Thursday, May 26, 2005
Glue-Like Substance Was Ancestor of Today’s Instant Soups
By ROGER M. GRACE
You’ve probably been wondering all week what soup cakes were.
Well, anyway, last week I quoted a 1902 newspaper article which recited that canned soups were originally not condensed and that “the only portable substitutes were the time-honored ‘soup cakes’ of the kind used in the ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’ ”
That classic novel, about a shipwrecked family stranded on a desert island, was first published in 1812. Here’s what the narrator said about soup cakes:
...I arranged a fireplace with some large flat stones, near the brook which flowed close by. Dry twigs and seaweed were soon in a blaze on the hearth, I filled the iron pot with water, and giving my wife several cakes of the portable soup, she established herself as our cook, with little Franz to help her.
He, thinking his mother was melting some glue for carpentry, was eager to know “what papa was going to make next?”
“This is to be soup for your dinner, my child. Do you think these cakes look like glue?”
“Yes, indeed I do!” replied Franz, “And I should not much like to taste glue soup! Don’t you want some beef or mutton, Mamma?”
“Where can I get it, dear?” said she, “we are a long way from a butcher’s shop! But these cakes are made of the juice of good meat, boiled till it becomes a strong stiff jelly — people take them when they go to sea, because on a long voyage they can only have salt meat, which will not make nice soup.”
Soup cakes were sometimes dried and made into tablets, sometimes fashioned into rolls.
Early commercial vendors of portable soup included Ranken’s Manufactory in Temple Bar, the westernmost sector of London. An ad in the Feb. 22, 1796 issue of the London Times said:
“The number of insipid Compositions that are daily obtruded upon the Public, under the appellation of Portable Soup, was the chief inducement that actuated Ranken, purveyor of Portable Soup to his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, to make the greatest improvement in that article, a circumstance that enables him to submit it to the Gentlemen of the Army and Navy, as the most rich, wholesome and salutary substitute to fresh provisions. These Portable Soups are made separate, from Mutton, Veal, Chicken, and Beef, prepared so as to retain their virtue for many years, so pleasant in their flavour, so strengthening in their nature, as to become the favourite of the most distinguished Personages.”
The London Times on Aug. 31, 1802 contained an ad for Wood & Co.’s Soup House offering portable soup for sale by the quart, “ready packed for the Sea.”
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was undertaken with soup cakes being prominent among the supplies. The “portable soup” was, however, not the most relished of food supplies, according to a report carried by Reuters on May 13, 2004, the article being tied to the 200th anniversary of the start of the westward exploration (in pursuit of a land route to the Pacific Ocean).
Deriving its information from National Archives curator Stacey Bredhoff, the article related:
“One receipt shows the purchase of 193 pounds...of ‘portable soup,’ which Bredhoff said was a paste made of boiled-down beef and cow’s hooves, eggs and vegetables.
“ ‘It was not popular, not at all,’ she said. ‘The only time they consumed it was during the real starvation times, particularly when they were going through the Bitterroot Mountains (along what is now the Idaho-Montana border) in September 1805.’
“They apparently returned to St. Louis with plenty of portable soup left over, Bredhoff said.”
One member of the expedition memorialized happenings on Sept. 14, 1805, as follows:
“[W]ithout a miracle it was impossible to feed 30 hungry men and upwards, besides some Indians. So Capt. Lewis gave out some portable soup, which he had along, to be used in cases of necessity. Some of the men did not relish this soup, and agreed to kill a colt; which they immediately did, and set about roasting it; and which appeared to me to be good eating.”
On the front page of the Stevens Point (Wisc.) Daily Journal on Nov. 14, 1896 there appeared a fictional account of an older woman counselling a young newlywed on how to prepare meals to please a husband who had just stormed out of the house after complaining of her culinary ineptitude.
The mentor advised:
“[F]or dinner,...your first course will be soup, and you can buy the little soup cakes at a cost of 15 cents, which will save you the trouble of making it. To prepare these you need only half a cake, break it up fine, pour on a pint of water and let it boil 13 minutes; serve hot with oyster crackers.”
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns