Read an Excerpt
Amazing soup! (how sweet the taste!)
That ﬁll’d a wretch like me!
I once did hunger, now am sate;
Did thirst, am now replete.
’Twas soup that ﬁlled my heart with pain And soup that pain reliev’d;
How precious did that soup appear,
When I was lost and grieved.
Thro’ many sauces, salads and sweets,
I have already bent;
’Tis soup that gratiﬁed my need,
And soup that does content.
The Lord has promis’d broth to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my consommé provide,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this meat and bone shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
Some vichysoisse and peace.
This earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But borscht, which call’d me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
–Jerry Newman, contemporary Canadian poet and novelist
The Origins and History of Soup
Stone Age people created soup before they had a pot to cook it in, a bowl to serve it in, or a gourd to drink it from.
In fact, it’s not completely clear who ﬁrst stumbled onto the concept of soup–anthropologists disagree, depending on their read of existing artifacts. Some say it was one of the Homo sapiens gang, sometime after
80,000 b.c.e.–either the Neanderthals or the Cro-Magnons who ultimately did those poor Neanderthals in. Others argue for a later generation–Neolithic man, around 10,000 b.c.e.
I kind of like the Neanderthal theory. It was a particularly tough and dangerous world back then. These hunter-gatherers were stuck in the last blast of an Ice Age that killed off much of their food and many species. It was every man for himself as the Neanderthals ran fearfully from–and ran hungrily after–woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers,
wolves, and other hominids. And yet elderly Neanderthal skeletons have been found in France with teeth worn down below gum level–and deeply crippled skeletons have been found, too. This means that some older or sickly prehistoric men had been kept alive only through the compassion of their communities and the brilliance of someone who could create hot and soupy food alternatives to incredibly cold indigestible plants and tough meat.
I try to put myself under the toque of that Stone Age Julia Child. I imagine him or her using bark to dip and carry water . . .
putting food in the water and noticing it soften or swell . . . marking how plants and berries, meat and marrow chunks would infuse the water with color and ﬂavor. I imagine him or her getting the idea of warming the broth from the warm mother’s milk that kept little Neanderthal babies happy.
Soup! It’s an unbelievable achievement–a matter of thought overreaching what was technologically possible at the time. In the words of anthropologist Sally McBrearty: “The earliest Homo sapiens probably had the cognitive capability to invent Sputnik . . . but didn’t yet have the history of invention or a need for those things.” But soup? Yes, he needed soup. He needed soup, so he imagined soup. He imagined soup, so he brought it into being, despite his lack of pots to cook it in.
In fact, soup turned out to be a transforming concept that changed early man’s relationship to nature, increased his life choices, and created completely new needs and desires. One eon he’s a vegetarian in the garden of Eden, the next he’s scavenging or hunting raw ﬂesh and sucking bone marrow . . . then, almost suddenly, he’s ﬁgured out an unbelievably complex process with tools to produce a hot meal. It’s a gastronomic miracle, and it’s art: multiple colors, multiple textures,
multiple ﬂavors–something created by man that had never existed before in the history of the world.
But how on earth could early man in 10,000 b.c.e., at the latest, have boiled things . . . without the pottery that he ﬁnally created in 6,000
b.c.e. and the cauldrons that followed in 3,600 b.c.e.?
How Can You Make Soup Without Pots?
I propose two theories.
First, prehistoric man might have boiled animals in their skins. He could have ﬂayed his prey, suspending the skin on forked sticks, ﬁlling the bag with water and food, and lighting a ﬁre underneath. The skin would not catch ﬁre because it would be cooked by the boiling water on the inside (but don’t try this trick at home). In fact, this technique has been used by many cultures in recorded history, from Scythians in
ﬁfth century b.c.e. to Irish and Scots in the sixteenth century.
Second, our ancestors might have used the “hot stone” method. First you dig a hole or ﬁnd one, and ﬁll it with water. Then you build a ﬁre close by and heat stones in it. Then, one by one, and
v-e-r-y carefully, you transfer the stones to the water until it boils.
And it will. Stones can be heated to a temperature of 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit in a well-laid hearth. How do I know that? Because in 1954,
archeologist Michael J. O’Kelly proved it in experiments with his students at primeval Irish sites: “They used the hearths to heat stones, used a dampened wooden shovel to dump them in the water,
brought the water to a boil, and simmered a 10-pound leg of mutton for
3 hours 40 minutes by adding stones every few minutes. . . . Then they ate the results: ‘excellently cooked and most tasty.’ ”*
What Went into the Earliest Soups?
After those ﬁrst catch-as-catch-can soups of wild plants and animals,
and after vast ﬁelds of grain sprang up in Europe and Asia, it turned out to be grains and beans–early man’s ﬁrst agricultural triumphs in Neolithic times–that went into soup. By 7000 b.c.e., Emmer wheat had been domesticated in Turkey, and barley, millet, and beans in Greece.
By 5000 b.c.e., rice was being cultivated in China. These were the stuff of early soups. And, of course, these remain our most revered modern comfort foods. Read on.
Grains cooked in broth continue to be lovingly prepared in most cultures: porridges and gruels from ground wheat; couscous soups and farina soups; barley soups and tsampas; oatmeal soups and rice congee.
Imagine the astonished look on ancient man’s face when he ﬁrst witnessed the miracle of chemistry–when heating caused these cereal grains to release starch granules into the broth and make it thick.
Bean/pea soup was in vogue long before Esau sold his birthright for it
(that biblical “mess of pottage” was lentil soup), and it is an established part of every cuisine in the world without exception–every one! From feijoada in Brazil, to huku ne dovi in Zimbabwe, to misoshiru in Japan, and everything in between.
And then there’s the ancient variation of ground wheat made into a bread that turns so hard without today’s modern preservatives that it can be made edible again only by pouring boiling broth over it. I know this bread from years I spent living in Morocco: that marvelous freshly baked kisra–a thick Frisbee of chewy bread–would turn to stone in 24
hours. This is called “sop,” when dunked in hot liquid, the origin of our words soup, soupe, sup, sopa, soppe, zuppe, shorba, çorbasi. This combination is the basis of Portuguese sopa secos and asordas; Arabic shorbas; Spanish garlic soup; French panades, onion soup, and garbure;
Italian aquacotta; Danish ollebrod, Estonian leivasupp, and French l’aïgo boulido. You’ll ﬁnd an Egyptian fatta soup on page 248 whose very name means to break crisped pita bread into food.
So there you have it. This part of our everyday cuisine, this soup that we take so much for granted, began life as a miracle of intellection,
kept humankind alive through extremes of privation over the ages, and now serves to bind our common humanity, nurse our ills, and mark life’s passages.
When I ponder soup, I think of ancient Tollund Man, dug out of a Danish peat bog in the 1950s and perfectly preserved. He’d been ritually sacriﬁced to the gods–strangled–but ﬁrst given a ﬁne last meal, still intact in his stomach. What was it? You know what it was: it was soup.
A thick soup of grain and weed seeds ground in a hand mill and boiled.
From the Trade Paperback edition.