Monthly Archives: August 2011

Celebrity Chefs and Soup Kitchens

It’s been cold recently, so I’ve been making soup.  Great stuff, soup.  You make it using whatever is to hand – my friend in Paris regularly makes a brew she calls fond de frigo, throwing in everything in the fridge that looks a bit iffy: old vegetables, left over meat or chicken, bits of salami, and adds some lentils or stale bread.


There’s no real recipe for this sort of soup, yet mysteriously, it takes on  the flavours of the society that creates it.  National dishes reflect what foods are available and cheap in a region, and soup is usually cheap.  So French pot au feu, or Louisiana gumbo, or Vietnamese pho, all share certain characteristics: a basis of stock, some sort of added stodge such as bread or rice or noodles, a variety of local herbs and vegetables, and as much animal protein as the cook can afford.  If more people turn up for dinner, just add water.

Soup is filling, at least for a while, and it has always been the food of the poor.  Show me a country where the national dish is a soup – and I’ll show you a poor country.  Under some circumstances, rich and poor shared the same dish.  In the great kitchens of large country houses, joints of meat and cloth-wrapped puddings were boiled in a cauldron before being sauced and sent to the table; the boiling liquid gradually became a broth, which was served to the poor.  It must have tasted like warm dishwater, especially if the ratio of puddings to meat was high, but even grease is good, if you’re hungry enough.

It’s a long way from the world of celebrity chefs and their TV shows and the plethora of recipe books they produce.  Today we have foul mouthed chefs and iron chefs and travelogue chefs and fat hairy biker chefs – and even celebrity chefs with a social conscience.  Soup doesn’t photograph well – it tastes much better than it looks – but it was central to the life of one of the earliest celebrity chefs, the French chef at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London.

Alexis Soyer, portrait by his wife, Emma Soyer

Alexis Soyer, portrait by his wife, Emma Soyer. This same portrait appeared on the frontispiece of most of his books, though as Emma died in 1842, it became increasingly out of date.

Alexis Soyer was born near Paris in 1810.  At the age of 11, he was apprenticed to a cook at the Palace of Versailles, where the Bourbon king was back in residence after the fall of Napoleon.  In 1830, the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown, and Soyer moved to England.  He worked for a number of aristocrats, including the Duke of Sutherland, then became chef at the Reform Club, founded in 1836.  In Soyer’s day, most chefs worked for private households.  Working at a private club was halfway to our idea of a restaurant and Soyer introduced new dishes, such as Lamb Cutlets Reform, that reflect the need to cook to order.

Soyer loved new technologies.  He introduced gas cooking at the Reform Club, and he invented new gadgets, such as a Magic Stove for tabletop cooking.  He marketed a range of bottled sauces.  He also wrote cookbooks: The Gastronomic Regenerator (1847), Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, or, The Poor Man’s Regenerator (1848), The Modern Housewife (1849), and A Shilling Cookery for the People (1854).  Mark Hix in The Independent describes him as ‘the Jamie Oliver of his time’, and like Oliver, he tried to teach the working class how to prepare food cheaply.

In 1847, he went to Ireland at the request of the government to set up soup kitchens to help deal with the potato famine.  He later published his recipe for Famine Soup:

12½ lb beef
100 gallons water
6¼ lb dripping
100 onions and other vegetables
25lb flour (seconds) and pearl barley
1½ lb brown sugar
9lb salt

It sounds revolting – and specifying second-class flour seems to highlight just how cold such charity really was.  As Jane Grigson says, in English Food (1974),

Perhaps the tradition of Dickens and the workhouse, and … manor house ladies and rectors’ wives has somewhat damaged the notion of soup for the English.  Nearly every Victorian cookery book has a recipe for charitable or beneficial soup, to be trotted round the parish by mother and unmarried daughters to the deserving poor.

In 1855, Soyer went to the Crimea, where he introduced new field stoves for the British army.  As another Frenchman said, an army marches on its stomach.  When Soyer died in 1858, the Morning Chronicle said that he had saved as many soldiers as Florence Nightingale by his new invention.

But how successful were his ideas for improving the diet of the poor?  Not very, I suspect.  Like many professional chefs who try to teach economy, Soyer’s recipes didn’t translate easily to the lives of poor people.  They economize on ingredients – but assume there will be a kitchen, a saucepan, a ladle, a stove.  Soup needs firewood or electricity to keep it on the boil for a long time, and the poor lacked power – in so many ways!  Soyer’s way might feed the multitudes in an emergency, but for individuals, better the comfort of the chophouse (or Maccas) than the charity of the soup kitchen.

