Lewis and Clark, portable soup fans
Soup to Go!
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!
200-year-old portable soup, Admiralty issue
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.