It rained yesterday. That might not be a big thing in Ireland or New York where drenching downpours only generate brief comments from the weatherman. In Los Angeles even scattered showers are top news stories. Every cloud is tracked on radar, and when people in the street are quizzed about how they’re coping, they groan about the lack of sunshine.
I, however, love a good rainstorm. Perhaps it’s my Irish genes or my East Coast roots. It might also be that rain motivates me to make soup. Rain makes me feel all comfy cozy, and soup is the ultimate comfort food.
Plus, soup is a cinch to make. Just plunk some veggies and perhaps a bit of meat or fish in a pot filled with water, add some salt and herbs for flavor and cook until it tastes good. As a popular television commercial states, “It’s so easy, even a caveman could do it!”
In fact, anthropologists theorize that soup is quite possibly the oldest form of cooking. I find that hard to believe since jabbing a piece of meat with a stick and holding it over a fire seems easier than devising a container to hold liquid prior to the invention of cooking pots.
But truth be told, there were ‘containers’ for holding liquid back in the Stone Age. A dried animal’s stomach worked very well for hauling stream water back to the cave. And said stomach could be filled with ingredients, suspended above a fire and left to simmer until the contents became soup. This method did require watching, as burning a hole in the stomach and having the soup spurt out would not only destroy dinner but also douse the fire, in itself a dicey trick to ignite.
A safer cooking method involved digging a pit, lining it with stones and then animal hide. After filling the pit with water plus the items to be cooked, red-hot rocks from a nearby fire were added until the food was ready for eating. The same result could be achieved by using a hollowed out log as the ‘pit’. More than 2,000 such cooking places, called Fulachta Fiadh, have been found in County Cork alone. A cooking pit experiment conducted at a reconstructed Early Bronze Age site in Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, revealed that only one-half hour was needed to bring 450 liters of water to boil, and a 10 pound leg of mutton was ready to eat in four hours.
According to legend, Fulachta Fiadh were the cooking places of Fionn MacCumhal and his band of warriors who roamed around the country feasting on wild game. It is more likely, however, that fiadh comes from the Irish word for ‘deer.’ Legend also says that the warriors used the hot water for baths – hopefully after cooking the meat!
Soup making leaped forward once humans discovered how to make metal objects. Granted, the first metallurgic accomplishments were probably sharp pointy things used to kill animals and other people. Eventually some culinary genius (probably the wife of the local weapons maker) realized that metal sheets could be connected and hammered into a bowl shape. Vessels of this type were being made by Irish smiths as early as the seventh century BC. Metal pots had many advantages. They could be placed directly over an open flame. They were not breakable. And they were easy to clean with sand and water.
With the onset of the Iron Age, bronze was replaced by iron, a more durable material that could be melted and cast into many shapes, one of the most important being the cauldron. This large metal pot had a round form, a wide mouth and an arc-shaped handle so it could be suspended over a fire.
Magical cauldrons appear in Celtic mythology. The Dagda, an all-powerful figure of the Tuatha de Danaan, owned a wondrous cauldron known as The Undry from which no person ever went away hungry. The Celtic goddess Cerridwen also had a marvelous cauldron. Anyone who drank the potion she brewed therein would be endowed with great wisdom and the gift of poetry.
The cauldron even shows up in the Brehon Laws that stated a cook could not be held responsible if someone were scalded when soup was being ladled out of one as long as the cook shouted a warning to people around him!
Eventually cauldrons were fashioned with concave lids and three ‘feet’ so they could sit directly on the coals. These black iron ‘bastable pots’ were used in every dwelling from the High King’s kitchen to the lowly cottage hearth. When set in the middle of the fire with the coals raked up and piled on top, a ‘bastable’ produces an even heat from all sides and is perfect for baking bread, roasting a chicken, and slow cooking a soup or stew.
Determining the difference between ‘soup’ and ‘stew’ is like defining shades of grey. Soups tend to be more watery, have finely cut ingredients and are actually drinkable, while stews are thicker, the ingredients are chunky and they are eaten with a spoon. Once the potato was added to Ireland’s soup pot in the 16th century, hearty Irish Stew became the national dish.
