Tag Archives: soup

Counter-Revolution in a Bowl

 By Christopher Hodson

Domingos Sequeira, "Sopa dos Pobres em Arroios" (1813).  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Domingos Sequeira, “Sopa dos Pobres em Arroios” (1813). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Thompson, Count von Rumford," stipple engraving by J. P. P. Rauschmayr (1797) Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count von Rumford,” stipple engraving by J. P. P. Rauschmayr (1797) Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

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.

Wastefulness and the Negative Perception of English Cookery

By Lauren R. Goldstein

Many people commonly believe that English cookery is “bad,” and that English food became bad after the Second World War. However, when did this negative perception really begin? My dissertation, “Cooking Up A Nation: Perceptions of English Cookery, 1830-1930,” shows that English cookery was perceived poorly beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. It demonstrates that criticizing their own cookery was a part of the English defining themselves, rather than something determined by visitors to England post-1945. Many factors contributed to the negative image of English cookery, including food adulteration, food innovations and new technologies, and industrialization and urbanization. This post will focus on the role moral values played in creating a poor perception of English cookery.

Punch image
“Punch’s Stomachology,” Punch, date unknown

Today, we usually judge food by how it tastes, criticizing a dish for its flavour, or lack thereof. However, in the nineteenth century, English cookery was regularly judged by its ability to conform to the emerging Victorian values of cleanliness, economy, and efficiency. As the 1854 cookbook The Art of Good and Cheap Cookery stated, “Good Cookery—is not simply a matter of taste and relish (though that is very important,) but that it is a matter of health and strength, and of real economy” (p. 6).[1] “Good” cookery was the practical application of good character and proper morals and led to the creation of a happy home. Wasteful cookery, as English cookery was perceived to be, was therefore the opposite—it was not clean, it was not thrifty, and it led to unhappy existence.

In the eighteenth century, roast beef became known as England’s “national dish.” The act of roasting was considered specific to the English, and demonstrated the high quality of English beef because only the finest cuts of meat could be properly roasted. At this time, the English perceived their cookery to be honest and considered French cookery to be expensive and pretentious. By the nineteenth century, the national dish of roast beef was considered part of an English national identity, defining the English as “meat eaters.” However, roast beef was no longer celebrated for its plainness. Wastefulness was something food writers frequently noted as one of the core problems with English cookery. Food writers criticized the English for continuing the tradition of eating large joints of meat, such as roast beef, claiming that the national dish conflicted with the need to be frugal and cook efficiently. Large cuts of meat were considered wasteful because they used a lot of fuel and families were accused of buying too much. Serving leftover cold meat all week led to dietary tedium and monotony, another perceived problem with English cookery, and often the leftovers were thrown out, furthering the idea that the English were wasteful. One article from 1873 claimed that the persistence of serving roast beef and mutton was “the fundamental blunder” of English cooking (The Leeds Mercury, 1873).[2]

The critics of English cookery were often contradictory in their comments—serving leftovers was an example of being economical, and yet, the English were accused of becoming bored with them and throwing them out. In the mid-nineteenth century, the English also championed French cookery, especially the national dish of pot-au-feu. In the eighteenth century, food writers had criticized the French, but in the nineteenth century, French cookery was frequently noted as the cuisine from which the English should learn. Catherine M. Buckton, author of the school board cookbook Food and Home Cookery (1879) stated that the French were the “best and most economical cooks in the world,” while the English were “the most wasteful and worst cooks” (p. 31-32). Soup was the highlight of French cookery, and it was repeatedly recommended as the dish to save English cookery—it was considered economical and nutritious. But, an Englishman was not considered to be “a soup-eating animal” (The Pall Mall Gazette, 1881).[3] By the end of the nineteenth century, English cookery’s reputation had been criticized for half a century and its negative perception was set. As an 1893 article in Reynold’s Newspaper declared, “English cookery has become a word of reproach throughout the world, not only on account of its heaviness and want of variety, but in consequence of its great wastefulness.”[4] Taste was not the issue for nineteenth century critics of English cookery—waste was.

[1] Editors of the Family Economist, The Art of Good and Cheap Cookery for the Working Classes, (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1854), 6.

[2] “Literature,” The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, Feb 13, 1873.

[3] “The Cupboard Papers,” The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, July 12, 1881.

[4] “The Democratic World,” Reynold’s Newspaper, Feb 12, 1893.


