Alexis Soyer, Famine Soup, and the Magic Stove
July 30, 2010 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Alexis Soyer lived quite an an amazing life. According to his wiki, he "was a French chef who became the most celebrated cook in Victorian England" who also "during the Great Irish Famine in April 1847, ... invented the soup kitchen and was asked by the Government to go to Ireland to implement his idea. This was opened in Dublin and his "famine soup" was served to thousands of the poor for free. Whilst in Ireland he wrote Soyer's Charitable Cookery. He gave the proceeds of the book to various charities. He also opened an art gallery in London, and donated the entrance fees to charity to feed the poor." And then there is also the remarkable story of Soyer's Magic Stove.
posted by puny human (16 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
"...invented the soup kitchen..."

"His custom-built kitchen at the Reform Club was a marvel of ergonomics and cooking technology. A three-horsepower steam engine pumped up water, heated the bains-marie...Soyer directed gas mains into his kitchen to heat the cooking pots (gas had been used for lighting since the early 1810s, but not for cooking)."

Who knew -- the first time-traveller to get stuck in the past would be a freakin' altruistic chef. Eh, I suppose it could have been somebody worse.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:39 PM on July 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

This is a beautiful story about a beautiful person. Thank you!
posted by honest knave at 12:42 PM on July 30, 2010

From the guy who made two versions of the famine soup:

Both versions were better than Campbells!

I love that. I have no doubt that they were.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 1:06 PM on July 30, 2010

Both versions were better than Campbells!

I love that. I have no doubt that they were.

I don't see how they could be without high-fructose corn syrup.
posted by clarknova at 2:07 PM on July 30, 2010

This was opened in Dublin and his "famine soup" was served to thousands of the poor for free.

Why that's...that's...SOCIALISM!
posted by briank at 2:27 PM on July 30, 2010

The Soyer stove, seen in the opening sequences of the film Zulu, was still in use by the British Army 130 years later. Several of them went down with the Atlantic Conveyor.
posted by Dr.Pill at 3:04 PM on July 30, 2010

What an interesting person, and to take all that time and effort to help the starving in Ireland, when it wasn't a particularly politic thing to do. Time to dig deeper into his history! I did a Google Books search and found this amazingly titled book by Alexis Soyer, "A shilling cookery for the people: embracing an entirely new system of plain cookery and domestic economy." which not only seems to have a lot of interesting recipes, but also a lot of history in it as well.

From the "soup" link... "Alexis Soyer claimed that a meal of his soup once a day, together with a biscuit was sufficient to sustain the strength of a strong healthy man. Not everyone agreed. He was somewhat ridiculed in Punch, where it was said that Soyer's soup was not Soup for the Poor, but rather, Poor Soup!"

Ha ha! Punch always was so funny. No wait a second...
"[Ireland's] population fell by between 20 and 25 percent. Approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland.
In an article on "English Rule" on 7 March 1846, Mitchel wrote that the Irish People were "expecting famine day by day" and they attributed it collectively, not to "the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England." Wiki link.

"Recreation and leisure ceased. Poetry, music and dancing died. These things were lost and completely forgotten. When life improved in other ways, these pursuits never returned as they had been. The Famine killed everything." google books link..

hmm. Hey Punch? Fuck you and burn. Alexis Soyer put others before him and helped the unfortunate, and is untouchable by the likes of you.
posted by Zack_Replica at 5:03 PM on July 30, 2010

To the irritation of both London housewives and Irish famine victims, Soyer suggested that backwardness and ignorance had contributed to their lamentable situation just as much as the cruel actions of their landlords. He argued that the problem might not just be the lack of food, but the lack of healthy food. Vegetables were notoriously absent and if there were any, they had been treated in such a way that they had lost all their useful nutrients. The simple land folk had to be educated in exploring new sources of nourishment.

Plus ça change.
posted by dhartung at 7:37 PM on July 30, 2010

Alexis Soyer put others before him and helped the unfortunate, and is untouchable by the likes of you.

Actually, Alexis Soyer would have been able to have done a lot more if the English government hadn't been TAKING all the food produced in Ireland in the first place.

The Famine didn't happen because there was NO food whatsoever. The Famine happened because most of the crops grown in Ireland at the time were grown for export to the rest of the British Empire, and the the only thing most Irish poor folk COULD grow was the potato. It was all they had land for and all they had time to care for, when the majority of them were tenant farmers working for wealthy landowners and tilling the wealthy landowners' farms. And then, whoops, the potato blight killed all the potatoes -- but the English government kept exporting all the other food anyway so the Irish "wouldn't get used to handouts." Soyer argued that "backwardness and ignorance" kept the Irish from growing more vegetables and varying their diet -- in truth, it was the poverty instilled by the English landowners in question. It's hard to maintain a decent garden for yourself when you have only a quarter acre of land to yourself, and you're spending 12 hours a day tilling someone else's garden.

