The Secret to Making Soup, Historically.

Soup for the Historian’s Soul or how to make an economical dish for those who spend much time thinking of the past whilst living in the future.

Vegetables for the Soup, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin , 1732.

The cold winter weather has finally settled around us, and so too do we settle, around the fire with a hot dish of soup to keep away the chill.

Soup, or a “decoction of flesh for the table” as defined by Samuel Johnson in 1798, has long been a stable food for all classes. In the 18th century it was commonly served as an early course to a formal dinner or along with three other dishes in a more meager family meal. Part III of A Treatise of all Sorts of Foods begins with liquids, soup included, reasoning that “that we ought always to begin our Meals with liquid Foods as being thofe which are eafier of Digeftion and ftay leaft in the Stomach.”

The ease of soup on digestion is further supported in its use for fever patients & others with weak stomachs or suffering from illnesses. In fact, soups and other liquid nourishment are so common that a full 15 of the recipes Hannah Glasse gives in her chapter on “Directions for the Sick” are for broth, soup & meat “tea”. Women suffering from the puerperal fever, more commonly called child-bed fever, were encouraged to eat small, frequent quantities of “Chicken-water, or mutton-broth made weak and cleared of all its fat, beef-tea” along with other nourishing liquids, proper medication & rest. Soup could also cure that most common and dreaded aliment among sailors, scurvy. Although the idea of “a Soup of boiled Cabbage and Onions” as advised in Richard Brookes' 1765 General Practice of Physic is not the most appetizing, his promise that it would “cure an adventitious Scurvy in its firft Stage either at Land or Sea in any Part of the World befides” makes it worth adding to any sailors recipe book.

However, in the 18th century that comforting bowl of soup was not as simple as cracking open a can of Campbell’s. Not only did the home cook have to consider the types of meat or fish, vegetables and herbs to be used, but the order in which the ingredients were added to the pot and even the cooking vessel itself played an important role in the quality of the resulting dish. According to E. Taylor in The Lady’s, Housewives & Cook-maids Assistant the cook must “be careful to use pots and sauce-pans with the lids well tinned, and very clean, free from grease and sand, for fear of giving the soups a bad taste”. Clean, well maintained tools are very sage advice, even for today's modern cooks.

White Soup Bowl, Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1771.

While the process of making a soup is not particularly complicated, small changes could easily effect the final product. Elizabeth Raffald advises cooks “to lay your meat in the bottom of your pan with a good lump of butter” in order to “give the foup a very different flavour from putting water in at the firft”. She also advises that “when you make any white foup, don't put in cream till you take it off the fire,” presumable to prevent any possibility of the milk scalding while over the heat. Such subtle variations in the method could not only dramatically change the final flavor, but even change the dish from a proper soup, to a broth, gravy or “meat tea”.

Despite all the variations soups were still an economical meal, requiring few ingredients and tools. While meat, fish or foul was preferable for a good, hearty soup, they weren't the only option for those of meager means. Even the poorest of the poor could feed on bread soup, given nothing more than water, a few spices & a crust of bread, hopefully with the mold spots scraped off. They could indulge in a barley soup flavored with mace & perhaps a piece of lemon-peel. The suggested white wine in Hannah Glasse's recipe needn't be of particularly high quality, as anyone who has cooked with alcohol knows and in a pinch could easily be substituted with plain water. Such economical recipes were the saving grace for those struggling to put food on the table, or those, such as the Killuloe School in Dublin, feeding many mouths. Reports from 1800 by the Society in Dublin for Promoting the Comforts of the Poor show that 48 children could be fed a pint of soup each with the entire cost only amounting to 12d. Certainly the children were being fed the most basic, and inexpensive soup possible, but it was better than “dog's soup”.

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A Modern Historic Soup
adapted from Sarah Harrison's, The House-keeper's Pocket-book: and Compleat Family Cook, 1739.

“A Soup.
TAKE three Pints of strong Broth, fifty Balls of Forc'd-meat, a Handful of Spinage and Sorrel chop'd, and a little Salt; let it stew a little, then put in a
Loaf Loaf of French Bread cut like Dice, and toasted, and fix Ounces of Butter. Tofs it up, and serve it.”

48 oz. (1 large can) chicken broth
1 bouillon cube
12 meatballs, homemade or frozen
1 bunch of fresh spinach, coarsely chopped
1 handful of sorrel or arugula, coarsely chopped
1 loaf of French bread, cubed & toasted or 3 cups fresh croutons
salt & fresh pepper to taste

Heat the broth and bouillon together. Add the meatballs and allow to cook until done. Frozen pre-cooked meatballs only need to heat through. Add the spinach and arugula. Cover the pot just long enough for the greens to wilt. Remove from the heat. Add in the bread or croutons. Season with salt & fresh pepper Stir briefly and serve immediately.

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works cited

Brookes, Richard. General Practice of Physic. 1765
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. 1784.
Grose, Francis. Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 1796.
Harrison, Sarah. The House-keeper's Pocket-book: and Compleat Family Cook. 1739.

Johnson, Samuel. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. 1798.
Lemery, Louis. A Treatise On All Sorts of Food. 1749.
Raffald, Elizabeth. The Experienced English Housekeeper. 1786.
Society in Dublin. The first number of the Reports of the Society. 1800.
Taylor, E. The Lady’s, Housewives & Cook-maids Assistant. 1769.