Fit to a 'Tea'

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Lipton's onion soup mix perfect for its purpose

By Greg Summers

Sir Thomas Lipton had been dead for almost 20 years when a dry onion soup mix bearing his name hit the markets.

But just like the tea business he had perfected, it was an instant success, especially among the working class the Scottish-born entrepreneur dearly loved.

A marketing genius, a 17-year-old Lipton came to the United States from Scotland in 1864, just as the Civil War was ending, said Michael D’Antonio, author of “A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton’s Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America’s Cup.” 

At the time, Lipton had $8 in his pockets. 

For the next four years Lipton traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and the Mississippi River chasing odd jobs. He worked in South Carolina rice fields, as a street car conductor in New Orleans, as a plantation bookkeeper and as a Charleston firefighter.

But no matter what he did for a living, Lipton was a keen observer of human behavior.

“He learned that it was far better to scrub your little store, brighten up the lights and display goods with flair, rather that try to hide the flaws and pass it off as first-rate goods,” D’Antonio said in a recent NPR interview. 

Lipton returned to Glasgow in 1870 and shared what he had learned with his parents, who ran a small market. 

However, Lipton’s father wasn’t interested in his son’s marketing strategy. 

So after working for his parents for about a year, Lipton struck out on his own and opened his own market.  

By combining what he had learned with a bit of P.T. Barnum showmanship, that market became an instant hit in his working- class neighborhood. 

Lipton even invested in gas lights, which made his market stand out, especially on those Glasgow days when dusk fell a little after 2 p.m. 

D’Antonio said Lipton paid fat men to carry signs that read “I just came from Lipton’s Market” and skinny men to carry signs reading “I’m headed for Lipton’s Market” and advertised pig parades to draw customers. 

“He had fun,” D’Antonio said of Lipton. “He put concave and convex mirror outside his store so you could look at yourself as a fat man or a skinny man.”

With his knack for marketing, Lipton was a millionaire by the age of 30. By 1888, his grocery empire had grown to 300 stores.

Branching out

Lipton’s exceptional business sense was about to pay off again. 

With the average Brit drinking more than 35 gallons of tea annually, Lipton decided to get into the tea business.

However, at the time, tea was a very unreliable and inconsistent commodity. 

D’Antonio said questionable tea merchants sold spoiled tea to the working class. They also collected used tea from restaurants, mixed it with fresh tea and repackaged it.

By becoming a “tea middle man, ” Lipton bypassed the unscrupulous merchants to make sure that consumers could get what they were paying for. Lipton also bypassed the traditional trading channels by buying his own tea plantations in Ceylon to assure the consistent quality of his product, which led to his “direct from the tea garden to the tea pot” motto.   

“He priced it at about 50 percent of the normal market cost, which made it a tremendous hit,” D’Antonio said.       

Lipton returned to the United States in 1893 and established a tea packing company in New Jersey to take advantage of the temperance movement. And just like in the U.K., his products became an instant hit. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1898 at the age of 48.

Another runaway hit

By the mid-1920s, it was estimated that Lipton was the leading tea producer in the world. His Lipton Teas had more than 50 percent of the international market.  

After Lipton died in 1931, the international conglomerate he founded expanded into the soup business during the Great Depression when the tea market begin to wane.

Modeled after portable soups eaten by explorers, sailors, soldiers and travelers for hundreds of years, Lipton’s dry soups were a simple way to serve nourishing meals at a low cost when standard recipes weren’t possible or economical. All it took was a little hot water.

The dried soups market really bloomed in the early 1940s when companies promoted it to busy, “Rosie the Riveter” housewives, who were working in American factories to help with the war effort. The marketing hooks were convenience, economics and versatility since mixes could be used to create sauces for time-consuming casseroles and gravies.

Packaged in envelopes, dried soups also eliminated the need for metal cans. 

After hitting the market in 1952, Lipton’s onion soup mix took on a life of its own, when a California housewife combined an envelope of it with sour cream. 

According to “The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century” by Jean Anderson, word of California Dip spread like wildfire through the Los Angeles area.

Anderson said after newspapers printed the recipe, dried onion soup mix sales soared. The national stir drew the attention of Lipton Soup Co. executives who tracked down the recipe, perfected it and started printing it on every box of Lipton Onion Soup Mix in 1958.

Because of its versatility and simplicity, cooks not only started using the soup mix as a dip ingredient, but in other recipes as well, and still do, which is proved by these three recipes.

Royal Round Steak has a creamy taste and rich flavor. At our house, three-ingredient Twice-Baked Oven Onion Potatoes have been awarded the Betty Jo Seal of Approval. As versatile as the soup mix it’s made from, this side dish goes well with pinto beans and cornbread or something hot off the grill.

Real Thing Pot Roast is sure to become a Sunday favorite, but sharing the secret ingredient is up to you. Unless you tell them, your dinner guests will never figure it out.


Royal Round Steak 



1 to 2 pounds round steak or stew beef

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 envelope (1 ounce) dry onion soup mix

2 cans (10.75 ounce) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted

Hot cooked egg noodles

Chopped fresh parsley, optional



– Trim round steak and cut into cubes (partially freeze meat for easy cutting).

– Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown meat on all sides.

– Combine dry soup mix and canned soups in mixing bowl. Pour mixture into slow cooker. Add browned meat. Cover and cook on high for six to seven hours.

– To serve, spoon over egg noodles. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.


– Recipe from Crock Pot


Twice-Baked Oven Onion Potatoes 



2 pounds red potatoes, cut into cubes

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 envelope onion soup mix



– Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

– Combine potatoes, olive oil and soup mix in a large plastic bag; shake until potatoes are well coated. 

– Empty potatoes into an ungreased glass baking dish. Cover baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer or until potatoes are tender. Switch oven to broiler and let potatoes simmer uncovered, until golden brown, about five minutes.


– Recipe from Greg Summers


Real Thing Pot Roast 



1 beef sirloin roast (3 to 4 pounds)

3 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 (.75 ounce) packet dry brown gravy mix

2 tablespoons water

1 (1 ounce) package dry onion soup mix

1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup

1 (12-ounce) can Coca-Cola 



– Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

– Place meat in a roasting pan. Sprinkle carrots, celery and minced garlic around roast.

– In a small bowl, combine the brown gravy mix and water, mixing into a smooth paste. Add onion soup mix, cream of mushroom soup and Coca Cola. Pour over the roast.

– Cover pan and bake 1 hour.

– Reduce oven temperature to 225 degrees and continue cooking two more hours. Remove from oven, and turn roast over so that the top is now covered with the gravy. Cover pan, and return to oven for a minimum of two hours.

– Remove from oven, and let meat rest for 10 minutes before slicing.


–  Recipe adapted by Greg Summers from allrecipes.com