So it’s interesting that Jamie Oliver – the Alexis Soyer of our time? – has surprisingly few recipes for soup on his website, and in the cookery books he directs to the culinarily-challenged, he economizes on time and labour, not on ingredients.  Though a meal in 30 minutes won’t clear out the composting vegetables in the bottom of my fridge.

7 Books that changed the way I think about history

These are not necessarily my favourite books, or ones I will read again, but at the time, they were the ones that made me switch a gear, and think about something in a new and exciting way.

geoffrey blainey, The Tyranny of Distance 1. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance (1967).  This book came out when I was an undergraduate, the year I did the only course my university offered in Australian history.  It was published in paperback, and I bought it – one of the few non textbooks I bought as a student.  Of course it is famous now for its title – even though distance is less of an issue for Australians in the days of the internet and cheap air travel than it was in 1967.  Blainey writes simply, with great clarity of expression, without the rhetorical flourishes of Manning Clark, whose volumes of A History of Australia were coming out at the same time.  I still love Blainey’s fascination with concrete things – shipping routes and the change from sail to steam, the importance of telegraphs and railway lines.  At his worst (Black Kettle and Full Moon, 2003) he occasionally sounds like an elderly uncle nattering on about the good old days, but Tyranny was Blainey at his best.

2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (1983).  Ben Anderson is a specialist on Indonesian history, but in the early 1980s he wrote a book, really an extended essay, where he investigated the idea of communities that transcend simple geography and are bound together by their shared consumption of ‘print culture’ – newspapers, books, whatever.  So an ‘imagined community’ might comprise all those reading Luther’s pamphlets in the early 16th century, or everyone who read The Times in the 19th century.  Whether they lived in London or Rockhampton, their ideas about the Crimean War were shaped by the same reading.  There’s a lot more to Anderson’s thesis than this, but the idea of the ‘imagined community’ was revelatory.  It was also remarkably prescient, such a useful concept in the age of social media-based communities, both narrower and broader than Anderson then – let alone Luther – could ever have imagined.

3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (1992).  The whole argument is more than the sum of its parts in this book, a rather diverse collection of individual chapters about things like the invention of the tartan kilt in 19th century Scotland.  I’ve no desire to re-read this book, but again, the central idea is arresting: often ideas and traditions that we assume date from the dim past are quite recent inventions.  The Victorians (and their continental equivalents) were good at this, recreating Edinburgh Castle or Carcassone in a medieval style that is completely faked. Material examples are easy to pick – old Queensland houses in ‘heritage colours’, for instance – but historians need to have a good bullshit detector for examples of the invention of traditions in the world of ideas, as well.

4. The French historian Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie once said that historians can be divided into parachutists and truffle hunters – a very French image.  Fernand Braudel was the doyen of the parachutists, founder of the Annales School (named after a French history journal that published the work of him and his followers).  His method was to see and interpret the scene spread out below him, at a moment in time, like a parachutist descending from on high.  In The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1972), he looked at the lives of ordinary people around the Mediterranean in the late 16th century, for whom historical events like the rise and fall of dynasties were less important than the rhythms of the seasons, the annual migration of flocks to the high pastures, and so on.  I admire his books, though I think some are better translated than others, but I guess my favourite would be The Identity of France (1982) – anyone who can create a map of France based on variations in roof tiles between regions is my sort of guy!

5. While Braudel was the parachutist, Le Roy Ladurie identified himself as the truffle hunter.  To be a good truffle hunter, you need to find a good source of truffles, and Le Roy Ladurie found it in Montaillou (1975, later in translation).  Montaillou was a village in the Pyrenees.  In the 13th century, many of the local residents were sympathetic to the Cathar heresy.  Then the Inquisition arrived to investigate; they interrogated everyone in the village, asking the most intrusive and personal questions about everything from contraception to cooking.  The records survive, and Le Roy Ladurie has used them to create a fascinating study of village life, by probing deep into the evidence.  Montaillou is a tiny canvas, and he teases out every thread within it, to reveal a deep knowledge of the society he is studying.

6. Alan Atkinson, Camden (1988). With far fewer records to work from, Alan Atkinson has done something similar for a small area of semi-rural New South Wales in the 19th century.  When the book first came out, one reviewer described it as like a Brueghel painting, and it is, for me, one of the most evocative books in Australian history published in the last 50 years.  (Alan is also the only historian in this list that I know personally).

