Thursday, September 05, 2013

Charles Dickens on ‘The Soup Question.’

I have a rather lengthy post for you today, my friends. It is from the great storyteller, Charles Dickens., and it appeared in All the Year Round, Volume 9, published in 1863.  

[EDIT: I have been reminded that Charles Dickens did not himself write all of the material for this  magazine, so my assumption that he was the author of this particular piece may well be incorrect. I will post another correction if and when I can clarify.]

I don’t know why I did not come across this while I was researching Soup: A Global History, but I am delighted to have done so now – and the bonus is that the article includes recipes, or at least recipe ideas.

We eat and drink at once when we take soup; that is to say, we supply at once the daily waste of solids and of fluids. Eating and drinking are two names for the one act of feeding. Soup is above the arbitrary distinction between food that is thin and food that is thick. We drink water, we eat porridge. But soup we eat, and soup we drink, soup we take, and soup we have. It is the greater that contains the less. Soup contains all sorts of meat, soup contains also vegetables of every kind, soup contains pepper and salt and all condiments, soup contains water, and soup often contains wine. Soup is meat and a great deal more, vegetables and a great deal more, the refreshing draught and a great deal more; at once the whet and satisfaction to the appetite. It is the elixir of life, rich creative essence of man's flesh and blood. Always upon condition that it be good soup.
Good catholic victual should contain not merely one or two of the constituents of solid humanity, but as nearly as possible all of them, many as they are, and soup can do that. Let the chemist whisper to the cook, and every element of man's substantial life can be provided in this palatable brew, that has the very name of deglutition given to it, as a thing not to be conceived apart from the enjoyment of it, as that which we sup or swallow. In Wiclif's Bible, death is said to be not swallowed, but souped or supen up in victory.
But some of the old Germans, like Geheimrath Hofmann of Halle, saw with regret the soup-eating of their countrymen. Soup, they said - warm soup - is expanded with hot air, it distends the stomach, it dilutes the gastric juice. If you must eat soup, take it for supper, but don't fill your stomach with it, and then drop into it salt meat, tough relishes, sauerkraut, and over-baked solids. Soup has possession of the stomach, and soup cannot digest them. Nonsense, said the German householder, who took his couple of plates of soup as preface to a savoury substantial dinner. Nonsense, look at the French, how they make everything into soups, and flourish thereupon. Ah, yes, replied the warning doctors; look at the French, indeed; but they almost live on their soups, and have accordingly soup-eating stomachs. They don't want such masses of hard stimulating food as we hungry Germans do, and French gastric juice isn't equal to the digestion of such victuals. Once soup-eaters, always soup-eaters. The elderly Frenchman who should put a pound of German sausage into his stomach, would have to go down with it into his grave, unless it were extricated by an operation. Avoid soup, ye full blooded, said, also, the German Geheimrath, for it makes rich blood very fast, and you'll soon have excess of it. German gastric juice is very good and strong, and it wants something tough and hard at mid-day, to occupy it well, and keep it out of mischief. That is the true theory of sauerkraut and sausage. Without some such inward bolstering, every man would be devoured by his own stomach in course of time. The Germau people would disappear, and there would remain covering the ground, like leeches in a tropical forest, millions of hungry stomachs gaping for their food. , The Geheimrath Hofmann recommended tough hard meat for dinner, and a lump of butter sent after it to grease its passage out of the stomach, when the strong German gastric juice had settled with it. Something to that effect is the old theory of butter after dinner, but the theory of after-dinner cheese is wholly different. The practice of cheese after dinner began in the opinion that cheese stopped at the entrance of the stomach. The final piece of cheese was the stopper put into the retort while its contents were undergoing an alchemical digestion and change.
But what soups can they make who add borage and chickory to chicken broth, make a beer soup of powdered bread and beer with cumin-seeds, a couple of eggs, and a bit of butter, or of beer and milk equally mixed with yolk of egg and butter? Who make a soup stock of meal fried brown in butter, who make soup with help of butter and egg, with water, milk, or buttermilk, out of green grapes, grated cheese, or parsley-roots? Two or three eggs, a bit of butter, and an onion, with plenty of hot water, will make a family soup over which many a German peasant has said grace with true thanksgiving before cutting his bread into it, and accounting himself well fed. The ingenious Count Rutnford—so true to principles that he wore in winter a white hat and white coat to economise the heat of his person by saving the difference of radiation between white and black— tells us, in his essay on Food, that after an experience of more than five years in feeding the poor at Munich, during which time every experiment was made that could be devised, in choice of articles and in their combinations and proportions, it was found that the cheapest, most savoury, and most nourishing food that could be procured, was a soup composed of pearl barley, peas, potatoes, cuttings of fine wheaten bread, vinegar, salt, and water in certain proportions, 'lhe pearl bailey was first boiled in the water, then the peas were added, and the boiling continued over a gentle fire for about two