it the entire time.
For such a famous meal, its history has been spelled all wrong for a while.
The legend of alphabet soup
The legend behind alphabet soup is simple: Campbell’s made it possible, so they must have invented it.
It’s true that large companies made alphabet soup a staple of children’s’ meals (Campbell’s continues to sell it that way today).
The urban legend goes something like this: 85 years ago, a noodle factory had an accident and a piece came out looking like the letter C. A factory supervisor was inspired and decided alphabet shaped noodles would be a hit.
The truth is that alphabet soup goes even further back. We know because it became a staple thanks in part to FDR.
FDR’s alphabet soup tastes…confusing
In the 1930s, FDR’s New Deal programs created an entire new menagerie of letters. Both proponents and detractors called it Alphabet Soup because of the mess of letters involved. In the creation of more than 100 agencies, FDR cemented Alphabet Soup as a linguistic phenomenon. In turn, the metaphor called back to the meal that, by that time, was already a classic.
In the 1930s, alphabet soup went from novelty to staple thanks to political posturing and a little bit of luck. But it was in that position because people had already been spelling with their soup for years.
Playing with your food has always been appealing
Fortunately, playing with your food is an apolitical passion. And since the beginning, it’s formed the appeal of alphabet soup.
That fun was usually a mix of corny jokes and whimsical gestures. In 1922, one writer joked that Alphabet Soup Manufacturers were having a convention to decide how to tell a comma from an apostrophe when it floated in their soup. Many articles repeated the farce that alphabet soup was responsible for increased literacy as well as full stomachs (and they warned that you shouldn’t disturb your neighbor’s reading). Another standard gag (that appeared as early as 1908) was to pretend that the alphabet soup was sending messages, from flirtatious come-ons to threats.
Alphabet soup was amusing, and that made it popular among adults and children alike. What’s surprising is that its history goes so far back.
Who invented alphabet soup? And when was alphabet soup invented?
By 1900, alphabet soup was still a novelty, but it was a firmly established concept sold in packages (at about 25 cents a pound, give or take a dime). Even then the idea of Italian pasta (or paste) seemed foreign and strange. Before that time, the concept of this strange pasta had to be explained to American readers.
In 1886, one paper published a tutorial about macaroni and included alphabet pasta in its list, as well as pasta in the shape of hearts, stars, and crowns. That entire decade, the Italian Macaroni with the alphabetic shape was being sold across the country, but it was invented even earlier.
Yes, alphabet soup was the hottest culinary innovation of…1867.
Just after the Civil War, the Tri-Weekly Standard in Raleigh first reported on a new fun type of food. The short item marveled:
The latest culinary novelty is alphabetical soup. Instead of the usual cylindric and star shaped morsels of macaroni which have hitherto given body to our broth, the letters of the alphabet have been substituted. These letters of paste preserve their forms in passing through the pot.
Though a later article speculated that the soup’s inventor wanted to improve literacy through his pasta, there’s no proof of his or her name (or that they existed at all).
Only one thing is certain: alphabet soup has been around for almost 150 years. And it’s nearly as certain we’ll be spelling with our food for 150 more.