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I was looking through Jane Grigson's book English Food, and caught a reference to Victorian celebrity chef (and inventor of the kitchen timer) Alexis Soyer:
The French chef of the Reform Club, the great Alexis Soyer, caused a sensation by nobly going over to Ireland in the potato famine to save Irish souls with his soup (like most benevolent soups of the time, it was not very nutritious).


Obviously, Jane Grigson is not to be argued with over statements like that any more than Elizabeth David is. I was curious about just how not-very-nutritious it was, though, so I went looking for the recipe.

4 oz leg of beef -- 250 kcal, 20g protein
2 oz dripping -- 900 kcal
2 onions or other vegetables -- about 90 kcal
8 oz flour (seconds) -- about 400 kcal
8 oz pearl barley -- 700 kcal, 20g protein
3 oz salt
1/2 oz brown sugar -- 60 kcal
2 gallons water

So that works out to 2400 kcal in two gallons of soup, meaning that one portion - which I'll estimate at a pint, partly to make the maths easier and partly because Mrs Beeton specifies a pint as a normal serving for one of the poor people she fed - gives
  • 300 kcal
  • 8g protein
  • a few vitamins here and there
  • about 10g salt


Soyer said that one portion of this, and "a biscuit", would keep a healthy man going all day[1], and he estimated the cost at 2d (1847 money) per gallon. People who've made it say it's quite tasty. I'm not keen - especially because he could have done a lot better with the resources available to him.

One limitation, of course, is that it had to be All His, and uniquely so; he was an inveterate self-mythologiser, as you'd expect from a French celebrity chef at a great Victorian institution, so he couldn't possibly adapt something like Rumford's Soup[2] - he had to be the genius inventor of recipes, as well as the kitchen logistics genius[3].

Rumford's Soup (pearl barley, yellow peas, potatoes, salt, beer) sounds much tastier to me, but then so does Mrs Beeton's benevolent soup, which she estimated at 6d (1858 money) per gallon:

NB: this one makes 10 gallons, rather than the 2 Soyer's Soup makes.
1 ox-cheek
Trimmings of beef (around 4 lb)
A few bones
"Any pot-liquor the larder may furnish" - ie. whatever stock you have handy
1/4 peck of onions - that's about 1.5 kg
6 leeks
A large bunch of herbs
1/2 lb celery tops
1/2 lb carrots
1/2 lb turnips
1/2 lb coarse brown sugar
1/2 pt beer
4 lb common rice/pearl barley
1/2 lb salt
1 oz black pepper
A few raspings (ie. finely ground breadcrumbs)
10 gallons of water

Hannah More gives a very similar recipe, though less complex - "An ox cheek, two pecks of potatoes, a quarter of a peck of onions, one ounce of pepper, half a pound of salt, boiled together in ninety pints of water till reduced to sixty, any garden stuff may be thrown in." Still rather nicer-sounding than Soyer's, but then Soyer was working under two constraints that the others weren't; he needed to deal with the logistics of getting all the ingredients to the field kitchens (or more accurately, street-corner kitchens) and he was posh[4]. Both Rumford and Mrs Beeton use beer in their recipes - that's because it has amazing amounts of nutrition, energy, and taste in it for its volume, and because it was incredibly cheap and plentiful at the time. I suspect either Soyer just didn't think of it, or he didn't want to be slated for encouraging the Demon Drink.

He did remedy a lot of his class shortcomings by 1861, when he published his Shilling Cookery for the People, although he did it in a very Victorian way - in Jane Grigson's phrase, he "set off to find out how The People lived as though he were going to Africa in search of pygmies".

Shilling Cookery will make some of tonight's reading, I think!




[1] That must be Quite Some Biscuit.

[2] Yes, that Count Rumford, the thermodynamics man and all-around genius. He also invented thermal underwear, smokeless fireplaces, and a kind of percolating coffee pot.

[3] And he really was that; he revolutionized the way the British Army fed its soldiers, after taking over the field kitchens at Scutari in the Crimea War. Mind you, given the way they'd been attempting to do it before, it probably involved a lot of dramatic clapping of the hand to the forehead (the Victorian equivalent of the modern *headdesk*) and a lot of entirely justified shouting.

[4] He'd been working for the Prime Minister of France, Prince de Polignac, in 1830 - that's how posh he was. Nevertheless, he still managed to remember the words to the Marseillaise when a mob burst into his kitchen.
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