on the Invention of Soup
(e-SoupSong 23: March 1, 2002)
ONCE UPON A TIME, I went to my favorite lunching/reading/writing spot--2 blocks away from my office in downtown Washington, DC, right between the White House and the Capitol. I order up the soup of the day--Southwest Vegetable--pay the tall, bespectacled, and extremely slow-moving cashier...pad over the siena-and-cream checkerboard tiles...and sit at one of the tiny high tech tables that hang like little eagle's nests over the Barnes and Noble bookstore below.
It's so nice. Lou Rawls is piping over the P.A. system. People are coming and going: solitaries drinking coffee, all bent into their books; others talking with animation to their lunch partners. I'm tucked up, a quiet spot in a buzz of pleasant activity, flipping through a bunch of books on prehistory, humming along with Lou, and thinking about the Stone Age people who created soup.
I know from the evidence that early man invented soup before he had a pot to cook it in, a bowl to serve it in, or a gourd to drink it from--and, you know, I really can't imagine how and why he'd think to put this oh-so-liquid cart before the horse of a technology that would pull it. So I'm looking at the archeological record, spotty as it is, searching for clues.
WHO INVENTED IT AND WHY.
In fact, it's not completely clear who first stumbled onto the concept. It certainly wasn't Homo habilis in 2 million BCE Africa--though he was the first one to make sharp stone axes that could cut his carrion booty into manageable chunks and smoosh weedy plants into digestibility. And it certainly wasn't Homo erectus in 1 million BCE, who left the home nest of Africa to migrate all over the world (really! and not just Europe and the Mideast, but India, Thailand, Java, China, and Japan too)--though he was the first one, amazingly, to domesticate fire...and roast rhino, bison, and cave bear over it in deep basin-shaped hearths. No, the glory of soup was yet to be. Some say its inventor was one of the Homo sapiens gang, sometime after 80,000 BCE--either the Neanderthals...or the Cro-Magnons who ultimately did those poor Neanderthals in. Others argue for a later generation--Neolithic man around 10,000 BCE.
I kind of like the Neanderthal theory. It was a particularly tough and dangerous world back then. These hunter-gatherers were stuck in the last blast of the Wurm glaciation that killed off so much of their food and so many species. It was every man for himself as they ran fearfully from--and ran hungrily after--woolly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers, wolves, and other hominids. And yet elderly Neanderthal skeletons have been found in France with teeth worn down below gum level--and deeply crippled skeletons have been found too. Implication: They could only have been kept alive through the compassion of their communities and the brilliance of some nouvelle cuisine chef who could find food alternatives to incredibly indigestible plants, meat tougher than my old aunt's shoes, and all of it cold. I try to put myself under the toque of that Stone Age Julia Child. I imagine him or her using bark to dip and carry water...putting food bits in it and noticing them soften or swell...marking how plants and berries, meat and marrow chunks would infuse the water with color and flavor. I imagine him or her getting the idea of warm broth from the 98.6 degree Fahrenheit mother's milk that kept little Neanderthal babies happy.
That's when it hits me: Soup! It's an unbelievable achievement--a matter of thought overreaching what was technologically possible at the time. I think of anthropologist Sally McBrearty's recent remark: "The earliest Homo sapiens probably had the cognitive capability to invent Sputnik...but didn't yet have the history of invention or a need for those things." But soup? Yes, he needed soup. He needed soup, so he imagined soup. He imagined soup, so he brought it into being, despite his lack of pots to cook it in. Soup is surely the ENIAC of early man--a transforming concept that changed his relationship to nature, increased his life choices, and created completely new needs and desires. One aeon he's a frugivore in the garden of eden...the next he's scavenging or hunting raw flesh and sucking bone marrow...then, almost suddenly, he's figured out an unbelievably complex process with tools to produce a hot meal. It's a gastronomic miracle, and it's art: multiple colors, multiple textures, multiple flavors--something created by man that had never existed before in the history of the world.
That's also when it hits me: Soup! My bowl of "Southwestern Vegetable Soup" is starting to get cold! I look at it with renewed interest, as if down the corridor of time. Okay, it's clearly a miracle--but I still don't understand exactly how the "hot" part came about: how early man in 10,000 BCE, at the latest, could have boiled things...without the pots that he finally created in 6000 BCE (pottery) and 3600 BCE (southwest Asian and Sumerian bronze).
HOW HE DID IT.
First, he might have boiled animals in their skins. He could have flayed his prey, suspending the skin on forked sticks, filling the bag with water and food, and lighting a fire under it. Don't try this trick at home, but the skin would not catch fire because it would be cooked by the boiling water on the inside. In fact, this technique has been used by many cultures in recorded history. Herodotus says the Scythians used it in 440 BCE: "If they do not happen to possess a cauldron, they make the animal's paunch hold the flesh, and pouring in at the same time a little water, lay the bones under and light them. The bones burn beautifully; and the paunch easily contains all the flesh when it is stript from the bones, so that by this plan your ox is made to boil himself, and other victims also to do the like (Book IV, The Histories) . The record also shows that Scots and Irish were still using sheepskin kettles in 16th century Britain.
