Lithograph of a woman carrying a bowl of soup, a blanket and a bottle of medicine

A Pocket Full of Soup

By Kenneth M. Koyle ~

January is National Soup Month, and for obvious reasons. This is the middle of winter for those of us in the northern hemisphere, and hot soup is a perennial favorite winter comfort food. Generations of people have enjoyed soup in countless varieties on a cold winter’s day, and not just because it’s a tasty way to warm up one’s insides. Cold weather is not just uncomfortable, it can also lead to an increase in the transmission of viruses and other infectious diseases. The reasons for this are readily apparent and have been recognized for centuries—the cold drives people indoors, often huddled together for warmth in cramped spaces, creating a perfect environment for disease to spread from person to person through physical contact or respiratory dispersal.

Lithograph of a woman carrying a bowl of soup, a blanket and a bottle of medicine
“Good for a Cold”
Currier & Ives, New York, 1857–1872
National Library of Medicine #101393460

Various soups and soup-like concoctions have been recommended through the centuries to sooth all-too-common winter maladies. Today, “chicken soup” is often used as a shorthand for soothing what ails you.  In a 1999 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal the authors argue (clearly tongue-in-cheek) that chicken soup, which has been prescribed for various illnesses for over 2,000 years, should be considered an “essential drug.” While good soup with the right ingredients can be part of a healthy diet and can certainly help you feel good, calling it medicinal would be a bit of a stretch.

The National Library of Medicine’s collections include dozens of recipe books dating back to the 17th century, and almost all of them contain recipes for all sorts of soups—some familiar, some unusual or bizarre by present-day standards. Many of these early recipes are accompanied by anecdotal medicinal and curative claims. A 1767 handwritten recipe book by Charlotte Rous provides a recipe for Oyster Soup, along with several broths and mixtures to treat everything from ague (fever and chills) to the plague (which concludes with a claim that “You may trust to this medicine for no man, woman, or child, that ever took it did amiss in all ye great & long Plague.”) Of course, none of these went through any rigorous scientific testing, and just as with the amusing idea of chicken soup as an essential drug mentioned above, it would be fallacy to think the plague or any serious ailment could be cured through these admixtures.

A page of handwritten text in a book.
Page 109 from the recipe book of Charlotte Rous, 1767
National Library of Medicine #2932083R

In The New Book of Cookery, or Every Woman a Perfect Cook (the subtitle goes on much longer, but we’ll cut it off there for the sake of brevity), estimated to have been published around 1780 (the book does not specify a publication date), Mrs. Elizabeth Price (of Berkeley-Square) gives us six interesting soup recipes. One of these, “A Pocket or Portable Soup,” is an 18th-century instant soup recipe that “will keep good for many months.” The soup consists of a leg of veal that has been boiled and strained into a jelly, which is then dried on a piece of new flannel. When dry, “you may carry them in your pocket without the least inconvenience.” When it’s time to eat the dried soup, you simply break off a piece “the size of a large walnut” and put it in a pint of boiling water.

…you may carry them in your pocket without the least inconvenience. When you make use of it, take a piece about the size of a large walnut, and pour a pint of boiling water on it; stir it till it is melted, and season it to your palate.

If “pocket soup” isn’t your thing, perhaps you would prefer something with an aquatic flare. Mrs. Price offers a simple recipe for Eel Soup: “To every pound of eels put a quart of water, an onion, a blade or two of mace, a crust of bread, a bunch of sweet herbs, and some whole pepper.” Unfortunately, my local grocer does not carry eels, but if you happen to have access to a pound or two, I’m sure Mrs. Price would be pleased to have you add her recipe to your lunch or dinner repertoire.

If you prefer recipes from this century, MedlinePlus offers more than a dozen healthy and delicious soup recipes for you to try—no new eel recipes for now though, so you’ll have to rely on Mrs. Price’s to satisfy that craving.

Whether you like your soup from a can, make it from scratch using an old family recipe, or pull a piece out of your pocket and drop it in boiling water, we hope you enjoy it in good health during National Soup Month!

Portrait of Kenneth M. KoyleKenneth M. Koyle is Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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