Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Secret Soup.

I have never understood the refusal of some folk to share their recipes. I am not talking here about professional chefs, for whom the issue is their bread-and-butter, if you will pardon the pun. I am talking about ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ such as myself. Surely a request for a recipe is a compliment? To me, a refusal seems just plain mean-spirited. There are, I understand, some spectacularly mean-spirited folk who, when asked for a recipe, deliberately change or omit an ingredient. This is worse than mean - it is nasty and dishonest.

The story I am about to tell you today takes the deceit to a whole new level. It concerns an eighteenth century Shakespearian actor called James Quin (1693-1766), about whom the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1911 said:

“His personality was not gracious. His jokes were coarse; his temper irascible; his love of food, his important airs, and his capacity for deep drinking do not command respect; on the other hand, a few of his jokes were excellent, and there was no rancour in him.”

The story became an urban myth during his own lifetime, and the first telling of it was still being repeated verbatim in all sorts of publications well into the next century. From a biography published shortly after his death, this is the story:

Quin in his old age, everyone knows, became a great gourmand, and among other things, invented a composition, which he called his “Siamese Soup”, pretending that its ingredients were principally from the “East”. The peculiarity of its flavour became the topic of the day. The rage at Bath was Mr Quin's soup; but as he would not part with the recipe, this state of notice was highly inconvenient; every person taste was endeavouring to dine with him; every dinner he was at, an apology made for the absence of the soup. His female friends Quin was to put off with promises; the males a respectful but manly denial. A conspiracy was accordingly projected by a dozen bon vivans of Bath, against his peace and comfort. At home he was flooded with anonymous letters; abroad, beset with applications under every form. The possession of this secret was made a canker to all his enjoyments. At length he discovered the design, and determined on revenge. Collecting names of the principal confederates he invited them to dinner, promising to give them the recipe before they departed - an invitation as my reader will suppose, which was joyfully accepted. Quin then gave a pair his old hoots to the housemaid to scour and soak, and when sufficiently seasoned, to chop up into fine particles like minced meat. On the appointed day he took these particles and pouring them into a copper pot with sage, onions, spice, ham, wine, water, and other ingredients, composed a mixture of about two gallons, which was served up at his table as his “Siamese soup.” The company were in transports at its flavour, but Quin pleading a cold did not taste it. A pleasant evening was spent, and when the hour of departure arrived each person pulled out his tablets to write down the recipe. Quin now pretended that he had forgot making the promise but his guests were not to be put off, and closing the door they told him in plain terms that neither he nor they should quit the room till his pledge had been redeemed. Quin stammered and evaded and kept them from the point as long as possible, but when their patience was bearing down all bounds his reluctance gave way. ‘Well, then, gentlemen,’ said he, ‘in the first place take an old pair of boots -!’ ‘What! an old pair of boots!’ ‘The older the better;’ – (they stared at each other) – ‘cut off their tops and soles, and soak in a tub of water’ – (they hesitated) - ‘chop them into fine particles, and pour them into a pot with two gallons and a half of water.’ ‘Why, d—n it, Quin,’ they simultaneously exclaimed, ‘you don’t mean to say that the soup we’ve been drinking was made of old boots!’ ‘I do, gentlemen,’ he replied, ‘By G-d, my cook will assure you she chopped them up.’ They required no such attestation; his cool, inflexible expression was sufficient: in an instant, horror and despair were depicted on each countenance, in the full conviction they were individually poisoned. Quin, observing this, begged them not to be alarmed, since he could contemplate not dangerous results from their dinner; but if they thought it would sit uneasy on their stomachs, there was an apothecary’s shop in the next street. The hint was taken: an idea of personal safety subdued the rising throbs of indignation. Seizing their hats, away flew the whole bevy down the stairs, and along the street to the place advised, where ipecacuanha and other provocatives were speedily procured, and the “Siamese soup’ (and all its concomitants) were speedily disgorged.
The Life of Mr. James Quin, comedian … 1766

A joke too far? Or one of Quin’s ‘excellent’ jokes? A joke perpetrated by an ungracious man? Or a man without rancour? You decide.

The story also begs the question of course, of what was in the ‘real’ Siamese soup that made him famous, and why did the guests at this dinner, who had presumably eaten it before, not notice that it was different on the day in question? An odd sort of revenge, isn’t it - a kind of ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’ kind of revenge.

I have tried to find a recipe for a ‘Siamese soup’ that might have found its way to eighteenth century England and inspired Mr Quin, but I have been unable to do so. Eighteenth century English cookbooks contained a dearth of ‘Asian’ recipes, but by the nineteenth century, exotic food ideas were slowly creeping in. However, even the wonderful Domestic Economy, and Cookery, for Rich and Poor, (1827) with a complete chapter on Oriental Cookery has nothing from the Far East.

What to do? Give you Sham Pig, made from potatoes, from a cookbook published in the last decade of Mr Quin’s life. Methinks the comedian would have approved. And it fits nicely into the Fun with Potatoes project too.

Sham Pig
Boil and peal as many Potatoes as will be the Bulk of a little Pig, which you must take while they are hot, and beat a Quarter of a Pound of Butter in them, break six Eggs (leaving out the Whites of four) very well, and mix with the Potatoes; add to them Sugar, Nutmeg, and Salt, to your Taste; let them stand to cool, and then make it up in the Form of a roasted Pig; make a Skin to cover it of Paste as for a standing Pye; let it have Head, Ears, and Mouth in the Form of a roasted Pig; let it be set in an Oven and baked brown. Then take a little clarified Butter, and a few clean Feathers, dip their Ends in the Butter, and whisk the Pig with it, just as it is taken out of the Oven; this will make the Paste shine as a natural Pig’s Skin. For Sauce, have melted Butter, Sugar, and red Wine, then serve it up.
Professed Cookery, Ann Cook, c1760.

Quotation for the Day.

If a lump of soot falls into the soup and you cannot conveniently get it out, stir it well in and it will give the soup a French taste.
Jonathan Swift (really? Need to verify this!)


Anonymous said...

Yes, Swift did write that, but he was being sarcastic. His "Instructions for Servants" told servants to do all the things that (in his opinion) they already did, things those they served would not have wanted them to do. For instance, it advocated emptying chamber pots in full view.

Keith said...

Well it was not the first time someone ate footwear and it was not the last, but sounds as if it may have been the tastiest.
I had no idea that this was an Australian blog, good show.

Unknown said...

That's funny! Thanks for sharing :)


The Old Foodie said...

Thanks entspinster - I thought the quotation fitted the story perfectly, but I didnt have time to check it - I must read more Swift.
Le Loup: I do remember a couple of wilderness survival stories involving the eating of boots (not Australian ones however!).
Sarah - thankyou, I aim to entertain and amuse as well as intrigue and inform.