Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Habitant Pea Soup

Growing up in Burlington in a large French Canadian family, there were always several cans of Habitant pea soup in the kitchen cabinet. If chicken soup is the Jewish penicillin, French Canadian pea soup is the nearest equivalent for those with a Quebecois background.

Several things set it apart, first and foremost, unlike their monolithic rival Campbell’s Soups, you did not add water to Habitant. That was their proudest boast, that the soup was not condensed, it went into the can and then into the mouth exactly as it had been cooked. The other thing that set it apart was that the recipe called for yellow peas, not the green variety everyone was familiar with. In fact, after being raised on this stuff, I thought it was really strange, almost disgusting when I was first exposed to green pea soup.

The soup started in Montreal at the grocery store of the Morin family. The can says “since 1918”, so we’ll go with that. The Morins started a small plant to pack jams and pickles and one day they decided to try canning the pea soup that Mrs. Morin had been making for years for her 15 children. One of her daughters, Marie-Blanche cooked the first batch of pea soup canned as Habitant, using the old family recipe consisting of yellow peas, pork fat and savory spices. The first batch was given away and people who tried it ordered more. As sales grew Habitant incorporated as Dominion Preserving Ltd. The old Montreal plant still stands, now luxury condos.

In 1938 Habitant opened a plant in an old mill building in heavily French Canadian Manchester, New Hampshire. Since the U.S. was the biggest market, particularly the northeast, it made sense logistically to have a plant south of the border. Gilles Morin, son of the company founder, moved to Manchester to run the plant. He is seen in the photo posing with two cans of the pea soup in 1978. While the plant produced many other varieties of soup, the famous pea soup accounted for 70% of their sales. At its peak the plant was churning out 80,000 cans per day.

Campbell’s tried to get a piece of the action by test marketing a condensed version of French Canadian pea soup in Providence, Rochester and Manchester. It flopped. Snow’s, well known for their clam chowder also tried out their version of the soup called “Alouette”. It met the same fate as the Campbell’s version. As Gilles Morin said “we had very loyal customers”.

In 1968 Habitant was acquired by Montreal firm Catelli, which became Catelli-Habitant. Over the years you could see the decline in the product. In earlier times the thick soup would contain lots of whole peas, but toward the end of their run you would find maybe two or three peas in a large can. The label still showed lots of peas as you can see in the images of the familiar yellow can. And the soup was not as thick as in the past. The decline in quality and changing tastes led to the closure of the Manchester plant in 1983. The soup is still made and sold in Canada, and the brand has been purchased by their former arch rival Campbell’s.

It can still be had via Amazon, but it will cost you. Three 28 ounce cans go for $25.50.