What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russia

By Carolyn Pouncy

Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
(Wiki Images)

There is a Russian proverb, well known among historians of the prerevolutionary years and especially of the peasantry—“Cabbage soup and kasha are our food.” It sounds better in Russian, where it rhymes: Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha. But in either language, it conveys a basic truth about Russian life—probably even today, but certainly in the past, when the range of foods was so much narrower and abject poverty more widespread than they are now. The great dishes of Russian cuisine, the Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff, are not only relatively recent inventions but creations developed for the 19th-century elite. Such foods never formed part of most people’s diet.

So it is both amusing and a bit sad to turn to Domostroi, the 16th-century book on domestic management (the name means, literally, House Structure or House Order), and read its prescribed meals for servants:

“As everyday food servants receive rye bread, cabbage soup, and thin kasha with ham. Sometimes they may have thick kasha with lard. This is what most people give their servants for dinner, although they vary the menu according to which meat is available. On Sundays and holy days servants sometimes get turnovers [pirozhki—small pies stuffed with a mixture of meat or vegetables, cooked grains, and eggs], jellies, pancakes, or other, similar food. At supper they eat cabbage soup and milk or kasha.”

Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
(Wiki Images)

These prescriptions were for meat days. On the many fast days that dotted the Orthodox calendar, the cabbage soup and kasha continued to appear, with fish or vegetables rather than meat, “sometimes with broth, peas, or turnip soup.” Fish soup, pease porridge, pickles, and oatmeal were also considered suitable. On ordinary days, feast or fast, servants drank “second-grade beer,” upgraded on Sundays and holidays to ale. Those who served at table, together with children and poor relations of the family, did better, since they were permitted to share in the leftovers of the much more elaborate dishes served to the master and mistress of the house. Seamstresses and embroiderers, as well as visiting tradesmen, might be permitted to eat with the master and mistress. This expressed high appreciation indeed, treating these skilled craftspeople and merchants as subordinate members of the family. It also guaranteed them a good meal.

From a modern perspective, it all sounds rather grim and regimented. It’s easy to imagine staring at yet another bowl of cabbage soup, made from sauerkraut in winter, and silently grumbling—as my heroine Nasan does in The Golden Lynx—that if someone cut her open, they would find her green and curly inside. (Nasan is a Tatar, and a khan’s daughter at that, accustomed to somewhat different fare.)

But the real question historians must ask about the instructions in Domostroi is whether anyone followed them. Domestic servants in 16th-century Russia were, almost without exception, full, hereditary slaves; the mere acceptance of a position in household service equated, in the eyes of the law, with selling oneself. Slavery functioned as a kind of social welfare, and those who purchased domestic servants implicitly took responsibility for their maintenance.

Even so, most slaves did not live in the compounds where they worked but supported themselves in whatever miserable lodging they could afford on the basis of a meager allowance, out of which they were also supposed to supply their own food, drink, and clothing. Some resorted to robbery and murder to make ends meet. Most of them would have rejoiced at the thought of two full meals a day, with beer or ale and meat several times a week. Through the early 20th century, many peasants and members of the urban poor would have agreed that such a situation constituted pure, unadulterated bliss.

Sometimes cabbage soup and kasha, delivered regularly and on time, doesn’t look so bad after all.

Text quoted from Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 161–62 (chapter 51, “Instruction from a Master to His Steward on How to Feed the Family in Feast and Fast”).

Beer soup: The Breakfast of Early Modern Rulers

By Molly Taylor-Poleskey

As a young ruler, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia began each morning with a beer soup. He then dutifully locked himself away and attended to the day’s business until the midday meal.

This simple anecdote is recounted by almost every biographer of Friedrich Wilhelm. I was intrigued by the historiographic implications of this (what did biographers think it reflected about the ruler that he consumed this rather modest fare?). Beyond this, though, I became curious: what actually was beer soup? And, what it might have been like to start every day with it?

Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877
Engraving from title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877

Although foreign to contemporary German cuisine, beer soup was very common in central Europe in the medieval and early modern period. As such common fare, it had a wide number of permutations. The most basic definition of beer soup is a “soup of brown (probably dark) beer, cream, fat and flour or egg yolk.”[1]  Various other recipes called for slightly different ingredients (such as costly spices), or onions and cheese to make a more substantial soup to accompany a roast.

After reading about various beer soups in early modern cookbooks, though, I still could not wrap my head around what a beer soup was. So, there was only one thing to do: perform “experiential research” and try beer soup for myself.

