Originally published June 7, 1984
The art of soup-making has long been an essential and laudable achievement. In fact, soup was among man’s first culinary creations. The first of them were doubtless prepared by putting meat, bones, liquid and perhaps some seasonings, in animal-skin bags. Also added were hot stones to cook them. Later, as clay containers were created, the ingredients became more varied, and were cooked slowly over direct heat. Thus was devised the first “pot au feu” (French for pot on the fire).
In Europe, the early wealthy Romans enjoyed a variety of intricate soups at their lengthy banquets, while lesser folk subsisted on more basic and hearty creations. From the cookbook by Apicius, believed to have written in the first century A.D., we can determine that there was an excellent array of earthenware and bronze pots and kettles for preparing soups.
During the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, there were no resources for fancy experimentation with soup or any other fare. It was a time of foraging for anything to keep alive, and soups became the mainstay of the daily diet. Basic creations filled with grains and other easily accessible foods, they provided warmth and nourishment. The first soup kitchens, which would be revived over and over again in times of need, were established in the monasteries. Countless numbers of hungry unfortunates were thus able to survive.
The word for soup evolved from sop, the name for a piece of bread dipped in meat broth, during the Middle Ages. About the twelfth century the broth was called sop or soupe, and other ingredients were added to the liquid. In the cuisines of western Europe there are still many similar words. In Austria, Germany, Denmark and Norway, for example, the dish is suppe. In Spain and Portugal it is soppa, in Holland soep and Sweden soppa. The Italians use the word zuppa. A notable exception to this similarity of names is the Finnish keijto.
Escoffier, the great French chef, said “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tensions of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.”