7. Dava Sobel, Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time (1996). Dava Sobel’s book was a most unexpected bestseller when it came out, originally with a small print run of – I think – 5000 in 1995.  She took an important, but little known topic, the quest to find a way of measuring longitude at sea – and turned it into a page turner through sheer literary skill.  I don’t think there is a single passive sentence in this book.  Her verbs are energetic and active, and she has a clever chapter structure, switching between separate aspects of the story with the good old ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ technique.  Other writers have tried to emulate her success with one-topic narratives, some very well (Simon Winchester, Mark Kurlansky), but her book was the first, a breakthrough in this style of writing.  It’s a pity that she, or her editors, also decided to invent the really long and self-explanatory sub-title!



A friend of mine said recently that she couldn’t imagine living without a refrigerator.  Neither could I – I need somewhere for old vegetables to moulder into compost, and small pieces of cheese to develop new and interesting life forms.

But the reality is that fridges are only a recent addition to many kitchens, even in wealthy Australia, and most parts of the world cope without domestic refrigeration altogether.

Yet the need to keep food fresh has existed ever since the first hunters caught their first mammoth, and decided to save some for later.  The best answer, then as now, was ice.

In Siberia, people made dumplings called pelmeni in great numbers, froze them naturally in the ice outside their homes, then boiled and ate them as needed.  Early in the 20th century, Clarence Birdseye saw Inuit using ice similarly to preserve fish and applied the technique to set up the Birds Eye Frozen Food Co – one of many examples of indigenous knowledge being applied to make someone else a fortune.

In most regions of the world, however, ice is at best a seasonal phenomenon.  Before the invention of refrigeration in the 19th century, various strategies existed to make the most of this seasonal harvest.  It was a luxury – and like most luxuries, it was available at a price.  Wealthy Romans used slaves to bring ice from the mountains.  Later the Persians and Mughals did the same: the Oxford English Dictionary calls ‘sherbet’ a ‘cooling drink of the East, made of fruit juice and water sweetened, often cooled with snow.’

The logistics of transporting ice and snow such long distances meant that it was a product for conspicuous consumption – to cool drinks at banquets, for instance – rather than a reliable way of preserving food.  For that, other processes, such as salting, drying, smoking, or sealing under fat, made more sense, and led to the development of many of our favourite foodstuffs: bacon, jerky, kippers or confit de canard.

But harvesting local snowfalls was another matter, still the preserve of the rich, but logistically feasible.


Federico da Montefeltro

Piero della Francesca, Federico da Montefeltro, in Wikimedia Commons

In the small Italian town of Urbino, in Umbria, stands the palace of Federico da Montefeltro, Renaissance prince and scholar – and one tough bastard, both literally and metaphorically.  In the portrait above, you can see his odd profile – this is because, having lost one eye in a tournament, he ordered the surgeon to remove the bridge of his nose so that his one remaining eye would have a wider field of vision.  Like I say, one tough bastard.

When Federico ordered the extension of the Ducal Palace in Urbino, he wanted all the latest mod cons.  This included a complex plumbing system, and a system for harvesting the winter snow.  The palace covers many levels on the hillside of Urbino, and on one of the topmost levels is an open courtyard filled with roses – an ideal secret garden for his trophy wife, Battista Sforza.

The rose garden sits above the lower levels of the palace, its soil no doubt renewed from time to time by sweating workers.  The function of this courtyard only becomes clear when you look more closely – a series of holes in the pavement allowed workers to shovel the winter snow through to storage pits below.  Packed tight, the snow turned to ice, a cold storage area for the palace, designed to preserve food well into the summer months.  As the ice slowly melted, a drainage system distributed water through the palace.  The cleanest water was heated for Duke Federico’s bath.  More water went to the kitchens, the grey water finally finding its way to the stables at the base of the palace.

The snow melt system at the Palace of Urbino is particularly well preserved because, after Federico, the place became a backwater. Federico’s son left no children, and Urbino was incorporated in the Papal States.  One of its later residents was the exiled James II of England.

Amongst the European landed gentry more modest icehouses were commonplace.  Snow is fleeting, but ice is dense, and needs a good deal of heat to melt it – as those of us old enough to go back to the days when fridges needed defrosting will remember.  An icehouse, packed with snow during winter, could preserve surplus meat and dairy into the summer months.

But what about those of us who live in regions where there is no snowfall, or any snow covered mountaintops nearby?

In the 19th century, a new market for ice developed, with wealthy people in hot lands – like Australia during the Gold Rushes – prepared to pay for the luxury of imported ice.