During the Great Famine of the 19th century, the Soup Kitchen Act of 1847 called for the starving population to be fed for free through soup kitchens sponsored by local relief committees and groups such as the Quakers. By August 1847, nearly 3 million people were being fed daily. Even so, the soup quality was so poor that thousands died. A few months later, the kitchens were closed and people went to workhouses for help where they received a meager diet in exchange for labor. Because many applicants were ill when they arrived, disease was rampant and again thousands died.
Also during the Famine Years, a phenomenon called ‘Souperism’ occurred. Non-Roman Catholic Bible Societies set up schools where starving children and adults were fed, but they were subjected to religious instruction at odds with their Catholic faith. People who converted for food were said ‘to take the soup’ and were derogatorily called ‘soupers’.
Despite the effort made by various soup kitchens, the end result was that millions of starving Irish abandoned their homeland and fled to other countries. The concept of ‘soup kitchens’ spread to the United States along with the wave of Irish Famine immigration and entered mainstream American consciousness during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In today’s difficult economic climate, thousands upon thousands of people suffering hardships, many of them homeless, receive a good meal, a helping hand and frequently even shelter across the length and breadth of the United States in soup kitchens’ modern counterparts. Every day. Rain or shine. Slainte!
IRISH STEW (Personal Recipe)
Note: Debate rages whether Irish Stew should be made with lamb rather than beef. My mother made both, but I always liked the beef version better.
1 pound beef cut in bite-sized chunks
1 cup flour mixed with salt & pepper
3-4 large carrots, peeled and cut in
2-3 large potatoes, peeled and cut in
2-3 onions, skins removed and cut in eighths
Dust beef generously with flour mixture. Heat some olive oil in a large soup pot. Brown beef. Add carrots, potatoes and onions. Cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer at least two hours until beef is tender. Add salt to taste. Serves 4. (Accompany with crusty bread to soak up every drop of the gravy!)
Chicken Soup (Personal Recipe)
Note: There are two kinds of Chicken Soup: White Stock and Brown Stock. White is made with fresh chicken. Brown is made with the bones of roasted chickens. Whenever I have a roast chicken (even the store-bought ‘barbecue’ birds), I always freeze the bones and skin after.
Fresh chicken (2 breasts, thighs and legs) OR two chicken carcasses
2 large carrots, peeled and cut in quarters
2 large onions, skinned and cut in quarters
2-3 stalks celery, cut in quarters
5-6 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1⁄2 cup frozen peas (optional)
1 handful egg noodles
Place the fresh chicken pieces (or the chicken carcasses) in a large soup pot. Add the carrots, onions, celery, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns. Cover generously with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 2-3 hours until liquid is reduced by one-third. Add salt to taste. Strain the broth into another large pot and reserve. If you have used fresh chicken, refrigerate the pieces until cool enough to handle, then remove and shred the meat. If you have used bones, discard them. In both cases, discard the vegetables.
Whether you made White or Brown Stock, add two grated carrots, peas, and one heaping handful of egg noodles to the reserved broth. Cook until the carrots and noodles are tender. If you have made White Stock, also add some of the shredded cooked chicken to the broth (save whatever you don’t use for chicken salad). Makes 4 servings.
2 tablespoons butter
6 scallions, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons flour
2 bottles (8 ounces each) clam juice
11⁄2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut in bite-size chunks
1 bay leaf
1 pound fish fillet, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 cup whole milk
Coarse salt and ground pepper
In a 5-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add scallions, celery, and garlic; cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add flour; stir to coat. Add clam juice and 2 cups water, whisking until smooth.
Add potatoes, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife, about 10 minutes.
Add fish; cover, and cook until fish easily flakes, about 8 minutes. Pour in milk; cook until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Makes 4 servings.
Editor’s Note: This article was published in the February / March 2014 edition of Irish America Magazine.