Far be it from me to perpetuate ethnic stereotypes – it really gets my Irish up when people do that – but now that cold and flu season is upon us, I fear I may need to consult a member of the clergy if I get the sniffles.
The problem? I keep hearing people refer to chicken soup as ”Jewish penicillin,” and since I am technically of the Gentile persuasion, does that mean I need dispensation if I get sick and want some chicken soup?
Do I call a priest? A rabbi? Perhaps an ordained pharmacist?
This would be less of a dilemma if I were of greater French-Canadian extraction. Yes, indeed. That’s because our Franco-American brethren don’t need chicken soup. For centuries, the cagey Quebecois have had their own populist remedy for the common cold, and not suprisingly, that remedy found its culinary zenith right here in Manchester.
I am referring, naturellement, to Habitant French-Canadian Style Pea Soup – puree de pois on my native West Side of the river – whose trademark yellow label heralded a hearty, north-of-the-border cure for all the ailments known to modern medicine.
For 45 years, a plant in Manchester’s Millyard was a primary pea soup source for most of North America, although it must be noted that in the days before NAFTA and GATT, Mexico didn’t exactly pull its weight in pea soup purchases. Despite that trade shortfall, demand in Canada and the United States was so great that at its peak, our Habitant plant cranked out as many as 80,000 cans of soup per day.
”We made a lot of other brands of soup, too, but the Canadian pea soup … that accounted for about 70 percent of our sales,” the late Gilles Morin once told me. Gilles came south in 1946 to run the plant his father and some friends opened back in 1938.
Their arrival could not have come at a better time for the city’s beleaguered bread-winners. The Amoskeag Manufacturing Corporation had recently collapsed and jobs were at a premium, so Mayor-turned-civic-savior Arthur Moreau was waiting with open arms when Phileas Morin and his partners – Albert and Remi Limoges – rode into town with their plan to can soup.
”It was an accident, really, that they came here,” Gilles said. ”I had a cousin who lived in Concord and he thought they could find a suitable location there. When they didn’t see anything they liked, they came to Manchester.”
It was hard to tell the Queen City from Quebec City back in 1938, so, with such a natural market close at hand, Phileas set up shop on Commercial Street and started large-scale production of his home-grown product
“My father had owned a grocery store in Montreal,” Gilles said, ”and one of his clerks started a small plant so they could pack strawberry jam. When that sold well, they went on to other flavors of jam, then it was pickles and so on and then they decided to try canning pea soup.”
You and I both know that the advertising industry is more full of fancy than fact – there is no Betty Crocker, no Aunt Jemima and no Mama Celeste – but the pea soup Habitant canned really was from an old family recipe.
”My mother would make pea soup all the time, but the first batch they canned was made by my oldest sister, Marie-Blanche,” said Gilles, who had remarkable recall of the familial pecking order seeing as he was the 10th of 15 children. ”My father took it down to the plant they had set up and he sterilized it and canned it. Then he gave away free samples to sales people and everyone who tried it ordered some.”
Of course they did. Everyone loves soup. It’s one of the oldest foods known to man. And woman. In fact, the ladies of the French court of Louis XI subsisted entirely on soup because they thought chewing would cause them to develop facial wrinkles.
Of course, these same ladies would have developed wicked facial wrinkles (by turning up their noses) had they been offered a bowl of the oldest soup ever uncovered by archaeologists. It’s been dated back to 6000 B.C. and the main ingredient – I swear I am not making this up – was hippopotamus bones.
And what does that have to do with Habitant ? Absolutely nothing, although Gilles admitted that instead of hippo bones, some consumers – Yankees, mostly – were known to put ham bones in the pot while heating his soup.
”A lot of people would do that,” he said. ”That’s the American style, although it’s usually made with green peas, but the Canadian style was made with yellow peas, pork fat and French savory spices.”
Perhaps it was those yellow peas – shipped in from the area around Spokane, Washington – that helped Habitant survive in the post-Exorcist era, after actress Linda Blair’s projectile performance almost single-handedly wiped out the pea soup industry.
A clever advertising campaign also helped. Around 1968, after the company was sold to a Canadian concern called Catelli, a Boston ad agency came up with a catchy jingle. Set to a tune from ”My Fair Lady,” the commercial ditty reminded cooks that ”You mustn’t ever put water in a Habitant soup!”
”That was an important distinction for us,” Gilles explained. ”We wanted to be as different from Campbell as possible. They were very strong and they had damn good soup – I hate to admit it – but theirs was condensed. Ours wasn’t.
”We always used to say that the water we used from Lake Massabesic was better than the water anyone outside of Manchester could add in their home, so we always made our soup full strength.”
Still, in a show of its own strength, Campbell once tried out a condensed version of Canadian-style pea soup in three major markets – Rochester, N.Y., Providence, R.I., and yes, little ol’ Manchester. It flopped. So did a Snow’s knock-off called ”Allouette.”
”We had very loyal customers,” Gilles grinned.
And their loyalty wasn’t limited to pea soup. Habitant offered as many as 15 flavors including staples like chicken noodle and minestrone, but Gilles also had a flair for the exotic. With help from the boys in the lab, he put out a gourmet line that featured shrimp bisque and cream of mushroom and he even came up with a cabbage soup which was tasty, but extremely, um… aromatic.
”You couldn’t help it,” he smiled. ”As soon as you opened the can, whoosh, there was that smell of cabbage. You really had to love cabbage to withstand the smell, but some people were very upset with us when we stopped making it.”
Habitant repaid that customer loyalty with a heavy dose of community involvement, ranging from free-food donations to St. Peter’s Orphanage to sponsorship of a MRYHA hockey team called – no kidding – the Pea Soupers.
Ironically, since the local Habitant plant closed in 1983, the label has come full circle. After a series of corporate maneuvers, it is now the property of Campbell and the soup itself is produced in Montreal, exactly as it was in the very beginning.
The only thing they’ve removed from the mix is Manchester.
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