A soup recipe served up on this date 127 years ago has Alastair Gilmour intrigued. What would it have tasted like – and how nutritious would it have been for the Newcastle paupers it was sold to?
HAD he been a news reporter, Charles Dickens couldn’t have recorded the occasion more meaningfully.
In the 1838 Oliver Twist he wrote one of the most enduring passages in English literature. “Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’”
The image of a young boy in his grubby garb is as graphic as it gets and one that has never really disappeared. Despite recent Government action to counter obesity at all stages in life, there are still significant numbers of people living below the poverty threshold, therefore we have to assume their diet is insufficient. Thankfully, society has progressed far from the days of the poor-house and of children being sold into workhouses as was Oliver Twist.
In the winter of 1878-1879, a total of 38,000 gallons of soup was distributed in Newcastle from various centres at High Bridge, Scotswood Road, and the Ouseburn area.
It was this that prompted sociology researcher Nicola Berne to delve into the history of The General Soup Kitchen in Newcastle. The building still stands in the city, attached to the 700-year-old Holy Jesus Hospital which, in turn, is surrounded by the Swan House roundabout, circled by thousands of vehicles every day whose occupants may be completely unaware of the building’s existence.
“The Soup Kitchen did not run all year round, but on a seasonal basis,” she notes. “This was usually from December through to February and March, seven days a week, depending on the weather. When they settled on a day on which to start the ‘season’, advertisements would be placed in the local newspapers such as the Daily Chronicle and The Journal and Courant. These adverts would highlight the plight of the poor during a slump in employment, when many men were unable to work and therefore unable to feed their families, or by predicting the onset of a particularly bad winter.
“The adverts also make appeals for donations and listed the names of those who made regular contributions. Donations would buy the provisions needed to make the soup and to pay the employees who worked at the kitchen. Receipts and expenditures were also published annually in the press.”
The morning ‘rush hour’ must have made a chaotic scene with people lining up, receptacles in hand, to be filled on a ticket system obtained from an agent, normally the town missionaries or the Relief Offices.
Lynn Redhead, customer services administrator at the Holy Jesus Hospital, says: “The General Soup Kitchen was set up as a business, not a charity, and it ran for 11 years – between 1880 and 1891. The soup was sold for a halfpenny a pint to ‘the deserving poor’ people who could work in the summer but couldn’t in the winter.
“It was run by a committee of well-known people from the city of Newcastle, among them Thomas Pumphrey, Henry E Armstrong, James Joicey and Thomas Hodgkin, who was a banker. It stopped only after it was discovered that organised groups were selling the soup on in lodging houses as a superior, home-made product.
“People wanting soup came in through an 18-inch wide brick-lined corridor one at a time to be served from troughs. Six copper boilers were on the first floor of the building with storage below where raw materials were weighed to be hoisted up. They were making 100 gallons of soup at a time, that’s 800 people all queuing at the back of the building.
“The Victorians did things on a pyramid system, with paupers at the bottom layer. It was thought of as an inherited condition; if your father was a pauper, for instance, you were going to be one. They tended to be missed out of everything.”
More than 40 years after the Dickensian scenario, minutes recorded at a committee meeting of The General Soup Kitchen in Newcastle reveal that on Tuesday February 15, 1881, Mr D Marks presented to the committee an ox and vegetables. The animal had been purchased at the Newcastle Cattle Market that morning and driven thence to the Soup Kitchen, Manors, for personal inspection.
We take it for granted that Oliver Twist’s gruel, potage or soup was a dire concoction and barely able to sustain a young, growing body, but what was The General Soup Kitchen’s offering like? Was it nourishing? Did it have the right balance of carbohydrates, vitamins and fibre? Could it stand up to 21st Century dietary scrutiny?
The Journal asked the head chef at Newcastle’s Jesmond Dene House and his enthusiastic staff, who operate under executive chef Terry Laybourne. We also invited Ian Brown, senior lecturer in food sciences at Northumbria University, to comment on the Soup Kitchen’s efforts.
“Quite simply, the chef at the Soup Kitchen could not have prepared a better nutritionally-dense meal had he tried,” says Ian. “All in all, we have a perfectly balanced meal, especially if some home-grown potatoes or a crust of bread is thrown in – any bread, white, brown, even stale up to a few days old. But a tip for the chef – forget the salt, there’s too much in this and probably not required.
