The History of Soup

The History of Soup

Food historians tell us the history of soup is probably as old as the history of cooking. The act of combining various ingredients in a large pot to create a nutritious, filling, easily digested, simple to make/serve food was inevitable. This made it the perfect choice for both sedentary and travelling cultures, rich and poor, healthy people and invalids. Soup (and stews, pottages, porridges, gruels, etc.) evolved according to local ingredients and tastes. New England chowder, Spanish gazpacho, Russian borscht, Italian minestrone, French onion, Chinese won ton and Campbell's tomato...are all variations on the same theme.

Soups were easily digested and were prescribed for invalids since ancient times. The modern restaurant industry is said to be based on soup. Restoratifs (wheron the word "restaurant" comes) were the first items served in public restaurants in 18th century Paris. Broth [Pot-au-feu], bouillion, and consomme entered here. Classic French cuisine generated many of the soups we know today.

Advancements in science enabled soups to take many forms...portable, canned, dehydrated, microwave-ready. "Pocket soup" was carried by colonial travellers, as it could easily be reconstituted with a little hot water. Canned and dehydrated soups were available in the 19th century. These supplied the military, covered wagon trains, cowboy chuck wagons, and the home pantry. Advances in science also permitted the adjustment of nutrients to fit specific dietary needs (low salt, high fiber, etc.).

"Cereals, roasted to make them digestible and then ground and moistened or diluted with water to make a paste, either thick or thin, did not become gruel or porridge until people had the idea and means of cooking them. They may initially have been cooked by hot stones in receptacles of natural substances, and then in utensils which could go straight over the fire. Soup, in fact, derives from sop or sup, meaning the sliced of bread on which broth was poured. Until bread was invented, the only kind of thick soup was a concoction of grains, or of plants and meat cooked in a pot. Gruel or porridge was thus a basic food, a staple from of nourishment, and long held that place in Western countries, for in practice bread was a luxury eaten only in towns. A thick porridge of some kind is still the staple food of many peoples, and it is not always made of cereals, but may consist of other starch foods: legumes, chestnuts or root vegetables."
---Food in History, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, translated by Anthea Bell [Barnes & Noble Books:New York] 1992 (p. 177)

"Soup...This category included liquid foods for invalids, such as beaten egg, barley and emmer gruel...and the water from boiling pulses, vegetables or other foods...soups or purees made from vegetables or fruits...broth made with meal of legumes or cereals with added animal fat...and soup in the usual modern English sense, based on meat and vetetables...Medicinal spices and herbs might be added to these various soups, especially if they were intended for invalids as part of a prescribed diet."

"Soups. General Observations. The culinary preparations included in this section are of fairly recent origin in their present form, dating from only the early part of the 19th century. Soups of the old classical kitchen were in fact complete dishes in themselves and contained, apart from the liquid content and its vegetable garnish, a wide variety of meat, poultry, game and fish. It is only the liquid part of these classical dishes which has retained the name of soup. Examples of old style of soup which still survive are the Flemish Hochepot, the Spanish Oilles and the French Petite Marmite...On this point as on many others, culinary art owes much to Careme...."
---The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, A. Escoffier, first translation of Le Guide Culinaire [1903] by H.L. Cracknell and R.J. Kaufmann [John Wiley & Sons:New York] 1979 (p. 65)

Cold soup. Really?
Yes! In most countries, cuisines and periods; for starters, dessert or holiday fare. We Americans are not collective fans but we are intrigued. Especially when the heat is on outside. Think: Vichyssoise, Gazpacho & fruit soups.

"Reams have been written about the worth of good hot soup. And we're inclined to agree with much of this praise. But, in this book, cold soup is the 'in' thing. The idea may be so strange to a number of us and so different from the bracing stimuli of hot soup, it might be necessary to adjust our mental taste reflexes to the delicacy, the soothing quiet effect of chilled soup. We haven't been able to pinpoint who made the first cold soup, nor where, but notable examples of this refreshment are to be found in many countries. And contrary to what you might think at first, just about as many are from cold lands as from the tropics or sun countries. Russia makes a meaty hot borsch, but their chilled beet borsch is much more popular and more of a classic. The Danes dote on chilled buttermilk soups, and all Scandinavians and Finns as well enjoy their cold fruit soups as a first course or dessert. Around the Mediterranean, the Greeks make a chilled lemon soup called Avgolemono that looks and tastes like chilled sunshine. The ways to make Spain's iced salad-soup, Gazpacho, are without number...Yogurt, buttermilk and interesing herbs and spices such as mint, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, etc., enhance cool soups of the Middle East. Tropical countries all over use their lush produce to make exotic cold soups of avocado, coconut, melon, strange vegetables and fish of all kinds. Perhaps the all-time favorite cold soup is our own American-made original Creme Vichyssoise Glacee creatd by the late Chef Louis Diat at the New York Ritz. It was named for his hometown, Vichy, France, and was, of course, simply an elegant version of a popular French county potage made of leeks and potatoes. In like manner, we've found that many of the lovely shellfish bisques, the creamy vegetable and chicken soups so beloved by the great chers, are equally good, or better, served cold. They seem more delicate, and refresh in a quiet, serene sort of way."

