To be sure, it’s just a soup recipe.
In 1813 or 1814, somewhere in Hertfordshire, England, an anonymous local wrote out “Count Rumford’s receipt for making a cheap soup as much as will feed sixteen or twenty people,” adding his own tips on proper preparation and service. Its base consisted of four pounds of potatoes and one pound of either barley meal, peas, or rice, simmered long and low and flavored with a little boiled bacon, salt pork, or herring. Doubtless protesting too much, the writer assured readers that the soup would be “perfectly savoury” if ladled over a few wheaten bread bits fried in salt butter or beef drippings. In any case, the final product’s defining trait was not flavor but heft; when chilled, the copyist explained, the soup would resemble a “very strong jelly…weighing near twenty pounds.” Cooking so much at once was key, he concluded, as doing so kept fuel expenses down to a mere ten pence per batch.
Since coming across this recipe in the Hertfordshire Archives last year, I’ve thought many times about making it, only to be halted by a mind-flash of David Foster Wallace’s indelible description of cruise-ship caviar: “blucky.” And yet, blucky though it may have been, this particular soup was ubiquitous. Indeed, during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, long before Starbucks, McDonalds, or the pre-packaged, mass-produced bounty of the Kroger canned goods aisle, a person could get a bowl of it in London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Munich, several cities in the United States, and many places in between. There was only one catch: you had to be too poor to pay for it.
Our man in Hertfordshire had, he freely admitted, cribbed the recipe from Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire. Among the best known social reformers of his age, the count was in fact Benjamin Thompson, a Massachusetts-born loyalist who, while splitting time between England and Germany, managed to become one of the best-known scientists and social reformers of his day. Backed by the elector of Bavaria (who, in gratitude for his services, gave Thompson his noble title) and based in a disused Munich manufactory, Rumford experimented with and wrote about food throughout the 1790s. For him, soup was the technical solution to the vexing problem of feeding the poor – it was, he argued, a kind of nutritional battery that stored energy from fuel and transferred it to human beings more economically and efficiently than any other form of food.
People far and wide read, and agreed. In 1804, the Real Sociedad Matritense de Amigos del Pais opened five “soup houses” in Madrid’s poorest neighborhoods, with more in the works: in 1812, Napoléon Bonaparte himself ordered a free, daily distribution of two million servings of “so-called Rumford soup” to French citizens suffering through a severe economic downturn. Even Rumford’s old countrymen took note. “The economic soups are well-known, and the name of Count Rumford is immortal,” blared the Salem Register to its Massachusetts readers in 1803.
In an important sense, then, the recipe I saw in Hertfordshire was but one part of a trans-Atlantic conversation about the great, pressing problem of the early nineteenth century: how to ensure order in an age of participatory politics, social upheaval, and harvest-disrupting warfare. The economics of producing and consuming food loomed large as revolutionaries and post-revolutionaries – from Toussaint Louverture to Gracchus Babeuf to Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Malthus – proposed solutions which involved re-envisioning the distribution and disposition of land or curbing consumption and reproduction to foster stable new régimes.
Long before Marx, however, Rumford advanced soup as the opiate of the masses; or, taking a wider view of his work on heat, he put the “therm” in “Every revolution has its Thermidor.” That is, as he straddled the American and French revolutions, Rumford tried to forestall further revolutions by training his Atlantic Enlightenment on the humble soup kitchen – a maneuver that resonated with a generation puzzling over the problem of order. So, while it is just a soup recipe (and possibly a blucky one at that), Rumford’s particular soup can, I think, serve as a point of entry to another origin story. Indeed, the results of his research, including not just soup but the drip coffee pot, the stove-top range, and the much-celebrated Rumford fireplace, hint at the beginnings of the great, enduring bargain of post-revolutionary modernity that continues to inform our politics – order in exchange for cheap foods and consumer goods that provide nourishment, comfort, and distraction.
Christopher Hodson is associate professor in the Department of History at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. He is the author of The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History (Oxford, 2012) and is completing, along with his co-author Brett Rushforth, a history of France and the Atlantic World from the Crusades to the Age of Revolution. He hopes to begin work on a cultural biography of Benjamin Thompson (better known as Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire) in short order. He is, for the record, pro-soup.