In the northern winter, the fresh water lakes of New England freeze to a depth of a metre or more, and a trade developed, cutting the frozen lakes into blocks, and transporting them, by rail and ship, around the world.  Packed tightly and carefully insulated, the ice was still frozen when the ships arrived in Melbourne or Calcutta.  The trade was too seasonal for year-round food preservation, so, like the Mughal Emperors, Australian colonists used the ice for conspicuous consumption, to cool their drinks or make flavoured ices.

The trade ended only with the invention of refrigeration.  Artificial ice making turned a luxury into a commonplace – and eventually into a necessity in our fortunate lives.

Nicolino Vicomte Calyo, The Ice Cart

Nicolino Vicomte Calyo, The Ice Cart (c.1840), Yale Digital Commons

Even then, refrigeration moved into the kitchen quite slowly.  Most towns in Australia once had an ice works, which sold ice blocks to families to use in an ice chest.  Beyond the reach of an ice works, country people relied on the good old ‘Coolgardie safe’, a store cupboard with hessian or canvas sides that were kept wet, and acted as an evaporative cooler.

I was once told of a man who made the wrong career choice.  It was the 1930s, and work was hard to come by, but through various family and friends, this young man was offered two alternative jobs.  He could either get an apprenticeship with a man who made ice chests, or with a man who repaired radios (‘the wireless’, in 1930s terminology).  He chose to learn to make ice chests.  Big mistake.



Jane Eyre and the Sisterhood

The umpteenth film of Jane Eyre has just come out, the latest in a long line of Jane Eyres.  Why, I wonder?  Why is the story of the dowdy governess so endlessly popular with filmmakers?  The story has always seemed to me more Mills and Boon than Booker Prize – perhaps we all, however, dowdy, can have a Mr. Rochester somewhere waiting for us, though given his previous marital history, I’d run a mile.

But this takes us back to another puzzle – why did the idea of the governess appeal to so many 19th century novelists?  They are everywhere in Anthony Trollope. Clearly there’s something about the vulnerable single woman in another man’s home that has great narrative possibilities.  And then there’s Thackeray’s Becky Sharp.

Victorians agonised about the experience of the governess.  She had to be a lady, since it was ladylike behaviour that she was teaching – yet ladies, almost by definition, didn’t have to earn their living.  There were so many fraught social problems involved in having a governess in the household.  Did she eat with the servants, or with the family – or perhaps take a lonely meal alone in her room when there was company?

The Governess

Emily Mary Osborn, The Governess, in Yale Digital Commons

Even sensible Jane Austen seems confused by their ambiguity.  In Emma, she has one future and one former governess.  On the one hand, Jane Fairfax is preparing to become a governess, and her friends and family clearly see this as a fate (almost) worse than death.  On the other hand, Emma’s own governess, Mrs Weston – ‘poor Miss Taylor that was’ – has clearly been a much-loved member of the family.

Wealthy English families generally sent their sons to school, but educated their daughters at home.  Boys needed to learn important practical things, like Greek and Latin, cricket and rugby, bullying and fagging, in a professional educational environment.  Whereas girls only needed to learn impractical ‘accomplishments’ like sewing, letter writing, bookkeeping and managing a large household of servants.  This could safely be left to a poorly paid governess to oversee.

In 1805 John Macarthur arrived in New South Wales on the Argo after 3 years in England.  He brought Penelope Lucas, 37, to be governess to his daughters and companion to his wife, Elizabeth.  Mrs Lucas (the Mrs is honorary) stayed with the Macarthurs for the rest of her life, spending her last years in Hambleton Cottage on the Elizabeth Farm estate at Parramatta.

John Macarthur’s nephew, Hannibal, also arrived on the Argo.  In 1826, by then married with a large family, he recruited a governess from England, Charlotte Waring, for his daughters, at the very high salary of £100 per year.

Charlotte was then 30, and had been a governess since the age of 15.  On the voyage out, she became engaged to a NSW settler, James Atkinson, and married him in 1827 after completing her year with the Macarthurs.  (It was always hard to keep women servants in early NSW, because the sex imbalance meant there were plenty of men eager to recruit them elsewhere).

England was a net exporter of governesses in the 19th century, to the British Empire of course, but also further afield, to Russia, America and India – wherever wealthy parents hoped in inculcate English values and cut glass accents in their daughters.  The most famous of these was Anna Leonowens.  Most historians these days believe that The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1871) is fairly unreliable – but it, too, has had a long afterlife on stage and screen.

