I’m making my way through my podcast backlog (now down to “just” 25 hours) from the oldest to the latest episodes for a change. Buried in the backlog was this Gastropod Podcast episode on the history of potato usage in food history. It is the usual combination of history with some tasty tidbits. One apparently not so tasty tidbit was the use of the potato in what’s called Rumford’s Soup . This split pea, barley, and potato soup was designed as food for the poor and imprisoned in Germany by Sir Benjamin Thompson . Their contributor described it as having “mixed” reviews. It’s intended purpose was to feed these masses but Thompson himself thought it being tasty was important and believed that it was. What’s the real scoop on it? I decided to make a batch myself and look at it’s nutritional viability using my trusty Cronometer.com .
To be clear the primary goal of this food product was to feed large groups of people as cheaply as possible but to do so scientifically. At least to do so as scientifically as was possible in the early 1800s. Thompson’s charter was to come up with a high calorie, nutritious, and cheap food they could serve out three times a day to fully feed people staying in workhouses . This was later used as the foundation for soup kitchens he stood up and as the basis for rations in other places of society like prisons where cheap but nutritious was all that mattered. Thompson wanted this to be more than just edible food though. With a palate tailored to Bavaria the basic soup which had limited seasonings in its most basic form gets a little extra punch from sour beer and malt vinegar. How successful he was at that versus making the original Nutraloaf is what I wanted to find out.
I have peasant genes in me going back a long way. I like simpler foods as much or more than fancy foods, including soups and stews. The description provided for the recipe therefore didn’t sound horrible to me. The basic recipe calls for one part split peas, one part barley, and four parts potato. The recipes I found, including this one that I started with, do this by volume rather than weight. Either way these basic constituents together sound like they’d make a flavorful hearty stew. This isn’t like some of the other primary food sources of the day for this purpose that would be literally just cornmeal or oats watered down to a varying thin gruel, mush, or porridge. Add to that some additional flavor dimensions by adding the beer and vinegar and there was at least some potential for this being far more than palatable if not enjoyable even if it seemed to turn off the Gastopod podcasters, their food history expert, and some of her diners.
As stated above, I started with this “British Food in America” version of this recipe. That means it was ever so slightly fancied up by adding two spices: thyme and bay leaf. The soup ingredients therefore are:
- 1 cup dried split yellow peas
- 1 cup pearl barley
- 4 cups of diced potato (about 1.5 pounds worth)
- 4-8 cups of water (added in parts)
- 1 TB of dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 24 ounces of beer/ale at room temperature
- 1-2 TB of malt vinegar
- Salt to taste
This is a simple recipe by design. I actually trimmed back their recipe a bit by omitting fresh parsley. The podcast mentioned dried spices, bay leaf, being added by the French along the way so I took this to be a bit more authentic. I did not go through the trouble of trying to find a way to make a beer go “sour” so I just went with an inexpensive lighter lager style beer: Budweiser. They also called for much less water than I needed, which I’ve adjusted for in the recipe. The below description is how I made it work.
- Dice up the potatoes and add to the pot with the barley and split peas and spices.
- Add 4 cups of water and bring to a boil.
- Once boiling reduce it to a simmer covered.
- Simmer for 1.5 hours. During the 1.5 hours stir occasionally and check that there is still sufficient liquid. I ended up having to add a cup of water a few more times.
- After 1.5 hours add the beer.
- Bring it back up to a good simmer and continue simmering uncovered for 30 minutes.
At two hours in you get a soup where much of the barley and potatoes have broken down but there are still identifiable constituents. Based on some other pictures I’ve seen back in the day this may have been cooked to the point where all recognizable constituents were completely boiled into just one thick homogeneous mass. A recipe in one of the sources listed below that I didn’t find until after I cooked this indeed has the cooking time at twice what I used. This is therefore a more “texturized” version of the Rumford Soup. To round out the meal and add texture back, ironically, this was often served with crusty bread (think old bread not fancy artisan loaves). With a bowl of soup ready how did it taste?
So now I have a full day’s worth of servings of my own Rumford Soup. This is three huge portions of the stuff actually. How did it taste? I actually found the flavor to be pretty good but a little bit bland. With just thyme and bay leaf it doesn’t have a lot of dimension, as expected. The beer and vinegar amp it up a bit but the sourness can be a bit of a turn off if I wasn’t expecting it. It’s enjoyable enough that I’m going to eat all three huge servings of the stuff and like it sufficiently. It isn’t enjoyable enough that I would make it again without tweaks. It is definitely not enjoyable enough that I’d look forward to eating this three times a day every day in perpetuity.
It also should be recognized that this is not representative of what the poor would be eating in the workhouses and prisons. This is a “fancy” version of this dish. The “real” version would probably not have had the spices I used in the quantities I used them if at all. The “sour beer” was beer made by the workhouse that had gone off so no longer suitable for drinking but not so far gone that it should be tossed. Lastly all of my ingredients were fresh, unadulterated, and unspoiled. The same could not necessarily be said for what these people were served.
