Chicken Soup: a Multi-purpose Restorative

Donald NorfolkMany families are feeling the effects of the recession and are trying to reduce their household expenditure. Like Errol Flynn, they’re finding that their gross habits are not matched by their net incomes. Conspicuous consumption and needless waste are now de trop. Today’s watchwords are recycling, thrift and make do-and-mend. I was brought up to scrimp and save during the Second World War. My grandchildren still believe that thrift is a terrific virtue, but only in their ancestors. A year ago the UK government launched a Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), designed to counteract Britain’s throwaway food culture. The campaign was based on a study of the dustbins of over two thousand volunteers, which revealed that the annual total of jettisoned food products in Britain has now reached a staggering £10 billion a year. This is not only a waste of valuable food, but also an extravagant misuse of transport facilities, since the merchandise has to be carried to the supermarkets, then to our homes, and from there to the land-fill sites and incinerators where it decomposes and releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. According to the researchers at WRAP, by curtailing the waste of perfectly edible food we could reduce the annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 18 million tons, which is equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road. Whatever our incomes, we would be wiser, healthier and wealthier if we reduced our spending on food. (One of my friends has three children at boarding school. He’s just discovered that in India it costs only £10 to feed a child for a year, so he’s threatening to economise by sending his children to a state school in Calcutta.)

To play my part in the conservation process, I want to extol the virtues of chicken soup, a large supply of which I’ve just prepared, some to eat tonight, the rest to put in the freezer where it will keep for at least two months. Soups, broths and potages are the oldest recorded cooked foods, dating back over eight thousand years. As soon as man had mastered the art of creating hearths, lighting fires and making pottery cooking vessels, broths were devised as the finest way of extracting the full food value from vegetable scraps and animal carcases. This provided a tasty, nourishing dish which even the poorest families could afford. In sixteenth century France cheap, but invigorating, soups were sold by street vendors called restaurers (restorers), which they pedalled as a remedy for physical exhaustion. These dishes became so popular that in 1765 a Parisian entrepreneur opened a shop specialising solely in the sale of soups, which was why the eateries came to be known as ‘restaurants.’

The great value of soups is that they are infinitely variable in their make-up. They can be concocted from virtually anything edible that comes to hand. In the Ukraine they’re made with beetroot (Borscht); in the south of France from scraps of fish (Bouillabaisse); in Scotland from leek and potatoes (Cock-a-leekie) and in Italy from mixed vegetables. (Minestrone) For a brief while in England it was fashionable for the landed gentry to sit down to Green Turtle Soup, made from turtles weighing 60-100lbs shipped over live from the West Indies in fresh water tanks. Within weeks recipes were being published offering the less well endowed the chance of eating ‘mock’ turtle soup made from a boar’s head! My personal penchant is for chicken soup, which has always been a favourite with poor Jewish families.

For years I extolled the virtues of chicken meat, on the ground that it contained far less fat than an Aberdeen steak. But that was only true of free-range chickens fed on a natural diet. Today’s battery birds are getting fat, researchers at London Metropolitan University reporting that chicken meat now contains nearly three times as much fat as it did 35 years ago because of the radical change in farming methods. A roast chicken leg complete with skin now has more fat than a Big Mac. As the researchers explained: ‘Chickens used to roam free and eat herbs and seeds. They are now fed with high energy foods and even most organic chickens don’t have to walk any distance to eat.’ But while we may have to revise some of our ideas about chicken soup, there’s still a good chance that it has a calming effect on the mind, as my Auntie Ethel used to claim. Major decisions are best made on a full stomach, according to research carried out at Cambridge University. This is because going without food for long spells reduces brain levels of serotonin, a naturally produced hormone which lowers levels of aggression, encourages restful sleep and generates a stable mood and equable temperament. It’s classified as an ‘essential’ amino-acid because it can’t be produced in the body, but must be obtained through the diet. Without it, the body can’t produce serotonin. So what is one of the finest sources of tryptophan? Yes, you’ve guessed – chicken soup. That’s why it’s long been a favourite home remedy for the sick, and why Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen chose Chicken Soup for the Soul as the title for their collection of inspirational stories, a book which went on to sell in excess of two million copies.

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