In 1595, English writer William Fiston (or Phiston) produced a translation of a French book of manners for children. Topics included proper behavior that was important for Church and school, but also a section on table manners. Here, Fiston admonishes his readers:
…beware thou soupe not thy pottage, but eate it leisurely with a spoone, without taking it into thy mouth greedily, forcibly drawing thy breath with it, as some clownes do use, sounding at the receipt of euery spoonefull Slurrop.
He instructs children not to “sup” their pottage, or drink it directly from the bowl, as well as to avoid making unneccesary sounds. “Pottage” was a term commonly used in medieval and early modern Britain that referred to a liquid mixture that might include meat, broth, vegetables, oatmeal or another kind of grain, and herbs—in 1545, Andrew Boorde’s “Dietary of Health” defines it as “made of the lyquor in the which flesshe is soden in, with puttyng to chopped herbes, and otemel and salt.” As linguistic and cultural exchanges shifted over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the French noun “soup” became more common, though (confusingly for us today) it might also be used as a verb. Fiston’s use of onomatopoeia, perhaps a holdover from his Continental source (the word “slurp” is a loan word from German or Dutch), is extremely effective—we can practically hear the noisy slurping sounds.
Of course, not all cultures think of sounds like this as a bad thing. In some East Asian countries such as Japan or South Korea, slurping in certain circumstances shows appreciation and may be considered a compliment (of course, this varies depending on the dish in question, so don’t view this as a pass to slurp all your food if you visit). Personally, I don’t mind a good slurp, especially if I’m working from home and in a hurry to cool my food down. Stew, pottage, broth, soup—whatever you call it, it’s usually hot and delicious and infinitely variable according to what one has on hand. What could be better for winter?
Which is all to say, thanks to those of you who sent in guesses about our February crocodile mystery! We had so many excellent thoughts about what these different items had in common, and I’m almost sorry to say that it’s all much less complicated than “items found in Elizabethan plays,” “not-local ingredients,” or “ingredients that present-day chefs should watch out for when attempting to re-create a recipe” (though all of these things are true for several different items). The answer we were seeking was that these are all ingredients found in our early modern cookery manuscript collection in recipes for soup (pottage, stew, or broth).
Soup recipes are some of my favorite to make in my own kitchen—this week I made a big pot of Alton Brown’s Lentil Soup for lunches. While many foods today and historically cross boundaries between feeding and healing the body and feeding and healing the spirit, soup seems to do this more than most. It is a quintessential “comfort food,” particularly in cold or wet weather. Here are some of my favorite “soup” (or stew, or broth, or pottage) recipes from our manuscript collection:
“To make portable or solid soup.” From Folger V.a.260, fol. 47v | 48r, a miscellany dated circa 1613-1756. Have you ever made stock by boiling a leftover chicken or turkey carcass? When refrigerated, the gelatin from the skin, bones, and other collagen-rich animal parts solidifies. This recipe takes stock one step further, reducing the liquid down until it is “a perfect glew,” then drying it out until it’s a solid lump. This can be packed and carried easily in a pocket, and then dissolved in hot water for a warming dish. We have several “portable soup” recipes in our collections, as people initially thought of them as good for ship voyages in the eighteenth century. One author even notes that it will “hold good an East India Voyage” in a cookery miscellany from circa 1730.
“To make white peas soup for winter.” From Folger V.a.561, page 7 and page 8. This recipe explicitly notes the seasonal appropriateness of this dish, although the author neglects to mention why it’s “for winter” in the body of the recipe. Pea-based soups are common, and usually call for the peas to be boiled, mashed, and strained through a sieve—what modern chefs now can achieve with immersion blenders. My favorite split pea soup, like this one, calls for a fair amount of butter and cream, but I love the addition of spinach and parsley (here spelled “spinage” and “parcelly”). Again, it seems to have been common to toast bread to include as a soup ingredient—either blended in, or in this case, soaked in the comforting blend of cream, peas, and meaty broth.
“Asparagras soup” and “Turnep soup.” From Folger W.a.111, page 308. These two recipes show another common feature of early modern soup recipes—including a large portion of roasted meat, even an entire fowl or leg of mutton, as a centerpiece in your presentation dish. Although pottage could be a cheap dish that stretched few ingredients to serve many, it could also be fantastically elaborate. These cookery manuscripts have mostly been written by (and survived because of their descent from) people from elite families, and so include more expensive ingredients like meat. Once made, these initially simple-sounding soups are poured into large serving dishes around a whole chicken and an entire duck. The recipe for “asparagras” soup even instructs the cook to line the serving dish with bread and bacon boiled in the flavorful broth. Two other soup recipes from W.a.111, “cabage soup” and “ounion soup” call for a brace of pigeons and a partridge, respectively.
“Broth for Ani that is Brought low.” From Folger V.a.450, fol. 2r, a cookery manuscript kept circa 1675 by a woman named Lettice Pudsey, this recipe gets to the heart of the cross between medicine, emotional comfort, and bodily nourishment. Broth is often described in medical manuals from this period as “nourishing,” “restorative,” and “comforting.” Andrew Boord’s “Dietary of Health” from 1542 notes that pottage “dothe comforte many men…ventosyte [“windiness”] natwithstandynge.” These terms all had medical meanings, but also seem to evoke an emotional healing. This “broth” calls for items familiar to us as good soup ingredients today such as chicken, herbs, and French barley, as well as less familiar items such as prunes and cloves. This author seems to have appreciated it enough to have named it not as “cock broth,” or “broth to heal” a specific ailment, but as a broth to lift low spirits. In a dark time of year, the comfort of hot chicken soup is a familiar connection to a world both three hundred years and yet only a few pages away.
Do you have a favorite winter soup recipe? Share it with us in the comments!