hours; then the peeled potatoes were added, and the boiling went on for another hour, with frequent stirring to reduce the mixture to one uniform pulp; vinegar and salt were added last, and the mixture was then, immediately before being served, poured on the cuttings of bread. The bread used at Munich was the stale unsaleable bread given by the bakers. The staler, the better, it was found. For, staleness makes some mastication necessary, and mastication seems very powerfully to assist in the promoting of digestion. It likewise prolongs the enjoyment of eating—a matter in itself of great importance. The allowance of such soup to each person, bread included, was about a pound and a quarter, and this proved to be a sufficient meal for a healthy person, though it contained only six ounces of solid matter. Even from this the potatoes might be omitted, leaving less than live ounces of solid, but the barley was, of all its ingredients, the most essential. "No substitute," says the philosopher, "that I could ever find for it among all the varieties of corn and pulse of the growth of Europe, ever produced half the effect; that is to say, half the nourishment at the same expense. Barley may, therefore, be considered as the rice of Great Britain. It requires, it is true, a great deal of boiling; but when it is properly managed, it thickens a vast quantity of water, and, as I suppose, prepares it for decomposition. It also gives the soup into which it enters as an ingredient a degree of richness which nothing else
can give. It has little or no taste in itself but when mixed with other ingredients which are savoury, it renders them peculiarly grateful to the palate. It is a maxim as ancient, I believe, as the time of Hippocrates, that 'whatever pleases the palate nourishes;' and I have often had reason to think it perfectly just. Could it be clearly ascertained and demonstrated, it would tend to place cookery in a much more respectable situation among the arts than it now holds." Agriculturists, it is urged, have found how, in the feeding even of cattle, nourishing power is increased by cookery. "There is some undiscovered secret of nature in all this,"' Count Rumford said, "and it seems to me to be more than probable that the number of inhabitants who may be supported in any country upon its internal produce, depends almost as much upon the state of the art of cookery as upon that of agriculture." Now the cook approaches nearest to the poet, the true maker or original producer, when his soul is expressed in soup. He is a Shakespeare of the kitchen who, mastering the subtleties of animal nutrition, and penetrating as by inspiration to the deepest mysteries of food, can produce new forms in infinite diversity of palatable soup that feeds flesh, bone, and nerve.
All food should be very palatable, and nothing is easier than, by flavouring a tasteless basis, to make soup very grateful to the taste. Nothing, also, can be cheaper. By reducing indefinitely the size of the flavouring particles, they are made to act upon the palate over a wide surface, and if we can only prevent a soup thus flavoured, say with a morsel of meat, from being swallowed too soon, as by mixing it with some hard tasteless substance, such as morsels of bread toasted dry, which compel mastication, the enjoyment of eating may be very much prolonged. Enjoyments of life are few to the poor; eating was meant to be a common pleasure, and is unwholesome when it is unpleasant. Even the glutton is the better for it, if he can be shown how to gormandise for two hours upon two ounces of meat. Count Rumford was led to consider this subject, by observing, when he was with their army, how the gormandising Bavarian soldiers were stout, strong, and healthy upon twopence a day, or but half their pay, spent for the food of each. For this money they not only throve on savoury food, but procured themselves, to a surprising degree, the prolonged pleasure of eating.
The first soup contrived by Count Rumford for the Munich House of Industry, of pearl barley and peas without potatoes, cost a trifle more than a third of a  penny for each of one thousand two hundred persons fed, including payment of cooks and all expenses of the kitchen. This cost was reduced by the introduction of potatoes. But against potatoes prejudice was so strong, that they were at first smuggled into a secret chamber and there boiled into a pulp which contained no evidence of their identity, before they were carried into the public kitchen and mixed with the soup. The wonderful improvement of the soup was applauded so loudly, that at last the secret was disclosed, and the potatoes got the credit due to them. Made then with one proportion of pearl barley and one of peas to four of potatoes, bread, salt, vinegar, and water as before, the cost of each portion of soup was reduced to a farthing; or, strictly, the cost was forty-one farthings for forty dinners. The same soup in London would now cost, perhaps, a halfpenny a pint. A morsel of strong well-flavoured cheese grated and sprinkled over this soup adds to its relish. If any meat, or salt fish, or other such flavouring matter be added, it should be cut, after boiling, into pieces as small even as barleycorns, for the diffusion of its flavour, and all boiling should be very gentle, and all coppers would be the better for* having double bottoms. In the Munich kitchen it was found that six hundred pints of soup could be made with only forty-four pounds of pine wood, for the philosopher attended not more carefully to the economy of food than to the economy of fuel, of which commonly one half is wasted that is burnt in every kitchen. For the cheapest soup he can suggest, Count Rumford's receipt is, "Take of water eight gallons, and, mixing it with five pounds of barley-meal, boil it to the consistency of a thick jelly. Season it with salt, pepper, vinegar, sweet herbs, and four reef herrings pounded in a mortar. Instead of bread, add five pounds of Indian com made into samp, stir together with a ladle, and serve up in portions of twenty ounces." Samp is Indian corn deprived of its husks by ten or twelve hours' soaking in water and wood-ashes, the kernels being afterwards simmered for a couple of days, until they swell to a great size and burst. The proper cost of a portion of this soup and samp would be something less than the third of a penny, if the Indian com were obtained at its fair price of five farthings a pound.
