The food bank is rapidly becoming a vital addition to local communities across twenty-first century Britain. In the nineteenth century, soup shops played an equally important role in the rapidly expanding towns that had been spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Back then, people in need were dependent upon the parish, which, under an act that had been passed in the time of Elizabeth I, had a legal obligation to care for its poor. Everyone in the parish contributed to a poor rate, which was distributed to those deemed to be in need and worthy of assistance. In times of extreme economic distress communities often took further action and those who had the means would provide blankets and set up soup shops as large sections of local society struggled to survive on the few shillings a week from the poor fund. The following is taken from the very first edition of The Birmingham Inspector, a short lived newspaper published in 1817. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 would bring in the workhouse system that we tend to associate with Victorian poverty (although Birmingham was a slightly different case), but prior to that the precarious lives of the indigent poor could often be dependent on the provision of cheap soup. This notion of a nutritious and cheap ration of food had come from the continent at the beginning of the century, the brain child of Count Rumford, an advisor to the Bavarian monarchy and possibly the founder of soup kitchens. The suggestion presented by the newspaper is for the setting up of a soup shop in Birmingham.
The Inspector article begins by first decrying the national obsession with eating meat and suggests that it will therefore be fortunate, both as respect to the finances and the health of the community, if the expedients of a hard time should render a simpler diet habitual and that the consumption of meat should be reduced to its proper and moderate degree. The article then moves on to extol the virtues of soup, as first presented by Rumford:
The action of water in the preparation of food is perhaps not sufficiently known, or not considered. It was early observed by Count Rumford that the quantity of solid food necessary to form soup, amply nutritious, was so very small as to excite astonishment, how a person could possibly exist upon it…this is effected by the long-continued application of gentle heat to a mixture of water and vegetable matter; as barley-meal, oatmeal or potatoes.
The economy of this method of food preparation was further ‘scientifically’ explained in such a way that it made soup sound like some new-fangled invention of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a simple method of cooking that has been around, probably forever!
The fairinaceous and gelatinous particles thus become completely suspended and diffused through the water, and when received into the stomach, draw it, as it were, with themselves, into a course of decomposition and consequent digestion.
The best and most economical recipe to ensure maximum nutrition at minimum cost should be,
One pound of solid matter, in the form of grain or meal, would probably be amply sufficient to thicken a gallon of water; or twenty ounces if a large proportion of potatoes are to be used. These proportions should be considered…as the basis of this soup, which ought to be kept several hours in a state of simmering, not boiling; the principal intention of other additions is to give flavour. The use of potatoes is strongly recommended as highly nutritious and greatly reducing the expense, they should be reduced in boiling to an uniform pulp.
The addition of other vegetables to this most basic of soup were presented only as flavourings and these should be of the finest and strongest flavour, such as celery, onions, turnip and carrot &c., all cut into small and thin slices; herbs &c….and the whole, if well seasoned with salt and pepper will absolutely not require the addition of meat, either in point of nutriment, flavour or solidity.
The writer of the article concludes by stating that the foregoing hints have not been thrown out at random: they have been verified by actual experiment and once more congratulates the name of Rumford a name which, after all the ridicule which is affected to be cast upon it, stands foremost in the list of those who have soberly and effectually exerted themselves to remedy the evils which the madness and folly of the rich and the great, in all countries, bring down upon the poor and lowly.