When the history of our response to COVID-19 is written, one chapter will have to grapple with one of the most vexatious (not to say plaguesome) consequences: the disappearance from grocery store shelves of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo Soup.

Now, as desperate people make the grocery rounds searching for case lots of gumbo and supermarkets place limits – two cans in my preferred store – others ask: What’s the deal? It’s soup! Canned, bland soup!

“What is it with people buying so much chicken gumbo soup?” one puzzled fellow asked recently on a group Facebook page, and another poster immediately offered an explanation: “They never figured out a good BBQ recipe.”

You thought weeks of barren shelves that should have been stacked high with toilet paper was a sign of the end times. But the great TP fear was nothing compared to how people reacted to the absence of one particular soup label.

It’s because so many of us grew up on sloppy joes – barbecue sandwiches – with a distinctive flavor and consistency, and we have needed this familiar, reliable comfort food to get us through the pandemic.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Yes, I said us.

When I was a teenager a long time ago, a couple of barbecues from the local Dairy Queen was a major treat after a day at the swimming pool, topped off – if I had enough money – with a chocolate-covered frozen banana. A few of my high school classmates worked at the DQ, and they shared the barbecue recipe with my girlfriend, later my wife. We made a lot of DQ BBQ in the years that followed, always adding a can of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo Soup to the ground beef, onion, tomato sauce or ketchup and – another critical ingredient – a few dollops of yellow mustard. The Kegs here in Grand Forks serves a sloppy joe that comes close, and I’d be willing to bet their recipe includes gumbo.

The soup contributes something to the flavor, of course, but its primary benefit is that it contains rice and okra, both of which help to thicken the sauce.

I make it still the same way, three or four times a year, and I would have made it even more often this year – but each time I looked for chicken gumbo soup, that slot was empty. People were buying it up as if it was fine wine, grocery clerks told me, plus the people who produce soup had responded to the pandemic by shifting production to the more broadly popular varieties. They apparently didn’t anticipate the cry for gumbo.

The runs on chicken gumbo soup … uh, let me say that another way: The demand for chicken gumbo soup as a critical ingredient in barbecue has drawn much scorn and contempt, especially from BBQ snobs who prefer a meatier, molasses-sweetened Kansas City-style barbecue. “It makes your sloppy joes look like they have maggots in it,” a critic commented on one discussion thread.

But that’s if you rush the cooking and don’t give the okra and rice time to break down. I made a pot this week as I started writing this, and I gave it plenty of simmer time so the rice, okra and chopped onion disappeared into the sauce, and the mustard gave it just the right color and tangy aroma.

You think I’m exaggerating the appeal, the hunger for something so simple but true and familiar? Are you not baking more than before? Are you not facing the uncertainties of the day by pulling out old, tattered recipe books or stained, hand-written note cards, looking for something unchanged, unchanging?

On that Facebook page, a woman reported that she was at a grocery store the other day and standing in line just behind “an older gentleman” who was trying to buy six or eight cans of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo Soup. (No, not me.)

The cashier told him the limit was two cans.

He pleaded for an exception, she said. The cashier spoke to a manager, who seemed sympathetic but confirmed the hard limit.

“Can I go put these (two) in my vehicle and come back and buy two more?”

Sorry, the manager said. But no.

The woman reporting this said that she then bought two of the extra cans and gave them to the man, who was moved and grateful and offered to pay her for them. That would sort of violate the store limit, so she declined his money and wished him well, and off he went with his four cans of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo Soup.

I don’t know – she didn’t say – whether he also had ground beef, an onion, tomato sauce and mustard in his cart, but I like to think he went home and made himself a big vat of barbecue. I like to think he let it simmer and bubble and fill his home with memories.

In any event, the woman’s post got more than 200 likes, including one from me.

Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at crhaga@gmail.com.