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Finding comfort in canned soup during the pandemic

When I'm feeling worn down by the news of the day, it's not something homemade I find myself reaching for — it's canned soup.
Crack open a can, dump it in a pot and heat it up. Instant comfort.
Crack open a can, dump it in a pot and heat it up. Instant comfort.Emi Boscamp / TODAY

During the pandemic, many of us have been seeking out nostalgia for a sense of comfort and normalcy — whether that's in the form of childhood recipes, long-canceled sitcoms, coming-of-age novels, cult-classic rom-coms or old-school board games.

And while I do constantly crave my mother's cooking — she's an incredible cook — it's not something homemade I find myself reaching for when I'm feeling worn down by the news of the day. It's canned soup. Specifically, Progresso's Macaroni and Bean (Pasta E Fagioli).

The new can (left), what I eat now, and the old can (right), what I ate when I was little.TODAY

Mainly made with Great Northern beans, macaroni, celery, tomato paste and dried Parmesan cheese (plus some other not-so-sexy-sounding but standard ingredients like hydrolyzed corn protein and xanthan gum), the soup delivers a creamy, starchy umami bomb in every spoonful. For a while, I was convinced there was MSG in there because of the intensity of its umami flavor, but nope, it's just Parm.

Like most other canned soups, all you do is crack open the can, dump it in a pot and heat it up. I like to add a little extra pecorino, fresh cracked pepper and crushed red pepper on top, but that's it. Instant comfort. In terms of taste and texture, it's really nothing like the pasta e fagioli you get from Italian restaurants or your nonna — it's a lot simpler. No vegetables (aside from almost-invisible celery), no meat, no herbs. Suspended in a thick tomato broth, the beans and pasta have the same, mushy consistency — far beyond al dente.

Can you spot the celery?TODAY

But it's what my mom often used to make for me and my brother for lunch on weekends, paired with a simple salami sandwich. That is, to this day, one of my all-time favorite meals.

In March, when I had COVID-19, I lost my sense of smell and taste, and while I was thankful I didn't have more severe symptoms, I was genuinely worried I would never taste Progresso's Pasta E Fagioli again.

Thankfully, after about a month, I did end up regaining my smell and taste. And all I wanted was to eat the soup … but I couldn't find it anywhere. I could normally secure a can or two at my local supermarket in Harlem, New York, but no stores around me had it. They had other Progresso varieties — Minestrone, Chicken Noodle, New England Clam Chowder — but no Pasta E Fagioli in sight. Are people hoarding it? I asked myself. Is there a Macaroni and Bean shortage?

Luckily, my parents, who were quarantining in upstate New York, would occasionally find them at the supermarket. And when they did, they'd buy an armful of them — not all of them, they're not monsters — a couple for them, a couple for me.

I looked into it and found out that many food manufacturers, like General Mills, which owns Progresso, had been paring down their production during the pandemic to focus on making only the most popular and fastest-moving items. This, according to Bloomberg, is known as "SKU rationalization." No, people weren't hoarding Pasta E Fagioli — it just didn't make the cut.

A rare sighting by my parents of Macaroni and Bean in the soup aisle.TODAY

Chris Borges, senior brand manager of Progresso, confirmed my suspicion: "We have nearly 90 flavors of Progresso Soup. In the early, pantry stocking days of Covid, we prioritized about 50 flavors," he wrote in an email. "While our Macaroni and Bean (Pasta E Fagioli) is popular in the Northeast United States, it was not one of our priority flavors."

My favorite flavor couldn't even crack the top 50. I couldn't believe it.

Though my ego was bruised, I was happy to hear that it would be making a comeback: "However, the good news is that we are still making this flavor and anticipate it will be more widely available in the Northeast soon," said Borges. "Many of our other Progresso flavors are also being brought back."

And he told me another gratifying tidbit of information: Pasta E Fagioli was the third Progresso soup to ever be made, followed by Escarole.

"Macaroni and Bean (Pasta E Fagioli) was established as a Progresso flavor in 1955," he said. "Minestrone was first in 1949 and Lentil second in 1951."

It's one of the OGs of canned soups. Why hadn't Warhol painted it? A missed opportunity, to be sure.

I would like to live in this Leaning Tower of Pasta.TODAY

"Minestrone, Lentil, Macaroni and Bean (Pasta E Fagioli) and Escarole … were family recipes from the Uddo and Taormina families," said Borges. "These original recipes were literally 'written on the wall' next to the cooking kettles of the first Progresso plant and were less structured than our recipes are today."

Progresso, I found out, had come about as a result of the merging of two prominent Sicilian importing companies in New Orleans, Louisiana, owned by Vincent Taormina and Giuseppe Uddo. In 1925, Taormina and Uddo joined forces to create "The Uddo and Taormina Corporation," specializing in canned Italian food products like soup, olive oil, tomatoes and beans, and began selling their soups under the Progresso label in 1949, starting with Minestrone.

Would I be able to get one of those recipes "written on the wall" by the Uddos and Taorminas? Could I possibly make my own Pasta E Fagioli from scratch?

"Back then their measuring was a bit different than today," a General Mills spokesperson told me. "While I do not have the exact recipe, it would have read something like this: 2 shovels of pasta, 3 shovels of beans, etc."

I'd be OK with shovel measurements, I said. I could buy a shovel. But he really couldn't find the recipe.

"Progresso had several owners prior to us purchasing it in 2001 so unfortunately we do not have full archives on the brand," he said, adding that he would keep trying, but it was "not looking good."

I will just have to continue rationing my small supply to last me until it returns. A can of comfort a week. I have tried to make it myself using a copycat recipe, which was very solid, but in this case, store-bought is actually better than homemade (believe it, Ina).

I recognize that publishing this piece might make it harder to find, but I have hope that when it returns, like my parents, shoppers would leave at least a couple of cans behind for me.