Soup to Go!

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Lewis and Clark, portable soup fans

Lewis and Clark, portable soup fans

In the 1750s the Royal Navy began issuing portable soup to ships embarking on long voyages, following recommendations by the naval surgeon James Lind that it should be supplied for the sick. It was also seen by some of their Lordships as an anti-scorbutic, which we now know was erroneous. But indirectly it helped; it made ‘greens’ more palatable…

Portable soup was the forerunner of the modern stock cube. Meat and offal were boiled until the mixture formed a thick glue-like paste, then it was dried to be cut or broken into pieces.

Portable soup is said to have been invented by a Mrs Dubois, although references to similar products can be found a half century before then. She and a Mr Cookworthy (really!) were given a contract to manufacture it for the Royal Navy in 1756. By 1793, the doughty entrepreneurs were making 897 tons a year, also offering it for sale for ‘gentlemen on journeys at sea’.

The stuff was virtually indestructible: a piece that went around the world with Captain Cook is preserved to this day in the National Maritime Museum. Whether or not that’s still edible isn’t something I’m volunteering to try out – but a similar piece from Cook’s supplies was analysed in 1938 and found to be safe to consume!

But getting back to the eighteenth century – the Navy was keen to establish whether portable soup would indeed prevent scurvy and conducted a number of experiments with various foodstuffs. In 1766 they instructed Captain Wallis in Dolphin to load his ship with 3000 pounds of portable soup to take on his circumnavigation. James Cook, for his voyage to Tahiti two years later, also took aboard a large supply. In his journal, Cook writes of ordering celery and oatmeal to be boiled in portable soup and served to the ship’s company for breakfast. An acquired taste, I suspect…

Portable soup found its way to the New World, too. Lewis and Clark carried 193 pounds of it with them on their two-year expedition into the territory of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

The Georgian cookery writer Hannah Glasse in her best-selling The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy gives a recipe which is probably slightly more up-market than the naval version. Hers calls for 100 pounds of beef, 9 gallons of water, 12 anchovies, mace, cloves, pepper, 6 onions and thyme. This is to be boiled for 9 hours, strained, then boiled again until it is like a stiff glue. It’s then dried in the sun until hard. She goes on to say that a piece the size of a walnut ‘will make a pint of water very rich.’

By 1815, however, with the publication of navy physician Blane’s ‘On the Comparative Health of the British Navy from 1779 to 1814’ – which dismissed portable soup as ‘insufficiently hearty, solid or abundant for the purpose of recruiting health’ – Admiralty victualling practice shifted in favour of canned meats, a process invented in France in 1806.
But portable soup remains with us to this day. Bovril, anyone?

Footnote: The eradication of scurvy from the Royal Navy was not to be seen until the 1790s, when lemon juice was issued to all ships.

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Lewis and Clark image: Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
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15 Comments on “Soup to Go!”

  1. I never understood why sauerkraut was not introduced to the royal navy – full of vitamin C, does not go bad, very cheap, and can be made in barrels to store on board.

    • Some RN ships did take aboard sauerkraut, especially in the Admiralty trials of antiscorbutics – but it was often boiled for a long time, greatly diminishing the Vitamin C content. But more importantly, I’ve heard that the stuff was detested by Jack Tar!

    • While not directly used by the navy it seems Captain James Cook (RN) was a believer in its usefulness, that and lemon syrup. That nobody on his ship went down with scurvy must have been of great satisfaction to him, even if he had to pressure the crew to maintain their intake

  2. On another tack.
    A case of scurvy was recorded in the RN in the mid 1980s at Barrow in Furness. During a submarine build there, attached crew were paid a generous lodging allowance and found their own accommodation ashore, usually in local hostelries. However, two ingenious matelots took up residence in a metal storage container on the dock and devoted their entire pay and allowances to the worship of beer and tobacco, eating little food and spending their entire days out of sunlight, either in the sub or the container which, although they had rigged it for power, had no windows. When discovered, they were in a sorry state, with the classic signs of gum bleeding, bruising and osteoporotic change! They were transferred to Haslar and treated for scurvy and calcium deficiency!

  3. How did she get the contract. Wasn’t awarded on the basis of low bidder, probably another who done it tale. July 25 1806 was the day Clark carved his name in sandstone. This is the only surviving evidence of Lewis & Clark’s journey and the soup cubes explains how they were able to survive during winter and when game couldn’t be found.

  4. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the introduction to the RN of tinned food coinciding with the dismembered corpse of a murdered Pompeii prostitute being found. I have heard that she was Fannie Adams and Jack, with typical dark humour, welcomed the addition to his diet of ‘Sweet Fannie Adams’. Has anyone else any information that supports or denies this?

    • ‘Lemony’ doesn’t really have the same ring! In the Caribbean, limes (which actually were not so effective as lemons) were substituted for lemons aboard RN ships. The area had trade connections with the Eastern American seaboard and Americans called the Brit sailors ‘lime-juicers’, which got shortened to ‘limeys’.

  5. I, like many matelots and bootnecks (and hybrids of the two) never went into the field without oxo cubes, or, better still, a jar of Bovril, which, of course, makes fantastic beef tea with a dash of milk in it! These days, Bovril also comes in cubes and I always have a few of them in my Jetboil when strolling in the Peak District.
    We also carried curry and chile powder to make rat packs more palatable, the Elmers always had mini bottles of Tabasco in their ration packs and were happy to swap them for Lifesavers!

    • A bit of translation please for us across the pond.Matelots—Seafarers?? Bootnecks—land troops? Jetboil —-Portable heater ? Peak District—Mountains ? Rat packs—-ration,MRE’s ?Elmers—foreigners , US troops ? Lifesavers—Candy? Tea brand?…….As Mr. Churchill said”
      “………separated only by a common language.” LOL !

      • Ha! Churchill’s quote seems very appropriate here.

        Actually, you guessed most of them correctly!

        matelots = sailors, bootnecks = Royal Marines; Jetboil = portable stove for making hot drinks; Peak District = mountainous part of the UK; rat packs = 24-hour ration packs; Elmers = trainers/advisors; Lifesavers = candy with a hole in the middle

      • You are correct in all respects, except for the following;
        Bootnecks=Royal Marines
        Lifesaver=fruit polo confectionery

        Of course, matelots are Royal Navy and the Peak District is the most popular national park in England, mostly below 2000ft.

  6. Ah, you beat my first nautical question by a day!
    Thanks for the explanation..
    Can you tell us about “pease pudding?” maybe not altogether lost, even today.

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