Mrs. McLintock’s Receipts: To make a Soup

March 13, 2014 in Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Uncategorized by M C

iStock_000014854972SmallSometime in the 18th century a clever soul decided if the dish was titled “The New England Boiled Dinner,” this might do something to enliven a meal of meat boiled in broth with root vegetables. Alas, as my California bred husband would morosely tell you.. it didn’t. The New England Boiled dinner is a towering tribute to two and a half centuries of oversized cast iron pots, large families, root cellars, and the rolling boil. It likely was then, and remains, a dish so tender it is almost impossible to distinguish the meat from the vegetable, and a dish so overcooked the only seasoning likely to come through with any force at all is salt.

My husband, and likely the rest of the country, wants nothing to do with the boiled dinner. And yet potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, maybe a bit of cabbage.. and the cheapest cut of beef you can find boiled to fork tender.. this is the stuff of Vermont Sunday suppers. I’ve been pondering the difference between the “boiled dinner,” and “soup,” and it comes down to “plate” vs. “bowl.” A boiled dinner is made with whole potatoes, and often small whole onions, the meat is boiled as a whole piece, and sliced before placing it on the plate.  While the juices from the boiled dinner might be ladled over the serving the meal is not awash in liquid.

A soup, on the other hand is made of chopped things served awash in liquid.  Or.. just liquid, as in a pureed soup.

It fascinates me when I discover the roots of my recipes lurking in the depths of an 18th century cookbook.  It is my husband’s ongoing complaint that my meat soups, chicken, beef, or lamb, contain very little actual meat.  My chicken soup, for example, is made from the remains of a roasted chicken which has already been picked as clean as I can make it.  I simmer the carcass, strain it, remove the bits of bone, and what is left is shards of meat in a nicely flavored stock.  But certainly not chunks of meat.  Instead the soup is bulked up with vegetables.  To thicken my chicken soup, and give it some extra substance, I use eggs added to a cup of cooled broth, then added to the cooled pot.  Cooking the soup on low heat thickens the eggs turning the soup a rich shade of yellow.

Imagine my surprise to discover Mrs. McLintock also makes her soups with virtually no meat in them.  The meat is used to flavor the broth, but before serving, is removed.  She doesn’t specify if the meat is served on the side, or reserved for another meal, but the soup is served after placing a marrow bone in the bowl with pieces of toasted bread then adding the broth.  The ending of the recipe is quite clear: “keep out the collops and ferve it up.” (a collop is a slice of meat).

Mrs. McLintock’s Recipe CXLII

Make ftrong Broth of a Thigh of Beef, and a Nuckle of Veal cut in Pieces, put it in the Pot full of Water, and fome hail Spice with a Blade of Mace, thre great whole Onions, ftuck with cloves, and a Bunch of fweet Herbs, boil all together on a flow fire, till the Meat be all in Pieces ; then ftrain the Broth thro’ a callendar, and take frome collops of Beef, duft them with flower, and fry them very brown, take the Fat off the ftrong Broth, then put in the collops among the Broth, and let them foke over a flow fire; and have ready fome Pieces of tosted Bread for your Sough Difh, put in a Marrow Bone in the Middle, and pour in the Broth on the Bread, but keep out the collops and ferve it up.

V&A collectionPhysicians, in the 18th century, were beginning to notice the effects of a rich diet and a large girth on overall health.  There was a rather ingenious contraption called the “exercise chair” or the “chamber horse,” the 18th century version of the indoor exercise bike.  But the sedentary lifestyle and overindulgence which pushes out the paunch wasn’t something the lower classes had to worry about.

Not until governments developed farm subsidies following WWII.  If my recipes for soups, scanty as they are on meat, can be traced back to the 18th century, my husband’s expectation of soup chunky with cubes of beef can be traced to farm policies put in place in the late 1940s.

Depending on which side of the pond you’re on agricultural management and planning looks a bit different, but it all started out with basically the same good intention: to keep food prices stable, to keep farmers in business, and to prevent food shortages come what may in the form of weather or political upheaval.  The lessons of WWII were not lost on the people who wrote these policies. Grain provides more calories/acre than fruit or produce, so subsidies were put in place to support the sowing of grain crops: corn, wheat and soy.  Children need milk, so policies were put in place to support the dairy industry.

These policies were successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.  In short order the issue became not one of underproduction, but of massive overproduction, which lead to all sorts of creative ways of using up these farm products.  Most of which have little to do with nutrition and much to do with fat, calories, and effective marketing.

Critics argue it is these very (well intended) subsidies which led directly to the proliferation of junk food on store shelves and the protean heavy diets Americans in particular enjoy.  Meat, grown with subsidized and cheap grain, is no longer a luxury item to be used to flavor a soup and then set aside for another meal. Now it is the main ingredient, of the soup, or of a meal.

I am a farmer, albeit one which doesn’t receive direct payments. But I am subsidized every time I buy a bag of chicken feed made from corn and soy, or sheep feed laced with corn.  Whether or not I take a direct payment from the government the cost of my feed is markedly lower than it would be if those crops weren’t heavily supported with subsidies.

But i do recognize the contradiction between the crops the US government subsidizes and the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines call for an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and a decrease in saturated fats, cholesterol, and solid fats.  What is heavily subsidized in the United States?  Corn, dairy, and the meat industry.  There is a disincentive for farmers to grow the very things which we’re told we should be eating, and the proof is in that underpriced bag of grain I pick up at the farm store every other week.

New England Boiled Dinners and skimpy soup..  From mother to daughter to granddaughter thrift became a recipe, the recipe became a style, the style became a tradition, until 200 years later we are still skimping on the meat and filling the pot up with vegetables.

The irony is.. today it is the meat that is cheap, and the vegetables that come dear.

But we are New Englanders, and no amount of cheap meat and expensive vegetables is going to inspire us to alter a recipe two centuries in the making.

Read more:
The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Policies Foster Poor Health? Environ Health Perspect. Oct 2004; 112(14): A820–A823.

Agricultural Policies Versus Health Policies Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine


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