In the rich and often fanciful world of food and foodies, Famine Soup hardly sounds like a an inspiration for tonight's dinner. It isn't. But it does provide some food for thought and a window into the political world of food and famine.
The soup kitchen, which thankfully multiplied across America during the Depression Era helping to feed the legions of unemployed and destitute, was actually first introduced as a relief effort in Dublin during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1840's. After the potato blight ruined three consecutive harvests in Ireland between 1845 and 1847, the British Prime Minister, Robert Peel, introduced the Soup Kitchen Act in January of 1847 which mandated the setup of soup kitchens throughout all the voting districts of Ireland. By the end of the year, there were over 1200 such kitchens operating, serving a bowl of soup for 1 penny.
And the effort did have its celebrity chef participation:
Alexis Soyer, certainly the most fabled chef and restauranteur in England during the middle of the 19th century, was a Frenchman by birth, trained in some of the best establishments in Paris. By the time he was 17, he was already a master chef with 12 assistants! At the ripe age of 21 (in 1831), he came to London, and quickly built a reputation as a flamboyant and gifted chef among the nobles and landed gentry. In 1837, he was recruited by the new Reform Club, which was to be the most elite gentlemens club in all of London, to help design the kitchen and be the chef de cuisine. He had a knack for innovation and introduced countless gadgets and cooking equipment. So, when he heard about the plight of the Irish in the winter of 1847, he asked for a leave of absence from the Reform club and went to Dublin to lend his talents and expertise to the cause. His soup kitchen became a model for all others. It was designed as a state of the art facility, which at its peak, served 5000 or more bowls of soup a day!
His signature dish? Famine Soup - yes, it was actually called that.
Soyer is one of my favorite characters in the history of Food. I hope to have more about him in future posts. And there will be more about soup kitchens, too, an important chapter in the history of food, relief and politics of charity.