Last year, Lipton sold 58 million individual packets of its onion-flavored soup and dip mix. Even when you factor its usage in the occasional meat or side dish, that’s a lot of dip. Makes you wonder if this onion dip—whose quality may be more reliant on nostalgia than, say, its own merit—were invented today, would it still be as popular? Or is it the beneficiary of a set of Gladwellian circumstances that are arguably impossible to replicate today?
It’s hard to imagine a series of events as fortuitous as those afforded to Lipton and its onion dip.
In 1954, two years after Lipton's dehydrated soup mix was introduced, someone (their identity remains unknown) created the onion soup and sour cream combo. “Because it was called California Dip very frequently in its early days, we believe it was a homemaker in California, but that's as much as we know,” said Brian Critz, a marketing director at Unilever, the parent company of Lipton.
Lipton’s wasn’t the first California Dip, however. Earlier recipes combined cream cheese and Roquefort with California Sauterne wine, mayonnaise, salt, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, and garlic salt. But with just two ingredients, the 1954 recipe was four times easier than its cheesy counterpart. And in the postwar glow of the 1950s, convenience trumped identity theft.
The new California dip was a crowd pleaser, a party staple, and a status symbol served on a silver platter. As Jean Anderson recounts in The American Century Cookbook, “Word of the new dip spread through Los Angeles faster than a canyon fire, newspapers printed the recipe, onion soup mix sales soared, and Lipton executives, a continent away in New Jersey, were ecstatic.”
What happened next should surprise no one.
Lipton mounted a massive promotional campaign starring California Dip. They sponsored Arthur Godfrey’s popular Talent Scouts radio and television program, a showcase for new stars like Tony Bennett and Patsy Cline. (Elvis Presley was famously passed over to appear on the broadcast.) Godfrey, the show’s host, participated in the commercials, delivering his own memorable performances. It was so effective, news outlets referred to the product as “the Arthur Godfrey Dip,” or the unofficial Americone Dream. (Archives of AGTS are extremely rare. Neither CBS nor Lipton could find a dip clip, but please enjoy his four-minute soup soliloquy in its place.)
Beyond TV and radio, the company ran colorful spreads in newspapers and magazines, distributed handing cards to retailers, created cookbooks, and, beginning in 1958—after tracking down the recipe and perfecting it—they printed it on every box, where it remains alongside the second and third most popular recipes.
It was the first time Lipton had used its product as an ingredient, and the success fueled spinoffs. Recipes for Shrimp California Dip, Vegetable California Dip, California Dip Deviled Eggs and, in an entirely 60s interpretation of “some foreign intrigue,” Lipton California Dip Hindustani, Lipton California Dip à la Grecque, Lipton California Dip Mexicano, and Lipton California Dip à la Russe flooded the party scene. More dip-inspired recipes fit for a jetsetting crowd included Acapulco Quesadillas, Spaghetti Bravissimo, Pago Pago Tidbits, and Delish-Kebabs.
Surprisingly, references to the “French” faction of onion dip by Lipton were rare. In the December 1959 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, an advert for the brand’s soup mix ran with the headline: “Only from LIPTON ... a classic French onion soup that makes gala party dips too!” The most French-related dishes I could find were a recipe for Lipton Fondue America, which—for those who are curious—combines Lipton Onion Soup Mix with four cups of tomato juice, four teaspoons lemon juice, and one pound of American cheese, shredded, as well as a French-Style Pot Roast, which is very similar to the Old-Fashioned Pot Roast, just with wine.
When I asked Critz about the “French” part of the dip, he reaffirmed that Lipton calls the dip by two names. Neither one has French in it.
California Dip copycats and co-conspirators multiplied. But they astutely went with the more descriptive and, arguably fancier sounding, “French Onion Dip” for their respective products. Sour cream, which is said to have been popularized by Lipton California Dip, also got in on the action. But, according to Critz, “there are not a lot around anymore,” which is a result of consolidation as much as competition.
Still, if there were such a thing as a (French) Onion Dip Renaissance, we would be in it. Restaurants across the country and in N.Y.C. are balancing nostalgia with vision. “We wanted to bring back dishes that people have fond memories of and showcase them with the highest quality ingredients and impeccable execution,” said Jarrod Huth, chef de cuisine at TAK Room.
Further downtown, Tom Colicchio’s Temple Court serves their version of carmelized onion dip—a delightful combination of caramelized onions, garlic confit, crème fraiche, hot sauce, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, garnished with espelette pepper, chives, and fried shallots. According to Director of Culinary Operations Bryan Hunt, it’s the most popular item on the menu. (Also, Tom loves potato chips.)
Still, it’s a long way off from what Critz called “the number one brand in that space and America's favorite by far.” In fact, Lipton’s Classic Onion Dip doesn’t need to do much, if any, marketing.
“I think the main arguments about why this rose to popularity would be political and social,” explains Adrienne Bitar, postdoctoral associate in history at Cornell University and author of Diet and the Disease of Civilization. Following WWII, in an effort to expand civilian consumption of dehydrated foods (an industry that ballooned during the war), the government discovered a real winner. Consumers “were much more eager to embrace dehydrated soups than they were other dehydrated products.”
Coincidingly, as Bitar points out, the rise of the middle class and “the idea that you would have an elite dip that you would show off to your friends at nice dinner parties in Levittown just kind of fits in with the larger story.”