"With the first breath of really warm weather, the cook starts thinking about new and wonderful cold soups. The refereshing chill and tang of these as a first course or as a 'starter' is a wonderful nudge to one's appetite. The main thing to remember is that cold soup must be really cold, just as hot soup must be really hot, to be good. No betwixt-and-between stuff here. Have the plates or bouillon cups chilled too. The beading of moisture that usually forms on the cups adds to the illusion of coolness. A quick way to get soup very cold is to pour it into the ice tray of the refrigerator. Watch it carefully from time to time so that it does not freeze. When it is just at the point of forming ice crystals, or in the case of jellied soup, has just jellied, take out the tray, and let it stand in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve the soup in cups or plates. Soups chilled in this way are really cold and also do not have the chance to absorb the odors of other foods in the refrigerator while in the lukewarm stage. Almost any soup that is good hot is good cold, with the exception of mixed vegetable soups and broths with barley or rice. Black bean soup, with a slice of lemon and some sherry added, is wonderful chilled. So is borstch, topped with a dab of sour cream. Add a pinch of curry powder to cold cream of asparagus soup, and you'll have an unusual and interesting flavor. Cold potato soup, made with a little extra sour cream and a good sprinkling of chopped chives, makes that aristocrat of cold soup, the Vichyssoise, sit up and take notice."
---The Soup Book, Louis P. DeGouy, facsimile 1949 edition [Dover Publications:New York] 1974 (p. 73)

Why the word "soup?"
"The etymological idea underlying the word soup is that of soaking. It goes back to an unrecorded post-classical Latin verb suppare soak', which was borrowed from the same prehistoric German root (sup-) as produced in English sup and supper. From it was derived the noun suppa, which passed into Old French as soupe. This meant both piece of bread soaked in liquid' and, by extension, broth poured onto bread.' It was the latter strand of the meaning that entered English in the seventeenth century. Until the arrival of the term soup, such food had been termed broth or pottage. It was customarily served with the meat or vegetable dishes with which it had been made, and (as the dreivation of soup suggest) was poured over sops of bread or toast (the ancestors of modern croutons). But coincident with the introduction of the world soup, it began to be fashionable to serve the liquid broth on its own, and in the early eighteenth century it was assuming its present-day role as a first course."

"Our modern word "soup" derives from the Old French word sope and soupe. The French word was used in England in the form of sop at the end of the Middle Ages and, fortunately, has remained in the English language in its original form and with much its original sense. We say "fortunately" because it is clear that nowadays a "sop" is not a "soup." The distinction is important. When cooks in the Middle Ages spoke of "soup," what they and the people for whom they were cooking really understood was a dish comprising primarily a piece of bread or toast soaked in a liquid or over which a liquid had been poured. The bread or toast was an important, even vital, part of this dish. It was a means by which a diner could counsume the liquid efficiently by sopping it up. The bread or toast was, in effect, an alternative to using a spoon...Soups were important in the medieval diet, but the dish that the cook prepared was often a sop that consisted of both nutritious liquid and the means to eat it. The meal at the end of a normal day was always the lighter of the two meals of the day, and the sop appears to have had an important place in it. In fact it was precisely because of the normal inclusion of a sop in this end-of-the-day meal that it became called "souper" or "supper."
---Early French Cookery, D. Eleanor Scully & Terence Scully [University of Michigan Press:Ann Arbor] 1995 (p. 102)

"Soup. The most general of the terms which apply to liquid savory dishes...Similar terms in other languages include the Italian zuppa, the German Suppe, Danish suppe, etc. Of the various categories of the dish which may be eaten, soup can certainly be counted among the most basic...Its an appetizing first course should be viewed against the historical background, in which soups with solids in them were a meal in themselves for poorer people, especially in rural areas..."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 735)

Why do we "eat" rather than "drink" soup?
Etiquette experts tell us we "eat," rather than "drink" soup because it is considered part of the meal. Additionally, in most cultures soup is consumed with a spoon rather than sipped from the container. Consistency (clear broth, chunky chicken vegetable, creamy cold cucumber), preparation (puree, reduction, simmer, dried), and ingredients (meat, vegetable, strarch, dairy, fruit) do no factor into this particular equation.

"The liquid element in a meal is either placed first and "eaten" as a soup, with a spoon, or it is poured over the solids as sauces, gravies, creams, or syrups. The accompanying drink is kept separate, standing outside the meal: literally standing in a high glass, and literally outside, beyond the cutlery fence bounding the "place."...We...carry the liquid in our beer and wineglasses directly to our mouths." ---The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser [Penguin Books:New York] 1991 (P. 242)

Culture/cuisine variations
You can study these by examining current and historic cuisine-specific cookbooks. Here you will find popular/traditional recipes. Some of these books also contain historic notes. Books concentrating on specific eras/countries (classical Greece, Medieval Europe, 19th century Russia, etc.) are good for background. Reay Tannahill's Food in History is an excellent place to learn about the prehistoric origins of cooking. If you are a culinary student check your school's library. It most likely has the books you need to complete this assignment. If you need help identifying books written on a specific place/time we can provide you with titles. Your librarian can arrange to obtain them for you. Sorry, we do not find a comprehensive book covering the history of all soups in all places through time.

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