“In nutritional terms, it’s like dining in a Michelin-starred restaurant compared with the fodder of the day. There are nutrients there, especially the fibre, to help cardiovascular problems, cancers, and all diseases of the day relating to nutritional deficiency. If today’s society ate more of this than the processed, additive-riddled, fat-fuelled stuff it does, we would not be on the verge of an obesity crisis.” With the calculations made, the soup pan’s temperature taken and with ladles and bowls at the ready, Jesmond Dene House sous chef Robbie Bell admits to disappointment. “It’s a little bit different, a bit bland. There was no method with the recipe and I’m guessing that as it was for peasants, butter would have been too expensive to use to sweat the vegetables.
“We gave it a little bit of butter – you need to sweat it to bring some of the flavours out – but we tried to keep it as close to the original as possible. How would they have cooked it? Using those amounts, the bottom would be burnt and the top would be raw. We left the vegetables quite chunky as it’s more of a broth, and they certainly wouldn’t have ‘blitzed’ it.
“I think they wouldn’t have peeled the veg, either, so more of the nutrients would be left just under the skin.”
The surprise was that it didn’t taste particularly salty, despite the seemingly large amount used for 100 gallons. Any saltiness appeared in the after-taste, however.
“The barley may be a little bit overcooked,” says head chef Pierre Rigothier. He likens the end result to the meal that was traditionally offered to grape-pickers working in French chateaux. “It’s a rustic recipe. We have a similar one in France – we would call it a garbure -– made with all the bits of the animal together with the skin.
“It is quite bland but maybe with the whole animal in - the head, the feet, the tripes – it would be more meaty. When cooking something like that you would have to give it eight to 10 hours; it’s expansion cooking where all the flavours from the meat go into the liquid. The rice and flour would act as thickeners and the pulses with the meat and the flour plus the vitamins from the carrots and celery would make a nutritionally balanced meal.”
Although the late 1880s were a time of major advancement in food knowledge and development in nutritional sciences, Ian Brown points out that good nutritious food was scarce, especially decent fresh meat, fruit and vegetables.
“Much meat was dried by salting, though there was a lot more fish in the North Sea than there is now. Vegetables were home-grown – and seasonal, of course – and imported food was very inconsistent and expensive. Beer was of the brew-it-yourself-as-best-you-can variety.
“When Mr Marks undertook to present his ox with veggies on the side it must have been manna from heaven for those in need of sustenance.”
So, in the 21st Century, things are an awful lot different, aren’t they? Of course they are... but yet there are still many vulnerable people who are in desperate need of the attention once given by Newcastle’s great and good. In 1985, just over a century after The General Soup Kitchen was established at Manors, The People’s Kitchen was opened by 76-year-old Alison Kay who was so moved by finding an unidentified man dead under a bush in Newcastle that she decided to do something to help rough-sleepers.
Her first ‘friendship picnic’ under the railway arches on Dean Street – consisting of flasks of tea and sandwiches she had made in her own kitchen – was attended by four men. Regular distributions of food and friendship continued and support came from volunteers then eventually from outreach workers until the scheme developed and moved its headquarters to Bath Lane, Newcastle, in 1997. As well as running a drop-in centre and regularly taking food to the city’s streets, the People’s Kitchen also distributes items of clothing, sleeping bags, shoes, towels and waterproof rucksacks to the homeless and vulnerable.
Back in the comfort of Jesmond Dene House, Robbie Bell remains unconvinced as to the true value of The General Soup Kitchen product. “Look at that fat on the top.”
It’s unlikely he would ask his head chef, “Please sir, I want some more.”
The General Soup Kitchen recipe, February 15, 1881
112lbs Beef and Bones
(266.3/4 lbs vegetables and meat for 100 gallons of soup to serve 800 people).
Barley: Vitamin B6, copper, zinc, phosphorus, plus good fibre and carbohydrate
Peas: Vitamins B, C, A, plus lutein, protein, calcium, iron and too many essential micronutrients to mention
Flour: Vitamin B (thiamine and niacin) and selenium plus fibre, carbohydrate and protein
Rice: Rich in carbohydrate, vitamins B1 and B2, niacin, carbohydrate and protein
Onions: Vitamins C, B6 and fibre
Pepper: Rich in iron, vitamin K and manganese
Celery: High in fibre, vitamins A, B6, C and K, plus folate, potassium, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and calcium
Turnip: High in fibre, vitamins C and B6, folate, copper and calcium
Carrots: High in fibre, vitamins A, B6, C and K, carotene, thiamine, niacin and folate