Beyond the flavor was it filling? Hell yes! This is the type of food that feels like a block of lead in your stomach for hours on end. I ate it for lunch and even by dinner time I was still feeling somewhat full from it. That may partly be due to the fiber content of this recipe which is very high, see below. As far as Thompson’s goal of making something nutritious, filling, and enjoyable I’d say he’s not too far off the mark on the last two. It is definitely filling. In it’s most raw form it is better than palatable and with some small tweaks could actually be made enjoyable. It certainly is above the porridge or gruel that it replaced. How about that scientific nutritionist aspect? That’s a bit more complicated.
Before I grade Thompson et al on the nutrition of the Rumford Soup I want to recognize the fact that they had a very limited knowledge of nutrition at the time. We take for granted our modern understanding of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and essential minerals. These are all early-to-mid 20th Century discoveries. The first vitamin wasn’t discovered until 1913 and the last wasn’t discovered until 1948. Meanwhile this recipe dates back to 1800. They were therefore limited to the basic knowledge, and in some cases misconceptions, of nutrition at the time. You can get a hint of how basic these understandings were even almost 100 years later reading this article and this other article from 1885 by W. Mattieu Williams on “The Chemistry of Cooking”. It simultaneously highlights misconceptions already identified by that time, things still unknown that would sound silly to us, and the early foundations of nutrition science in how it breaks down majoritarian’s with the then state of the art understanding.
With that aside and excusing their ignorance we can’t dismiss the fact that this is what people were actually being forced to subsist on either because of economic condition or imprisonment. The idea was that this three times a day plus some bread would be able to nourish someone. To do that it needs to have enough calories, macro-nutrients, and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals). Otherwise this “scientific” nutritionism left these people malnourished despite their best efforts. How close did they get?
I’m doing my analysis based on trying to hit about a 2000 calorie diet. Three servings of the recipe I made is about 2250 calories. This is consistent with the fact that Williams above notes that that a servings weighed in at about 20 ounces. How does living on nothing but this work out nutritionally? Especially considering their knowledge at the time pretty good actually:
Protein wise this is actually quite stellar despite having no meat in it (not necessaril a suprise to vegetarians/vegans I’m sure). Three servings of this soup gives one not only more than sufficient protein but also 120% to almost 400% minimum recommended daily intake of all essential amino acids. It is very carb heavy but it is substantially complex carbs. What’s more the fiber level is very very high, at three times the recommended minimum levels by modern standards. For reference a “high fiber” diet today is one with one third as much fiber. Looking at the micro-nutrients things become a bit worse though. Minerals wise this still does well, with only calcium coming up short at 34% of recommended levels. The B vitamins except B12 (none) and B2 (75%) aren’t too bad. It is the other vitamins where things fall apart though. While Vitamin C is pretty solid at 94% the drastically low levels of A, E, and K would be problematic if this is all one were eating. None of this is surprising since there are really no leafy greens or organ meats.
If we were to look at this as the core of a diet and add some accents to it this actually holds up pretty well. This was served with bread. Even if the bread was made with unadulterated flour, which is a bad assumption for the time, that wasn’t really enough to round this out. Let’s instead look at a simple addition of one slice of rye bread, approximating a more whole-grain peasant loaf, and a cup of spinach at each meal. To compensate for the extra calories we are going to cut the daily serving total of the Rumford Soup portion to 75% of the original analysis to keep calorie count about the same:
In this daily diet we have even more protein than before, thanks to the spinach, while rounding out most of the vitamin deficiencies. We still have zero B12 or D, which could be rounded out with some liver or seafood additions, which at the time were considered poor man’s food. This is still very fanciful since I imagine getting three servings of spinach per person at that time was an extravagance which was not economical. The premise that augmenting this diet with leafy greens and some meat could be a nutritionally complete diet is not impossible though.
This literal poor man’s soup made to feed the masses for far less but better than existing methods actually has a lot more to it than I thought, especially considering the limited understanding of nutrition at the time. Nutrition wise it is fairly complete, except for the dearth of Vitamins B12, A, D, E, and K. That could hypothetically be corrected with some supplementation of leafy greens or organ meats. From a satiety perspective it absolutely nails it. I’ve now eaten it twice and it fills me up as much or more and for longer than any other meal I can remember. In terms of palatable it’s not horrible but not great either, even this fancy version of it.
I wish I had the recipe in Williams’s work before I tried to make this so I could make it more authentically. His has none of the spices but it also has a different cooking order and cooking time. The recipe he laid out was contemporary to how it was being done in actual workhouses in the late-19th century therefore authentic. It would have done exactly what I thought though, which is turn it into one homogeneous mass. He even states as such in his own cooking experiments. I’m probably not going to make it again though because I got enough of a gist to say that sorry to Sir Thompson this is not tasty food on its own.
While I may not make this particular recipe again it does give me an idea for a very nutritious soup built on top of it. The core nutritional components could be punched up relatively easily to make it even more nutritious but more importantly tasty. First, let’s add some sauteed onions, celery and carrots to the beginning of the recipe. Next let’s substitute a bunch of the water with vegetable or chicken stock. While I liked the added beer flavor I’m not a fan of it going so sour by adding the malt vinegar. So I’d keep the beer and ditch the vinegar. Lastly while I like it in more of a stew consistency it is a bit too thick as is so I’d thin it down a bit and add some leafy greens like spinach or kale to it. With those changes this could truly be as nutritious and delicious while still being very economical and filling. I still have some left over split peas and barley. If I decided to try this punched up recipe I’ll definitely post a full write up here.