There was lately left with us "for conscientious consideration," together with a newspaper cutting in evidence that death by starvation is no unknown horror amidst the wealth of London, a small packet of greasy powder, labelled "Count Rumford's Soup improved." The benevolent idea was, that in all impoverished districts there should be sold such packets professing to give the substance of a pint of good soup for a halfpenny. We conscientiously followed the directions, which were simply to boil for three minutes in a pint of water over a moderate fire. The result was a thin brown liquid, by no means palatable. We boiled on for twenty minutes, stirring most assiduously, for the powder had a suspicious resemblance to a halfpenny-worth of groats seasoned with a dash of meat grease, and a sprinkling of caraway-seeds. But the soup, though improved by more "boiling, did not thicken, and although one might conceive it welcome to one perishing from hunger, starvation must, we thought, have set in very decidedly before any one could be persuaded to gulp down a pint of it. The dry groats of which gruel is made, or Indian meal, might, of course, cunningly mixed with pea-powder, burnt onion, dried celery, a pinch of dried and pounded herring, or other cheap flavourings, be sold in halfpenny packets, which would make a pint of thin but whole some brown soup-flavoured gruel, and the honest manufacture and sale of such soup-powders would, as our correspondent rightly feels, be of unquestionable advantage to the very poor.
But it is hard to say who should despair of food who can compass the three requisites for soup-making - fire, water, and an iron pot. In this noble form of soup, cookery seems actually to create food. The waste bread and scrapings of the rolling-pin and pasteboard, the refuse cabbage-leaves and stalks, and turnip-parings, pea-shells, and discarded outside bits of celery, the rind of bacon, fish-bones, and the meat-bones of London, would, rightly economised in every house, feed a small army of poor. There should be no kitchen without its pot-au-feu constantly simmering, into which is cast, not without strict regard to cleanliness, every rejected scrap that contains nourishment, and out of which can be drawn daily liquor of life, which a slight touch of the cook's skill makes into palatable soup either for the household itself, or for the poorer households that are brought into a right social relation with its inmates. In the Crimea, before English soldiers knew how to turn their food to account, every knot of French privates had its pot-au-feu, or black pot, into which the men clubbed to throw their inferior rations with what few vegetables they could get, and even sorrel and nettles gathered on the spot: thus getting quarts of good soup and savoury stews out of the most unpromising materials. When poor Soyer, who taught some of this lesson to us in the Crimea, and well understood, with all his pleasant vanities, the highest social function of a cook, went to instruct the Irish, he found very unwilling pupils. They said, "It's making pigs of us he is, to tell us to stew offal and scrapings." And yet, how nourishing and palatable is the food thus scorned.
Look at the sturdy Norman peasant who is half built out of cabbage soup. You see in his poor cottage the clean brass soup-pan filled with fresh water from the spring, and kept under a close wicker cover that looks like a flat beehive. A string from the cover passes through a pulley on the ceiling, and the other end hangs ready to the hand of the housewife when she shreds her cabbage-leaves and other vegetables. By a pull at the string she lifts the cover as she tosses the cut leaves into her pan, then dropping it immediately, to keep the flies and dust out of the food. The bright soup-pan remains under the basket until it is placed over the fire, and when the soup is made, it is replaced under the same' cover until the soup is served on the table. In no duke's kitchen is there a nicer sense of cleanliness. Now, many a strong fellow eats nothing but this soup and bread. After the cabbage has been boiled some time, there are added a few bits of bread and onion fried in butter or fat. Or, the good Norman housewife begins with the grease and onions, adds the cabbage and water, boils for a long time, and throws in the bread just before serving.
By our sea-shore, we might imitate the Norman method of reducing little white fish in the stew-pot with a few herbs into a sort of water souchi called bouillabaise, which is capital eating, cools into a clear and very firm jelly, and, if kept hot, with water added, remains good for a long time. Of all this, and of much else in French cottage cookery, delightful accounts will be found in a couple of recent volumes entitled Life in Normandy, showing how a genial and accomplished Highland laird, now dead, made himself at home by the Bay of Cancale, and cleverly observed and recorded what he saw with an especial eye to the better feeding of the poor in his own land, for "it was suggested that ingenious foreign devices and engines for ensnaring, growing, and gathering food, and for making it eatable, might be so described as to benefit the poor at home, whose single dish of potatoes might easily be varied at a small cost." It was argued that a good cheap dinner at home would tempt a poor man from bad dear drink abroad, and that a poor Scotchman's wife might be taught to do that which poor wives do elsewhere. Enlivening the execution of his main purpose with a pleasant setting of the incidents of life in Normandy.the Scotch laird made a broth of a book, wholesome victual and good entertainment, as all wholesome victual ought to be.