Second, the "hot stone" method. First you dig a hole or find one...and fill it with water. Then you build a fire close by and heat stones in it. Then, one by one...and v-e-r-y carefully with bones or sticks...you transfer the stones to the water until it boils. And it will. Stones can be heated to a temperature of 1,300 degrees F. in a well laid hearth. How do I know that? Because archeologist Michael J. O'Kelly proved it in experiments with his students at primeval Irish sites: "They used the hearths to heat stones, used a dampened wooden shovel to dump them in the water, brought the water to a boil, and simmered a 10-pound leg of mutton for 3 hours 40 minutes by adding stones every few minutes. ...Then they ate the results: 'excellently cooked and most tasty.'"
Speaking of which, I hear a growl close by and realize it's my stomach. I'm starved...and this poor neglected Southwestern Vegetable soup is looking good: carrots, zucchini and yellow squash, corn, tomatoes, chili peppers, beans, onion, black pepper, and parsley in a thickened vegetable broth. I take a taste. Not bad. It needs a little more salt, though, and I walk over to the service island to get some. As I walk back, I think about my salt craving (allegedly an addiction acquired only when stone age man turned from veggies to salty meat)...and think about these Southwest ingredients that are SO "New World"...meaning no man ever stepped a toe into the bean-chili-tomato-squash New World of the Americas until 40,000 BCE, maybe some 35,000 years after soup was invented. So I ask myself: if not this, what? What DID those first Old World soups look like?
WHAT WENT IN THEM?
After those first catch-as-catch-can soups of wild plants and animals...and after vast fields of grain sprang up in Europe and Asia as those last glaciers began to retreat...it turned out to be grains and beans--early man's first agricultural triumphs in Neolithic times. By 7000 BCE Emmer wheat had been domesticated in Turkey--and barley, millet, and beans in Greece. By 5000 BCE, rice was being cultivated in China. These were the stuff of early soups.
And, of course, they remain our most revered modern comfort foods.
1. Grains cooked in broth continue to be lovingly prepared in most cultures: porridges and gruels from ground wheat; couscous soups and farina soups; barley soups and tsampas; oatmeal soups and rice congee. Imagine the astonished look on ancient man's face when he first witnessed the miracle of chemistry--when heating caused these cereal grains to release starch granules into the broth and make it thick. Click HERE for recipes.
2. Bean/pea soup was in vogue long before Esau sold his birthright for it (that "mess of pottage" was lentil soup)--and it is an established part of every cuisine in the world without exception--every one! From Jary in Algeria to Huku ne dovi in Zimbabwe and everything in between. Click HERE for the story and recipes of bean soup.
3. And then there's the ancient variation of ground wheat made into a bread...that turns so hard without today's modern preservatives that it can only be made edible again by pouring boiling broth over it. I know this bread from my years in Morocco: that marvelous fresh baked kisra--a thick frisbee of chewy bread--would turn to stone in 24 hours. This so-called "sop," in fact, became the very origin of our word soup/soupe/sup/sopa/soppe/zuppe/shorba. It's Portuguese sopa secos and asordas, Arabic shorbas, Spanish garlic soup, French panades, onion soup, and Garbure, Italian aquacotta, Danish Ollebrød, and Estonian Khlebniy sup. Click HERE for more recipes.
So there you have it. This part of our everyday cuisine, this soup that we take so much for granted, began life as a miracle of intellection...kept humankind alive through extremes of privation through the ages...and now serves to bind our common humanity in this fractured and homicidal modern world of ours.
I think about ancient Tolland Man, dug out of a Danish peat bog in the 1950s and perfectly preserved. He'd been ritually sacrificed to the gods--strangled--but first given a fine last meal, still intact in his stomach. What was it? You know what it was: it was soup. A thick soup of grain and weed seeds ground in a handmill and boiled. Modern Irish poet Seamus Heaney reflects on our bond with this Iron Age man:
"Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
"In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach....
"Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home."
LOOK AT THE TIME.
Oh no! I've taken so long over my Southwestern Vegetable soup that I'm running late on my lunch break. I put down my spoon (it wasn't commonly used for soup until the 14th century). I shade my eyes with my hand and look out through my second story plate glass window, scanning the street below. Usual conditions: deep-pocketed influence peddlers sidling uptown looking smarmy; cool cats clicking by; thick-skinned, hairy bureaucrats lumbering along; sabre-toothed members of the Washington press corps on the prowl; sightings of sharp-suited lobbyists. I peer through the railing down into the bookstore. Looks okay--only bargain hunters fighting over sale items. I slide noiselessly out of my chair, grip my books prehensilely, swing around the side of the cafe, look left, look right, jump on the escalator and ride to the ground floor. My belly is full, my insides warm. I hum the last bars of "Stormy Monday," wrap up against the cold, and head back to the office. Cautiously, though. It's a jungle out there.
Sources: The Cambridge World History of Food; Georges Contenau's Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria; Jean Guilaine's Prehistory: The World of Early Man; Seamus Heaney's "The Tollund Man"; E. W. Heaton's Everyday Life in Old Testament Times; Herodotus' The Histories; Leon Kass' The Hungry Soul; Carson I. A. Ritchie's Food in Civilization; Richard Rudgley's The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age; Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth's Making Silent Stones Speak; Andrew F. Smith's "History of Soup"; James Trager's The Food Chronology; John Noble Wilford's "When Humans Became Human," New York Times, 2/26/02; Anne Wilson's Food and Drink in Britain; www.soupworks.co.uk "History of Soup"
* * *
NEXT MONTH: ALLELUIA! EASTER SOUP