French Chefs Abroad: Alexis Soyer and His Irish Famine Soup Kitchen

It is to be regretted that men of science do not interest themselves more than they do on a subject of such vast magnitude as this; for I feel confident that the food of a country might be increased at least one-third, if the culinary science was properly developed, instead of its being slighted as it is now.

~~ Alexis Soyer, A Shilling Cookbook (1855)

Alexis Benoît Soyer

Jamie Oliver’s fight to bring nutritional nirvana to West Virginia might remind you of somebody.

That somebody was Alexis Benoît Soyer, a flamboyant French chef born in the same year as Abraham Lincoln. Soyer died in 1858 as a result of contracting Crimean fever* at the side of Florence Nightingale, working to reduce the pain and suffering of British soldiers sent to the Crimea “not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”**

Before Soyer so gallantly sailed to the Crimea at his own expense, he took up the cause of the London poor, particularly the Huguenot émigré silk weavers in Spitalfields and the starving millions in Ireland.

He set up soup kitchens in London with the help of wealthy benefactors, mostly women. When the desperate British government sought him out in 1847 to deal with the starving Irish, he stepped up to the stove and doled out 6000 meals a day in less-than-ideal conditions. Making the most of the media of the day,  Soyer wrote copious letters to The Times.

Like Nightingale, he tried to create nutritious food, using some of the nutritional knowledge emerging from the work of scientists like Justus von Leibig, who touted the benefits of beef extract and who proposed its use for laborers and people suffering from illnesses.

Thus was born Soyer’s famous “Famine Soup.”  Soyer claimed that this soup could sustain a healthy working man.

Ingredients for Famine Soup (Large Quantity):

12-1⁄2 lbs leg of beef
100 gallons of water
6-1/4 lbs drippings
100 onions and other vegetables
25 lbs each of flour (seconds) and pearl barley
1-1/2 lbs brown sugar
9 lbs salt

Ideally, in looking at the ingredients, the drippings, sugar, flour, and barley would provide energy and spare the protein in the beef from being used as energy. Depending upon what types of vegetables the cooks threw into the pot, the soup also likely provided vitamins and minerals in some quantity. Soyer recommended celery leaves, turnips, and the green ends of leeks, which we usually thrown away.  He figured that the cost of a quart of this soup cost ¾ d. Unfortunately, many critics pounced on Soyer and upbraided him for misrepresenting the nutritional value of his soup. Twelve pounds of meat to 100 gallons of water DOES make a pretty “skinny” soup.

But Soyer’s heart sat firmly in the right place, as he made clear in Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, or the Poor Man’s Regenerator:

Though I have fulfilled my promise by giving publicity to my Receipts for Food, which I have composed for the poor, it has been suggested to me by the benevolent, to publish a small pamphlet with the following receipts, which might prove useful to humanity at large, having the great advantage of being very cheap and easily made. I have also added a few simple receipts for dishes, which may be made at a trifling expense, by copying which, every labouring family may reduce their expense, and live much better than they have hitherto done.

Alcide Mirobolant

Punch quipped about this “Famine Soup,” saying it was “not Soup for the Poor, but rather, Poor Soup!”  In creating a stereotypical French chef named “Alcide Mirobolant,” William Makepeace Thackeray parodied Soyer in Pendennis,  a novel published in 1849.

Soyer served as the first chef of the Reform Club in London and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful. Because he never learned to write in English, he turned to F. Volant and J. R. Warren to write a prolific stream of cookbooks, including books for bettering the nutrition of soldiers and the poor. You will find many of his books on Google Books. (See list below.)

The impact of most migrating French chefs might not have been on the same level as Soyer, whose camp stove was used as late as the Gulf War in the early 1990s, but examining their influence proves that much remains to be disc9vered.

________________

*Modern medical experts believe “Crimean fever” may have been typhoid fever.

** In the words of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Books by Soyer:

The Gastronomic Regenerator: a Simplified and Entirely New System of Cookery … Suited to the Incomes of all Classes (1846)

Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, or the Poor Man’s Regenerator (1848)

The Modern Housewife or Menagère (1849)

The Pantropheon, or History of Food and its Preparation (1853)

Alexis Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People (1855)

Soyer’s Standard Cookery for the People (1855) (Enlarged and revised American edition of A Shilling Cookery for the People)

Soyer’s Culinary Campaign, Being Historical Rminiscences of the Late War … (1857)

Instructions to Military Hospital Cooks in the Preparation of Diets for Sick Soldiers … the Receipts, by G. Warriner and A. Soyer (1860)

Books About Soyer:

The Adventurous Chef: Alexis Soyer, by Ann Arnold (2002, juvenile)

The People’s Chef, by Ruth Brandon (2006)

Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef, by Ruth Cowen (2006)

Portrait of a Chef, by Helen Morris (1938)

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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2 comments

  1. Once again, wonderful, fascinating food history. Thank you, Cynthia. I’d never heard of Chef Soyer so merci for the introduction. He sounds like an incredible person that did very good deeds — was he possibly the first celebrity chef?

    • Charles, I agree, Soyer sounds like an amazing person even after all these years. His charity work alone, not to mention his inventions, earned him a firm place in history.

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