While our early ancestors may have employed hot water to heat foods in natural containers, the cooking technique of boiling was not commonly-used until the invention of waterproof and heatproof containers about five thousand years ago. Boiling was advantageous as a cooking technique. Water turns to steam at a constant temperature that does not exceed F. 212 at sea level. Compared to heating with hot air over a fire, boiling water is more dense and comes more fully in contact with the entire surface of submersed foods. Hot water easily and quickly imparts its energy to the food. In addition to consistency, boiling provides a lower cooking temperature than does frying, roasting, or baking. Before the invention of thermometers, this was particularly significant. Boiling also permitted the fuller use of animal and plant products, and expanded the range of foods that our ancestors consumed. Many animal parts, such as bones, could not be eaten even if roasted. Boiling extracted whatever nutritional value these unused parts possessed. Likewise, some plant parts were inedible in their natural state, but became consumable after boiling. For instance, acorns are edible only after the tannin has been removed by boiling.
Boiling foods created new taste sensations. Cereal grains, for instance, release starch granules into the liquid and cause a sudden thickening. How thick depended on the amount and type of cereal grains. Heating several ingredients in a liquid over time altered the flavor of the mixture such that each particular foodstuff lost its individual taste and combined to form a unique flavor. The addition of animal products or oil-bearing seeds made the concoction richer, thicker, and more nutritious. However, precisely when humans first consumed the liquid in the boiling pot is unclear. As most primitive peoples wasted nothing, it is extremely likely that the liquid was consumed along with the boiled contents as soon as it was technologically possible to scoop out the liquid. From the earliest records, soup and porridge-type dishes were prepared by many ancient peoples. From Neolithic times, soup was consumed in the Mediterranean.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, soup survived in the Byzantine Empire centered on Constantinople. With its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1454, soups of Central Asian origin entered Europe's culinary repertoire. Unlike Western Europeans, the Turks did not limit soup consumption to a particular time of day or a specific course during a meal. Vegetables were used extensively in Turkish soups, and in later times, the tomato was no exception.
National cuisines in Western Europe emerged about the same time as Turkish culinary styles solidified. Based on surviving cookery manuscripts from the Middle Ages, a great deal of overlap is evident in medieval recipes originating in England, France, Italy, and Catalonia. While similarities existed among foods eaten by Europe's nobility, the common people ate mainly what was produced locally. Often these foods, particularly cereals, were boiled and consumed in bowls.
Broths were usually served in bowls shared by more than one person at table. The liquid was sipped directly from the bowl. While broths were a basic foodstuff among the common people throughout Europe, upper classes considered the solids in a prepared dish to be the important ingredient: the liquid may have been intended, as a sauce, to impart a particular flavor rather than to be consumed in their own right. The liquid also served to keep the solids warm. Sometimes the meat or vegetables used to create the broth were eaten separately; other times they were cut into smaller pieces and served in the broth. Prior to the common adoption of spoons, diners used their right hands to pull out chunks of meat or vegetables from shared bowls. For those more fastidious, knives speared the solids and conveyed them to the mouth.
When fashion shifted in fourteenth century Europe, spoons served as vehicles to transport the liquid from the bowl to the mouth. Then, as now, careful balancing was necessary to avoid spilling the liquid. The spoon gradually became the dominant mode of conveyance, at least among European upper classes. This change may have been encouraged during the late sixteenth century when men and women started wearing large, stiff laced collars called ruffs. Those wearing ruffs around their necks could not easily drink soup from bowls without spilling, and hence fashion dictated the use of spoons. But early spoons were unsuitable for soup consumption. Since most spoons had fairly short stems, soup could not be safely negotiate past the ruffs without spilling. So spoon handles lengthened and the spoon's bowl became larger permitting more liquid to be transported to the mouth with less chance of dribbling the contents on the ruffs.
Recipes for soup-like dishes appeared in several cookery manuscripts from medieval England. For instance, the Forme of Cury, compiled in the late-fourteenth-century by Richard II's chefs, offered a recipe for several recipes for soups and potages, which were poured over toasted bread or sops.
The most extensive English treatment of potages, broths, and soups is found in Robert May's Accomplished Cook (London, 1660). May received his chef's training in Paris, but served his apprenticeship in London. Subsequently, he was employed in thirteen different households of minor English nobility. He was knowledgeable about food trends in Europe: while he did not fully break with the prevalent food customs of the Middle Ages, he did introduce new culinary concepts. Among his English potages May embraced recipes for French Bisques and Italian Brodos. His "Soops" called for savory ingredients, such as spinach, carrots, artichokes, potatoes, skirrets, and parsnips. He offered broth recipes for the sick. Like previous writers, May maintained the medieval custom of pouring the liquids over toasted bread. Of the two hundred pages in the book, potages and soups consume almost 20 percent of the entire work. May's diagrams for table settings featured a large potage dish in the middle of the table. Subsequent British cookbooks included many more recipes.
While some colonial Americans may have eschewed soup, most evidence indicates that soup was an important culinary component at least of the corresponding upper and lower classes in the United States. Even before cookery books were published in America, newspapers, magazines and travel accounts mentioned broth and soup as well as recorded recipes. William Parks, a colonial printer in Williamsburg, Virginia, published the first cookbook in America in 1742. It was based on the fifth edition of E. Smith's The Compleat Housewife and included recipes for Soop Sante, Pease Soop, Craw Fish Soop, Brooth, Soop with Teel, Green Peas Soop, and several bisques. Susannah Carter's Frugal Housewife contained an entire soup chapter presenting nineteen soups. In addition to British cookbooks published in colonial America, surviving cookery manuscripts attest to the importance of potage, broth, and soup in America'Äìat least among the upper class.