Not to slight Soyer for finally coming along with a soup to feed them all. But if you take a look at that recipe -- tasty as it is, a half a cup of chopped beef per 8 QUARTS of water is pretty thin "nourishment", and also speaks volumes toward what the English government of the time felt was "sufficient" for the Irish.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:47 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you be talking about the Luck of the Irish m'Empress.
posted by puny human at 9:23 PM on July 30, 2010

Empress - yep, I know. I was going to mention the export of food from Ireland, but thought it too much of a ranty derail, although I came close. eek!

Cooks - be sure to check Soyer's cookbook for the proper use of frying pans (they're in vogue!) and the ads for food at the end. I'm not sure if Turkey Coffee is coffee from Turkey, or from turkeys. If it's the latter, I'll bet the tryptophan and the caffeine may balance each other out. omg, custard and stewed rhubarb - my mom used to make this, and it's awesome. so hungry. so lactose intolerant.
posted by Zack_Replica at 9:49 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Undoubtedly, Normanby’s choice of location was audacious and original. Picnicking, that unique Victorian jumble of high-class formality and bucolic joviality, relied in large part on spectacular locations. The fun of the picnic was not so much about eating and drinking in the outdoors, but about moving the whole formal dining experience—complete with cutlery, wine cellar, servants, and appropriate attire—to the countryside. An abrupt contrast between formal interior and informal exterior, between civilization and nature, was essential; the more contrast, the more fun. In that respect, the pyramids could not have been better chosen. Another obvious contrast was that a well-appointed picnic basket typically held only cold food: smoked salmon, cold cuts, biscuits, fruits, cakes. Cooking on the spot was not (yet) in fashion. Soyer’s Magic Stove was to change all that. Exactly what made the picnic on the pyramid so utterly exciting was that the meal was cooked and served hot. Not only the dining room but also the kitchen was transported to this improbable and truly inaccessible location. In the history of the picnic, the experience of dining atop a pyramid could merely be regarded as the gradual, if daring, evolution of an already established theme, whereas the portable cooker heralded a total revolution."

and this,

“Mad” Lieutenant Gale, a daredevil hot-air balloonist, wanted to take the Magic Stove on board, but died too soon in a botched ascent. Explorers took the stove with them on their expeditions. In 1850, the Admiralty ordered some Magic Stoves for Captain Horatio Austin’s expedition to the Arctic in search of Sir John Franklin, prefiguring Amundsen’s use of the Primus stove on his journey to the North Pole.

Soyer wanted his stove to be a “must-have,” an irresistible gadget that would look great “in the parlour of the wealthy, the office of the merchant, the studio of the artist, or the attic of the humble.”5

from the 'magic stove' link are excellent.
posted by puny human at 11:01 PM on July 30, 2010

And I think it is only fair to remember that this was mid-19th century countess. It sounds to me like his heart was in the right place. Let's not blame him for what was far beyond the control of only one man. I mean, this was what life was like in 1850.
posted by puny human at 11:12 PM on July 30, 2010

I'm actually an Empress, puny human (smile).

But yeah, I know -- sorry I didn't make it clear that I understood Soyer was a product of his time. I was responding more to the totality of the audulation. Yes, Soyer's heart may have been in the right place in wanting to "do the right thing," but his ideas of what "the right thing" actually was were being shaped by some other more complex forces, is what I was getting at. Altruism for his time looked very, very different than altruism in our time; there's a difference between wanting to "help the poor" because you have the belief that they don't know how to take care of themselves without you, and wanting to "help the poor" because you know "they've just got a damn raw deal through no fault of their own and that sucks". Your heart's in the right place in both cases, but there's just a difference in what you think is "the right thing to do". Sorry I came across like I was completey trashing him, I was more saying "let's not TOTALLY canonize him, now."

I've noticed that an Irish aid group, Concern, is among the very first groups to respond with aid in cases of famine today; I get the sense that it's because of a sort of unconscious mindset of "oooh, yeah, famine, we've been there. We'll be right over to help you out."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:46 AM on July 31, 2010

Unfortunately, it appears the congregation of large numbers of people at soup kitchens during the Irish Famine may actually have helped to spread disease and worsen the death toll. Nonetheless, I'm sure, as others have noted, that his intentions were good. Hard to fault anyone for acting according to their lights at the time.
posted by Bardolph at 7:49 AM on July 31, 2010

"I'm actually an Empress"

Ah so, apologies for the demotion your radiance, but if you were to read on, you would find out that Soyer spent his final years on the Crimean Peninsula, when "Panmure sent out a Sanitary Commission to investigate the situation, and ... they returned with even more horrifying reports in November 1854, Alexis Soyer (by now an experienced chef sans frontières, first-aid cook, and culinary relief soldier) immediately offered his services. Through his well-established social network, Soyer approached Panmure with an offer to help with what he could do best: setting up field kitchens and designing recipes that could restore life to the dying soldiers."

And remember, this is the place that Florence Nightingale described when, "she recruited a taskforce of thirty-eight nurses and set out for the barracks in Scutari, on the Turkish coast. What she found there was of such excruciating horror that it made her write down the historic phrase that it was “a calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity.”"

So from picnics on the pyramid, to tending upon dying soldiers on the front line, I think people have been canonized for far less than this. Just some fuzzy miracles and soft words.
posted by puny human at 12:22 PM on July 31, 2010

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