On a cold autumn day it seemed like a good idea to make some soup. Three hours later as I sat at the table reluctantly spooning sludgy soup into my mouth I was beginning to regret it.
During my trips around Ireland visiting exhibitions about the famine one of the very few artefacts that appeared time and again was the soup pot. The pots are scattered across the country – in museums, thrown about in yards, re-purposed as flower pots. It’s not a surprise that so many of them still exist for they were durable and plentiful. In July 1847 nearly three million people were dependent on a bowl of soup every day. Thousands of soup pots, large black cast iron cauldrons, were required, each one capable of holding hundreds of litres of soup. I decided to see what Victorian philanthropy tasted like and so I made my own famine soup. I’d seen a number of different recipes reproduced in exhibitions and books but settled on Alexis Soyer’s recipe at least in part because he was the only chef to proudly lay claim to a ‘famine soup’. Surely it must have been the tastiest and most nutritious.
Alexis Soyer was one of the first celebrity chefs. A flamboyant showman he was chef at the Reform Club in London and regularly cooked for the rich and famous. On the morning of Queen Victoria’s coronation he rustled up breakfast for 2,000 guests. Like modern celebrity chefs he had his own range of kitchen products, sauces and recipe books for sale. His breaded lamb cutlet recipe is still served at the Reform Club.
Long before Jamie Oliver attempted to revolutionise school meals Soyer claimed he could provide cheap nutritious soup on a large scale for the starving Irish and in April 1847 he set up his ‘model’ soup kitchen at Croppies Acre in Dublin. It was a large tented wooden structure with a fabric roof. Long benches and tables were placed around the edge while at the centre was the cooking area. The was also space for spectators to gather for Soyer had decided to charge an entry fee for the rich. The well-heeled paid 5 shillings to amble about peering at the poor as they ate their soup (using spoons attached by chains to the table). The dining experience was far removed from that of the Reform Club – at Croppies Acre one hundred people were fed every six minutes. At maximum capacity the soup kitchen was feeding over 8,000 people a day.
Soyer’s Soup Kitchen
The grand opening of the soup kitchen in April 1847 was an incongruously glittery affair. Soyer, was there dressed wearing his trademark red velvet hat at a jaunty angle, accompanied by the Mayor, the Lord Lieutenant and the elite of Dublin society. The soup kitchen may have been well intentioned but it was also exploitative and the Freeman’s Journal was outraged and compared it to paying to watch feeding time at the Zoo: ‘Five shillings each to see paupers feed!…five shillings each! when the animals at the Zoological Gardens may be inspected at feeding time for sixpence!’ The criticism appeared not to bother Soyer (partly he had flitted into Ireland for a few days and while the Irish press were critical his efforts were largely lauded in the British papers) and he continued to provide charity, though he restricted it to raising money rather than setting up more soup kitchens for all the kitchens were closed by the autumn of 1847. Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, or the Poor Man’s Regenerator was published in 1847 and a penny from every sale was given to charities working with the poor. The book contained 23 ‘nutritious’ recipes as well as a guide to creating a ‘model’ kitchen. Although few of those most in need would have had the money to buy the book, the literacy in English to read it, or the capability of obtaining the ingredients for dishes including Oyster Porridge, Curry Fish, Meagre Pea Soup or Cabbage Stirabout the money raised may have been of some benefit.
I made the soup that Soyer had dispensed in his Dublin Soup Kitchen. There’s no name for this soup – it’s simply ‘Receipt No. 1’. The recipe called for 2 gallons (c.9 litres) of water which was beyond the capability of any pot I own. As I wasn’t planning to feed anyone but myself and a less than enthusiastic MEH, I divided Soyer’s quantities by six. My soup consisted of:
- 10 grams of beef
- 1/3 of a turnip
- 1/3 of an onion
- 2½ sticks of celery
- 1/3 of a leek
- 40g of pearl barley
- 40g of plain flour
- 2 teaspoons of salt
- A tiny pinch of brown sugar
- A tiny amount of dripping
- 1.5 litres of water
Preparation was straightforward. I chopped the vegetables and put them in the pot with the tiny scrap of meat (10g of beef fits on a thumb). I let them soften before adding the flour, barley and water and then left it to simmer for more than 2 hours. As I waited for the soup to cook I half-regretted not paying €25 for the miniature ‘replica famine pot’ I’d seen at one exhibition, the ideal size for a bowl of famine soup. By the time the soup was ready to eat it had the colour and consistency of wallpaper paste. I ladled out portions. It was edible – grey sludge with a faint hint of turnip, reminiscent of the worst sort of school dinner. Still, taste was largely beside the point. Perhaps the soup made up for what it lacked in taste with great nutritional value. It didn’t – each serving provided less than 75 calories. Today an average woman needs about 2,000 calories per day. Nutritionally Soyer’s soup was almost useless, and certainly not worth walking miles to get. Coincidentally, as I ate my soup I read a newspaper article which claimed that a spoonful of mashed potato was just as good for providing an energy boast as the sickly sweet energy gels marathon runners use. One potato, had it been available, would have provided more nutrition than a bowl of Soyer’s soup.
In the absence of artefacts I’d tried to recreate something of the past. An impossible task. I couldn’t (nor would I want to) recreate the conditions that forced millions of desperate, starving, ill people to travel miles in search of a bowl of soup. All I could do was attempt to recreate the smell, taste and texture of what they might have eaten.
Soup Pot, Westport House