While American culinary traditions were based on English cookery as the above manuscripts attest, many other national and cultural groups influenced the new nation. For instance, German immigrants had influenced culinary matters in America since the late seventeenth century. Pennsylvania-Germans liked soups and were particularly famous for those based on potatoes. When Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville ate at the home of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker, the meal included two soups. Subsequent German-language cookbooks published in America featured recipes for soups based on chicken, mutton, veal, beef, calf's head, rice, apples, and huckleberries. According to food historian William Woys Weaver, the Pennsylvania-Germans took their commitment to soups seriously. Soup was a "symbol of community, of religious fellowship, and even communion." In two course meals, soup was the first; in one pot meals, soup was the only dish.
The most influential culinary tradition in America after that of the English was French cookery. As a result of the French Revolution, many noblemen, their families and entourages fled France. Chefs were among these refugees. Some found positions as chefs in homes of the wealthy in England and other countries. Others opened up restaurants. The French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wisely left France for America at the height of the Reign of Terror, visited a cafe tavern in New York where turtle soup was served for breakfast. While in America, Brillat-Savarin also visited Jean Baptiste Gilbert Payplat dis Julien. In 1794 Julien opened a public eating house in Boston called "Julien's Restorator." This was his translation of the French word restaurant into English. Bostonians later referred to it as Julien's Restaurant. Julien was famous for his soups among gourmands, while the novelty of his cuisine attracted customers. Julien was nicknamed the "Prince of Soups." He is credited with creating Julien Soup, a composition of vegetables in long narrow strings. Julien specialized in making turtle soup--the king of soups with few spices. Julien stated that he had not created his Restorer to "deprive gentlemen of the felicity of dinning with their families by overcharging their stomachs. The ingredients of this soup render it such that its effects are as if increase of appetite should grow by what it fed on." Julien died in 1805, but his widow continued his restaurant for ten years. She, in turn, turned it over to yet another French immigrant Frederic Rouillard.
Almost simultaneous with the French Revolution was the slave uprising in what is today Haiti. Many French refugees, along with their slaves and servants, immigrated to New York, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans as the terrors of the slave rebellion peaked. They brought Creole French culinary traditions with them, and some opened restaurants. Perhaps due to this double French influence, soup was adopted by American upper classes. It was often the first course at fashionable dinner parties.
Soup was not neglected by American cookbook writers. While the first edition of Amelia Simmons's American Cookery (Hartford, 1796) did not contain soup recipes, it did note that parsley was "good for soup." The second edition of this work, published in the same year in Albany, counted recipes for soup made of a beef's back, veal, and lamb's head and pluck. In addition Simmons included a recipe for chowder. Mary Randolph's Virginia House-wife (Washington, 1824) featured sixteen soup recipes, such as ones for asparagus, beef, gravy, veal, bouilli, oyster, and barley. There were two for peas, and more for hare or rabbit, fowl, catfish, onion, turtle, and finally, one for mock turtle soup using calf's head. Her directions for making turtle soup combined turtle flesh, beef, bacon, onions, sweet herbs, pepper, and salt. If a rich soup were desired, butter and flour were folded in. She recommended that soup be seasoned with wine, ketchup, spice, cayenne, and curry powder. N. K. M. Lee's The Cook's Own Book, first published in 1832, copied the encyclopedic approach and the recipes of the previously mentioned British author Richard Dolby. The Cook's Own Book was essentially a compendium of simplified recipes compiled from diverse British and American sources. It included eighty-seven recipes for soups, consommes, and broths. Some were based on asparagus, beef, mutton, beet root, calf's head, carrot, celery, crawfish, cress, cucumber, eel, giblets, gourds, game, hare, herbs, lobster, macaroni, ox-head, ox-heel, ox-tail, peas, pigeons, spinach, venison, vermicelli, and barley. Lee furnished also unusual ones for Lorrain, Moor-fowl, mulligatawny, curry soup, and Cocky-Leeky soup a Scottish derivation made with fowl and leeks.
Almost every other writer concluded that soup was a healthy addition to table. Recipes for soup-making appeared in all general cookbooks, which gave proportionately even greater space to soups as the century progressed. Despite all the coverage, not every American knew how to make soup. The first known American cooking pamphlet focused solely on soups was written by Emma Ewing, Soups and Soup Making (Chicago,1882). She believed that soup was "convenient, economic and healthful." As an article of diet, it ranked second in importance only to bread, proclaimed Ewing. Soup making was "justly entitled to a prominent place in the science of cooking." Scientifically prepared, soup was "easier of digestion than almost any other article of diet." However, she warned that it "must not be a weak, sloppy, characterless compound, nor a crude, greasy, inharmonious hodgepodge. The defects of unsavory, unpalatable, indigestible soups may be concealed, but cannot be removed by the excessive use of salt, pepper and other spices and condiments." Ewing believed that soup "must be skillfully prepared, so as to please the eye and gratify the palate."
Soup was an important part of most Americans' diet by the end of the nineteenth century. As a dish that was both economical and nutritious, soup was prepared for men in prisons and the military, and offered without charge at lunch in saloons. As it was simultaneously inexpensive and considered a gourmet dish, it was just right for all Americans.