Tag Archives: irish famine

Potatoes and the foods of the poor

I bought 2 kg of potatoes last weekend.  Four days later, I took out the bag to peel some for dinner, and found that every single potato in the bag had shoots on it.

I spent a minute or so muttering about supermarkets and their appalling buying policies, but then I realised that, in a funny way, I felt quite happy for those potatoes.  It’s cold at the moment (by Brisbane standards), but we passed the shortest day three weeks ago.  In their plastic bag, deep in the darkness of my pantry, those potatoes knew that spring is only a week or so away.

We ask a lot of potatoes.  There are some basic foodstuffs we expect to be on hand all year – potatoes and onions, apples and bananas, eggs and milk – yet even the humble spud is really a seasonal vegetable.

purple potato from villandry

Purple potato chips, made from purple potatoes, and served at the Chateau of Villandry in the Loire Valley,  which is noted for its vegetable gardens.

In 1949 the pioneer in World History, William H McNeill published an article on ‘The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland’ in the Journal of Modern History, based on his postgraduate work.  Now that every commodity, from cod to coffee to the colour mauve, seems to have its own historian, it’s easy to miss just how innovative McNeill’s thematic approach then was.  Exactly 50 years later, he returned to the topic with ‘How the Potato Changed the World’s History’, in Social Research: An International Quarterly (1999).  His preoccupation is understandable, for potatoes really did transform the world.

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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.

saucepan

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.