A curious passage in this gentleman's experience, backed by what he was told in Normandy, raises the question of snail-soup. We do eat sea-snails, periwinkles, but we leave the land-snails and slugs to consume our fruits, hearing only with a shiver that in other lands they have been found eatable. Now it is said that soup made of the common black slug is one of the lightest and most nutritious kinds of food that can be given to an invalid.
In a gravel-pit near Sydenham an Irishman and his family once squatted. They built a hovel near the side of the pit, and the man earned large wages as a gravel-digger, till he was one day killed by the fall of a an oak he was cutting. The widow and children continued to live in tiie hut, and it was remarked that although they had no visible means of subsistence, she and her children were more fat and rosy than any labourer's family in the parish. Hen-roosts having been robbed, and sneep stolen, suspicion of course fell on the widow, a search-warrant was obtained, and the constables, finding a good-sized cask, containing what they took to be the stolen meat cut into little morsels, wheeled the cask off on a hand-barrow, and carried the woman off with it to the magistrate, her children following her, weeping bitterly. "Oh, darling," she said to a friendly youth who passed, "spake for me and the children; it's not mutton, though it's their meat and mine, and has kept death from our door this bitter winter!" What it was she would not tell before "them blackguards" the constables. But when the magistrate had inspected the barrel, and also declaring its contents not to be mutton, asked her to tell what it did contain, in order to clear herself of all suspicion, she replied, " Send them fellows away, and I will tell your honour. "To the magistrate's private ear she accordingly confided that she and her children were living on salted slugs. She had seen them given to a young man in Ireland sick of consumption, and he throve and got quite fat upon them. When destitute, she thought that what had been so good for him might feed her children. First, she tried them fresh, and finding that the children throve, she took to salting them. Her way was to drop them into boiling water, and afterwards lay them with salt in a cask. She and her children had prepared two casks full, which had fed them all the winter, and the cask now seized contained the remainder of her store. The poor woman's secret was kept from the constables, but told to a few neighbouring gentry, who subscribed that the widow might in future not want bread.
A Norman landlady was asked whether the people in her part of the world ever ate snails? "Yes," she said, "they are sometimes used here, but only as a medicine. In La Vendee, and some other parts of France, they are eaten (the Lord defend me!) from taste. When my husband was on service in the army, he was a sous-officier, and was caterer for their mess. Among the sous-officiers there was a sergeant who belonged to La Vendee, with whom he had a quarrel, and they fought with sabres. Their dispute was about snails, for this man would always bring a capful of these creatures, which he cooked and ate at the table with my husband, though it made him sick to see them. Well, my husband desired him to give up such nasty tastes, which interference he took much amiss, so they fought, and gave each other some very pretty blows with the edge, and then they were good friends again, only the Vendean agreed to eat his snails at another mess. After this, you would hardly believe that it was my husband whom I first saw cooking snails; yet so it was. A girl who was in our house as servant, had a very bad illness of the chest; she was constantly spitting blood, and all the doctors said she must die. We were very sorry, for she was a good girl and pleased us, when my husband remembered that he had heard of such wonders being done for illnesses of the chest by soup au Limosin; so he set to work to prepare some for the poor girl as he had seen it made by the sergeant in La Vendee. He gave it to her, and she had faith, for she got better. She then learnt to cook it for herself, and took it twice a day, and she got quite well and fat, and now she is married and has two fine boys."
If any of our readers wish to try slug or snail soup, here is the Vendean recipe for making it: In summer take of slugs—in winter, when no slugs are to be found, take of snails—a sufficiency. Snails with stripes on their shells have a bad taste, and are to be rejected; use only those having their shells all ot one colour. Put them for a minute in boiling water, and they will come out of their shells quite easily. A little bit of hard matter is taken from the head, and afterwards they are stewed for a long time in milk. This is winter soup. But in summer you use slugs, which have to be freed of their slime. They are first plunged, therefore, in boiling water, to kill them; then they are washed in cold water, when a great deal of slime comes off, after which they are stewed in water for a long time, and milk and seasoning added; or they are stewed in milk in the same way as the snails.
The Chinese, who waste no victuals, of course have recognised the worth of slugs.
In meat soups, the delight of the palate is supplied by osmazome, which forms the brown upon roast meat, and is that sapid portion which is soluble in cold water. The merit of a good soup is its osmazome. It is the groundwork of all great soups, and its removal oy cooks, who withdrew the first bouillon or soup, led Abbé Chevrier to invent caldrons with lock and key.

