As humans, we seek warmth. Not just the kind of warm you can adjust on a thermostat, but real warmth — one you can feel spread from your tummy to your fingertips, the kind you get from a loved one’s embrace, the soft familiarity of your bed at the end of the day.
Then there’s the delightful, down-to-your-bones warmth of food.There are entire cookbooks, menus and flavors in every culture dedicated to the warmth and comfort of food. And, of all the comfort foods, there’s one we seem to hold the nearest and dearest to our hearts, poured from steaming ladles by your smiling grandma.
And luckily in Chicago, there’s no shortage of it. From chicken noodle to ramen to gumbo to pho, Chicago’s diverse food scene provides an excellent point of entry into the soups for the soul of cultures across the globe.
“It’s a universal food, every culture has a soup of some sort, and that’s partly because of its simplicity,” said Janet Clarkson, author of Soup: A Global History. Clarkson is a Queensland, Australia-based food historian and has done extensive research and writing about the histories, traditions and recipes surrounding the foods we cherish most.
Many of these foods are derived from pure necessity — what was once purely utilitarian has become something beautiful and beloved.
“When you think about it in terms of very early, medieval times, most poor people would have soup as their only hot sustenance, and most people never really ate meat because it was too expensive. And even around the world now, a lot of people have very simple cooking facilities. So as a species and as a culture, we have a very long history of cooking out of one container,” Clarkson said. “And what poor people would try to do at Christmas would be to enhance their day to day gruel.” (Note: by “gruel,” Clarkson means any soup or stew-y dish, usually something with liquid and grain elements).
And thus, soup has come to occupy a specific space and niche on our kitchen tables.
This niche is one that cultures experience and evolved with throughout time — the story which is apparent in that first spoonful of any soup. What’s it missing that you might be used to in, say, your grandmother’s recipe? What does it add? Why?
“At Christmas people would try to add things with whatever they had, whether they had a few eggs a bit of dried fruit or a little bit of meat — they would add whatever they had to the one pot,” Clarkson said. “You can put anything in it. It appeals to people’s frugality, and if you have the means you can make it more exotic. It’s infinitely variable.”
The ability to put seemingly anything into a soup combined with its deeply warming qualities opened up other uses for it.
“Once upon a time, people’s medicine was their food, apothecaries and doctors would prescribe changes in food,” Clarkson said. “So there were lots of foods that were made by the woman of the house would prepare, like your grandmother’s chicken soup.”
In some cases, changes in soup recipes ranged from the practical to the unimaginable.
“People also had much more exotic soups, like some with actual gems in them or ground up viper,” Clarkson said.
As Clarkson said, it’s ultimately this versatility that we love and cherish about our soup. It’s not only a reflection of our culture, but of our values, our environment and the way we take care of one another.
“[Soup] has become part of everyone’s history,” Clarkson said. “It’s a universal meal.”
Header image by Natalie Wade, 14 East.