The History Of Soup

October 28th, 2010 | by Editor 

   It is somewhat difficult to trace the history of soup back through the “dark ages” of cookery which preceded the eighteenth century, and it is extremely doubtful if prior to the Renaissance the juice of meat was generally used for such a purpose. It is true that the early Italian novelists have spoken of “capon broth with flour paste,” and that tradition has told us of the black soup which was eaten by the Spartans, yet as we know that the soup of the heroes in the Iliad was nothing more than white onion broth, and that the jura and juscula described by Apicius were merely mixtures of oil, acids, spices and vegetable juices, one is inclined to believe that these boasted soups of the ancients could no more be compared to the delicious liquid foods of this day than could the hell-broth of the witches in Macbeth, with its toads, its tongues of dogs, its lips of Tartar, and its nose of Turk. (more)
   The most celebrated cooks and epicures have long been advocates of the claims of soup to be recognized, as Careme says, as the provocative agent of the good dinner, while Grimod de la Reyniere goes still further. “Soup,” he says, “is what a portico is to an edifice. It is not only the first object of attraction, but, if it is well combined, it gives a true foretaste of the temple itself, just as the overture of an opera shadows forth the subject of the work.” And while the masses may not have held such an exalted idea of the purpose of their soup, they were not tardy in recognizing its merits from an economical point of view. Oxtail soup, for example, although now regarded as a national English dish, was unknown in England prior to the abrogation of the Edict of Nantes, having been invented by the French Huguenot emigrants because of the cheapness of the little used ox tail.
   So, too, in a great degree, nearly all the soups which have come to be known as “national” are just a combination or cheap and readily available material. The Scotch mutton and barley broth, the hoche pot, the cherry soup of North Germany, the Russian tschi or cabbage soup, the sopa of Spain, or the caldo of Galatia, not to mention many others, are foods whose economical features have had much to do with their popularity, and yet it is these soups, rather than the more expensive combinations of many kinds of flesh and vegetables, which have found a place in history and literature. Where is there a reader of books, for example, who does not know the broths of Scotland, or the cuscus of the Arabs, while Théophile Gautier’s descriptions of the olla podrida and gaspacho of Spain are scarcely less familiar. To Gautier olla possessed merits that were undeniable, even though it was more of a stew than a soup, but of gaspacho he could not speak disparagingly enough.[1]
While not less “messy,” the rich and savory stew which Thackeray has done so much to immortalize will appeal more strongly to the ordinary palate:
        This Bouillabaisse a noble dish is—
            A sort of broth, or soup, or brew,
        Or hotchpotch of all kinds of fishes,
            That Greenwich never could outdo;
        Green herbs, red pepper, mussels, saffern,
            Soles, onions, garlic, roach and dace,
        All these you eat at Terre’s tavern,
            in that one dish of Bouillabaisse. (more)
   But Thackeray is not the only man of letters who has visited Marseilles and ever afterward has sung the praises of its Bouillabaisse, nor is Marseilles the only spot on earth where this delectable dish can be prepared. Of course, there are fish in the Mediterranean which cannot be found elsewhere, but the fact that other fishes may be substituted can easily be demonstrated, for it is just as possible to prepare good Bouillabaisse within the borders of the United States as it is to make Lafcadio Hearn’s gumbo herbes outside of the city of New Orleans, or the vaunted clam chowder of Rhode Island far from the waters of Narragansett Bay. To accomplish such culinary feats, however, one must exercise as much care in the selection of the recipe as in following the local methods of cookery to the letter, for otherwise it will be impossible to attain results that will in any sense prove satisfactory.
   Less difficult to prepare are the onion soups of which both history and literature make such frequent mention, for soups of which the basis is the onion have been the delight of the bravest and wisest men since the day when soup was first invented. The Homeric heroes dined well upon it, Stanislas, King of Poland, loved it so dearly that he gave it his own name, while the great Dumas spent days in the invention of an onion soup which, to his taste, surpassed all his previous efforts.
   If one is in search of new culinary sensations, he cannot do better than follow the guidance of Dumas, for no soups are more delicious than those which he has taught us to prepare. Select his mussel soup, or if time presses too closely to permit of spending five or six hours over a single dish, his onion soup, which requires but a few minutes of cooking.
   In the entire category of soups, however, there are none that to the loyal Englishman can compare to those which have made the name of Birch’s a household word. This establishment, which was opened in 1711, was long one of the most popular of London eating houses, and its spring soup, so lauded by Walker, and its mock turtle soup, for the making of which the famous Dr. Kitchener left such explicit directions, received the highest praise from “The Committee of Taste,” that company of the elite of the grand gourmands and wits of that day who met with regularity at the doctor’s table to test his recipes and pass judgment upon the merits of all new dishes.
From Current Literature (1903)
[1] “Our supper was extremely frugal; all the servants, both male and female, were gone out to dance, so that we had to content ourselves with a simple gaspacho. The gaspacho is worthy of a particular description, and we will therefore give our readers the receipt for making it—a receipt which would have caused the late Brillat Savarin’s hair to stand on end with horror. You first pour some water into a soup-tureen; to this water you then add a small quantity of vinegar, some cloves of garlic, some onions cut into quarters, some sliced cucumber, a little pimento, and a pinch of salt. You then cut some slices of bread and let them soak in this agreeable compound, which is served up cold: In France, a dog with the least pretensions to a good education would refuse to compromise himself by putting his nose into such a mixture; but it is the favourite dish of the Andalusians, and the most lovely women do not hesitate of an evening, to swallow large messes of this diabolical soup. The gaspacho is considered very refreshing, an opinion which struck us, allowing scope for some diversity of opinion; yet, strange as the mixture appears the first time you taste it, you gradually grow accustomed to it, and, ultimately, even like it. By a providential chance we had, to enable us to wash down this meagre repast, a large decanterful of excellent dry white Malaga, which we conscientiously finished to the last pearly drop, and which restored our strength, that was completely exhausted by a ride of nine hours, over the most improbable roads, and in a temperature like that of a limekiln.”
From “Wanderings in Spain” By Théophile Gautier
Read Soup And The Clouds By Charles Baudelaire.

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