The object of soup-making from meat is to dissolve as much as possible in the water of the soup, the sapid and nourishing contents of the solid meat. For this purpose the meat should be finely divided, minced, or even pounded. Except in the hottest weather, it is of advantage to let the meat soak in cold water for from four to eight hours, then warm slowly, and simmer for a long time without letting the heat rise to bubbling point. Another cardinal point in soup-making of more than one ingredient is the necessity of remembering that each article takes its own time for fit cookery, and that to put them all at once into a pot and boil away is barbarism. The Spaniard, with his puchero cookery, boils each variety of meat or other raw material for its own time in its own pipkin, and then contrives that they shall all be ready for mixture at the instant when the cookery of each is in its perfection. As Count Rumford began with his barley, and, at a certain stage in the cooking of that, added his potatoes, leaving to the last his bread—so the thoughtful soup-maker in the poorest or the richest household must time seasonably each addition to the brew. With discretion in this matter, time, patience, and not too much fire, it needs only pepper, salt, and a few herbs or scraps of vegetable, to get good soup out of anything in which the elements of food exist.

1 comment:

Piet said...

In one of Jane Austen's novels (Pride and Prejudice, I think) she mentions the butter in a way that suggests it is a dish to itself rather than something related to the bread, and I never understood the reference till now. Thank you, Janet!