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15 december 2011

Janet Clarkson begins her energetic and engaging global history of soup with the fear that there isn't much to say about soup. It's water with stuff cooked in it. She gains heart when she realizes that soup is both universal and prehistoric. To write its global history is to consider the most basic questions about how humans feed themselves.

A human being is a soup-making animal. Clarkson quotes (Boswell quoting) Johnson to the effect that "man is a 'Cooking Animal'," and if you cook, you make soup: QED. The earliest soups were probably concocted by boiling water containing bits of animals – in their own skins. The stockpot was an invention prefigured by several earlier incarnations: holes in the ground, shells, baskets, ceramic pots. Very shortly after the Bronze Age got going, orders poured in for two-, four-, and eight-quart soup pots. Soup eventually gained cast-iron permanence in human cuisines.

Soup hasn't had many revolutionary epochs. Canning made it a commodity, but its actual preparation and eating, and its culinary significance, have hardly changed since the Bronze age. For one thing, it's difficult to make a really high-end soup. Soup is par excellence the food of the poor, a dish given away in kitchens and lines. A filling meal-in-a-pot soup is likely to feature root vegetables, greens, and some sort of more-or-less-smashed-up grain. Making haute cuisine out of such recipes, Clarkson shows, often involves subtracting ingredients. The highest-toned soups of all are barely more than water with a suggestion of essence de quelque chose.

In fact, one such soup for the "worried well" (32) was called in Paris a "restaurant": something that would restore you to health with its delicate, hydrating qualities. Restaurateurs became so fashionable and rich by providing such health food that their establishments became public-dining standards, and the name of their principal dish became a metonym for any place to eat that promised food a cut above the fare at – ironically – soup kitchens.

I don't make a lot of soup per se, but I have chronicled my regular stock-making days here (with the addition of plastic utensils to the basic Bronze-Age toolkit). Soup for me is the basis of other dishes, but depending on how much stock I add, the result is usually somewhere between weak stew and thick soup. Such potages are the basis of Clarkson's book, as well as world nutrition.

Clarkson, Janet. Soup: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.