Soup and democracy
I like soup. During these cold winter months I make a large pot every weekend–pumpkin and ginger, corn and asparagus, chicken noodle, lamb and veggie, lentil and chorizo. For me there’s nothing as comforting, no meal as intimate or satisfying as a bowl of soup served with a good sourdough. It warms the soul as well as the tummy.
I also like kitchen stories. One of my favourites is Ian Kelly’s wonderful biography of Antonin Carême, Cooking for Kings. Carême lived and worked in 19th century Paris. Arguably the world’s first celebrity chef, he was one of the founders of haute cuisine. At his peak Carême cooked for the who’s-who of European aristocracy, from Napoleon to King George IV, from the Ramonovs to the Rothschilds. Integral to his fame and influence were his best-selling recipe books. By marrying food and glamour, taking readers to the kitchens and dining rooms of the rich and famous, Carême raised the profile of cooking and established the benchmarks of professional cookery for generations to come.
Despite inhabiting the world of culinary excess, Carême held tenaciously to the view that every meal, no matter how lavish or ordinary, must begin with soup. In Carême’s mind there were two reasons for this. Firstly, eating soup was a democratic act. The great leveller of social standing, a bowl of soup served to both pauper and king was the most tangible daily expression of community and equality. Secondly, Carême believed that soup was a healing food, good for body and soul. In fact, the earliest French eating houses served nothing else, for going to a restaurant was considered, quite literally, a restorative (restauratif) act. Soup was the only food necessary.
Conceivably, Carême’s passion for soup had something to do with his beginnings. Born into abject poverty in the early 1800s—child number fourteen of twenty six children—he was abandoned by his father as a young child on the streets of Paris. Eventually, he began his working life as a modest pastry chef and from there began his meteoric rise in the world of gastronomy. Perhaps along the way, the humble soup was a reminder of who he was and where he had come from.
I’m not sure my reasons for preferring soup are quite as noble as Carême’s, but I do reckon the humble pot of soup deserves respect. Perhaps this weekend I’ll ferret out the faux-silver terrine and make it look a little grand!