In 1861, an energetic English woman, Maria Rye, set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, to support women wanting to emigrate to the colonies.  It was a hard slog, for Maria Rye and the governesses both.  By then, most Australian parents preferred to send their children to school, rather than employ a live-in governess, particularly a snooty English woman who might look down on upwardly mobile colonial mothers.  Women like Rosa Phayne, who wrote to the FMCES in 1869:

My impressions of Melbourne and the Colony are thoroughly unfavourable.  I was not one hour in it when I regretted deeply the step I had taken.  I do not use too strong a language when I say no one with the tastes, habits or feelings of a lady should ever come out to Australia.  It may do for mediocre Governesses who can put up with roughness – or I should say vulgarity of mind, a great want of intellect, but I never would advice a lady to try it.  I hate Australia and the Australians.  I shall be with them but never of them.  I would rather have £15 per annum in London than £50 here.

She spent several miserable years in various places, no doubt making life equally miserable for those around her, and is last heard of, in 1872, working in a school – ‘The Principal, as is usual with Bush Ladies, [has] no mind or thought, and in consequence is fast losing her pupils.’

At least she had no madwoman in the attic to contend with – and no Mr. Rochester either.

Why the Census Counts

Next Tuesday night is census night, when we fill in our 10-yearly household census forms – this time with the option to do it all on-line.

It’s a long way from the first Muster of convicts by Governor Hunter in 1795.  Since early New South Wales was a gaol without walls, the first colonial governors did what any good prison governor would do: they ordered all the convicts periodically to gather together while they counted them in Musters.

It’s surprising to realize that this first muster predated the first census in Britain by 6 years.  White settlement in Australia began at just the point where the idea of a regular census was taking hold.  The US conducted its first census in 1790, revolutionary France in 1791 – but the British agonized for another 10 years, worried about privacy, and the danger of disclosing information about their population to enemies.  They finally held their first census in 1801, and have been holding them every decade since then.

Domesday Book 1085

Domesday Book, UK National Archives, E31-2

There were earlier attempts to count populations – the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 is a famous example – but these were essentially inventories of taxable resources.  So was the first real census in NSW, in 1828, which counted horses, cattle and sheep, along with men, women and children in the colony.

This idea of a census is old.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives the original meaning as ‘The registration of citizens and their property in ancient Rome for purposes of taxation’.  In the early 19th century, though, the state moved beyond gathering data for the basic needs of taxation and conscription, to the idea of using that data to crunch the numbers.

The idea of statistics dates from this time.  The word originally meant the data of the state.  The OED’s earliest definition is ‘The science, that is called statistics, teaches us what is the political arrangement of all the modern states of the known world’ (1770) – with no particular mention of numbers.  By the 1830s, statistics implied numbers.  Harriet Martineau wrote that ‘There is great virtue in figures, dull as they are to all but the few who love statistics for the sake of what they indicate.’ (1837)

Policy makers began to recognize that numbers can give you a handle on your strengths and weaknesses as a society.  What are the birth and death rates?  Do these rates differ in urban and rural areas?  Is the population rising in new industrial centres – and if so, how is this reflected the parliamentary representation? It was relatively easy to avoid providing parliamentary representation to Birmingham, while nobody knew exactly what its population was – much harder once a census had been taken.

In convict NSW, different questions preoccupied authorities: in a gaol, the main concerns were what skills did each convict possess, and what were his identifying features, should he escape.  When convicts disembarked they were registered, and the answers to these questions recorded.  As a result we know more about the physical characteristics and abilities of convicts – from their literacy levels to their favourite tattoos – than we do for the British working class as a whole.

Meanwhile the convict musters were gradually transformed into a proper census, the first in NSW in 1828, including free settlers, the military and their families, as well as convicts past and present.  In the 20th century the Commonwealth Government took over responsibility for census collection – except for Aborigines, who were counted separately, if at all, until 1967.

Statistics have transformed our lives, for better or worse.  It is hard to imagine a world, only 2 centuries ago, when governments had almost no idea what their populations were.

But you need to be wary.  Josiah Stamp was an economist and a director of the Bank of England.  He was President of the Royal Statistical Society from 1930-32.  According to him:

The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the night watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases.

He was talking of India under the British Raj – the ‘night watchman’ was the chowky dar, or village watchman – but the principle is pretty sound.  Perhaps it is just as well that this time we can submit our own answers on-line.  I suspect though that – just like newly arriving convicts, we tend to lie about our strengths and weaknesses.