A Condensed History Of Soup: From Basic Broth To Sheer Saucery
Image Credit: PEXELS

FEW THINGS are as comforting as hot soup on a cold day. But as a dish, soup is so simple, so basic, that we don’t often spend too much time ruminating on its origins. However, it does have a long history — running all the way from the Stone Age and antiquity through to modernity, encompassing the birth of the restaurant, advances in chemistry, and a famous pop art icon.


Archaeologists speculate the first soup might have been made by Neanderthals, boiling animal bones to extract fat essential for their diet and drinking the broth. Without the fats, their high intake of lean animal meats could have led to protein poisoning, so Stone Age soup was an important complement to primeval nutrition. 

The fundamental benefit of these bone broths is confirmed by archaeological discoveries around the world, ranging from a gelatin broth in Egypt’s Giza plateau, to Shaanxi Province in China. This widespread distribution of archaeological finds is also a reminder that soup not only has a long history, but is also a global food.


Today, our idea of soup is more refined, but the classic combination of stock and bread is embedded in the Latin root of the verb suppāre, meaning “to soak”. As a noun, suppa became soupe in Old French, meaning bread soaked in broth, and sowpes in Middle English. This pairing was also an economical way of reclaiming stale bread and thickening a thin broth. Wealthier households might have toasted fresh bread for the dish, but less prosperous diners used up stale bread that was too hard to chew unless softened in the hot liquid.


New ideas about science and digestion in 17th century France promoted natural flavours and thick, rustic preparations gave way to the creamy and velvety smooth soups we know today. Hitherto untried versions of the liquid food were developed by early modern European chefs, such as the seafood bisque, extracting flavour from the shells of crustaceans.

The first ‘restaurant’ (as we understand the term today) opened in Paris in 1765, and was immortalised for a simple broth — a clear soup made from bone broth and fresh herbs. Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, the original French restaurateur, created a new type of public space where weary diners could regain their lost appetites and soothe their delicate nerves at all hours. It may appear to be a contradiction that the first restaurant specifically catered to clients who had lost their appetites, yet it seems perfectly natural soup was the cure.


Soup was not destined to be limited to fancy restaurants or the long-simmering stock pots of peasants. Modern science made it convenient and less expensive for home cooks to prepare.

In 1897, a chemist at the Campbell soup company, John Dorrance, developed a condensed canned soup that dramatically reduced the water content. The new method halved the cost of shipping and made canned soup an affordable meal anyone could prepare.

This revolutionary achievement was recognised at the 1900 Paris Exposition, winning an award for product excellence. (There was stiff competition from the other contenders: the diesel engine, “talking” films, dry cell batteries and the Paris Metro.) The bronze medallion from 1900 still appears on the iconic red and white label, made famous by pop artist Andy Warhol’s ‘32 Campbell Soup Cans’ (1962). (Warhol also claimed he had soup for lunch every day for 20 years.)


The French chef Auguste Escoffier, famous for enshrining the five basic “mother sauces” in French cuisine, raised soups to perfection in the early 20th century, developing refined preparations that remain classics today. Known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings”, Escoffier had very high standards for soup, claiming “of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection”.

An Austrian apprentice of Escoffier, Louis P De Gouy, was chef at the Waldorf Astoria for 30 years and wrote 13 cookbooks. He summed up the appeal of soup in a volume dedicated to the dish with over 700 recipes: “Good soup is one of the prime ingredients of good living. For, soup can do more to lift the spirits and stimulate the appetite than any other one dish,” he declared.

From Neanderthal broth to pop art icon, the humble soup’s rich history gives us plenty of food for thought!

Garritt C Van Dyk is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. This essay originally appeared on The Conversation and is republished here under the Creative Commons Licence.