The Experiment

Somewhat surprisingly, my friends Steve and Noria enthusiastically agreed to join the experience. We gathered at my apartment one Saturday afternoon (we couldn’t bring ourselves to perform the experiment first thing in the morning) and decided to attempt two versions of the recipe. We selected the recipes for their clarity and because they used a representative mix of commonly-mentioned ingredients.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first recipe was inspired by a recipe in an eighteenth-century encyclopedia for “a really good beer soup.”[2] We translated it thus:

  • 1 Bottle of dark beer
  • Sweet cream
  • Three egg yolks[3]
  • Mace
  • 3 ½ Tbs. Butter[4]
  • Raisins[5]

Thoroughly stir mixture, boil it and serve with toast.

“a really good beer soup”
“a really good beer soup”

The result? “Repulsive,” said Steve, “I don’t want to eat it anymore.” I had to agree, the egg-drop soup consistency combined with the taste of day-old beer was nauseating. Noria had a more descriptive response: “it’s weird that it tastes sweet; I would have never guessed it since it smells like feet.” The toast was unquestionably the highlight of that attempt.

Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise
Modern taster, Noria, thinks otherwise

The second attempt was, thankfully, slightly more palatable. For this, we used the following recipe from the 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt’s cookbook:

  • 1 Bottle of white beer (we used Erdinger Weißbier)
  • Cloves
  • 3 ½ Tbs. butter
  • 2 slices of rye bread cut into small chunks
  • Salt to taste

Combine beer, cloves and butter. Heat in a pot, but don’t let it boil. When it’s ready, add bread and salt and this makes a tasty soup. [6]

Although this attempt was not completely successful, we all agreed that it was much better than the first. Perhaps with fewer cloves and less salt, it was conceivable that someone (other than us) might enjoy this soup.


Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.
Title page of 1604 edition of Marx Rumpolt cookbook. Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id313700877.

In following these recipes, I did not presume to recreate the experience of an early modern diner. The gulf between our palates, ingredients, cooking tools and methods is just too wide. But there’s no doubt that the exercise helped me realize some things about the habits and tastes of the people I study. For example, beer soup was more a hearty drink than a soup that might constitute a meal. This fits with the description of daily habits from an early eighteenth-century court advice manual, which described beer and bread for Früh=Trunk, or “early drink” (instead of using the word for breakfast, Frühstück). The records of daily food distribution at the Berlin residence also only refer to two meals: the midday and evening meals. The elector’s beer soup, then, was more likely meant as a restorative broth. Other absolutist rulers, such as King Charles II of England, are known to have drunk such a restorative during their morning levée when they were ceremoniously washed and dressed.

The practical application of the recipes made me pay much closer attention to the details of the instructions than if had I just read them. I could not follow the author’s instructions to the letter. In the end, I had to make decisions about what modern ingredients to substitute for early modern ones, such as whipping cream with sugar for sweet cream. Most likely, my Calphalon pot over an electric burner also produced different results than an iron kettle or a raised hearth.

But, even Rumpolt allowed some room for improvisation: “each cook prepares food as he pleases … in my opinion, there are no absolute rules in cooking, otherwise it would be impossible.”[7]

[1] Sabine Bunsmann-Hopf, Zur Sprache in Kochbüchern des späten mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit-ein fachkundliches Wörterbuch. (Würzburg: Verlag Koenigshausen & Neumann GmbH, 2003), 29.

[2] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Bier=suppe.” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie Oder Allgemeines System Der Staats- Stadt- Haus- Und Landwirthschaft, 1773, http://kruenitz1.uni-trier.de/.

[3] Presumably the egg whites would have been turned to more elegant purposes elsewhere in the early modern kitchen.

[4] Measurement taken from a beer soup recipe at the website: www.how-to-live-like-a-German.com

[5] We only had dried cranberries on hand—a New World food that only entered German cuisine in the 21st century!

[6] Nimb weiß Bier/ thu Kümmel und Butter darein/ laß nur damit warm werden/ und nicht affusieden/ und wenn du es wilt anrichten/ so schneidt Ruckenbrot darunten/ unnd salz es/ so is ein wolgeschmackte Biersuppen. Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch (Franckfurt am Mayn: Fischer, 1604), 164.

[7] “ein jeder Koch seine art und weise/ eine Speise seines gefallens zubereiten … Ist auch meine meynung ganz und gar nicht/ gewisse Regeln un Praecepta/ nach welchen sich einer/ der kochen wil lernen/ eben richten solte un müßte/ als wer es sonst unmüglich kochen …” Rumpolt, Marx, Ein new Kochbuch, 63.