A condensed history of soup

Ruth Griffiths

For thousands of years humans have been nourished by the liquid food known as soup.

A 20,000-year-old soup bowl was discovered in a cave in China. In Europe, Neanderthals boiled bones to render fats, creating a drinkable broth in the process. Today soup, in its many forms, is a menu staple.

The word soup derives from the Latin word ”suppa”, which refers to bread soaked in broth. It was popularized in the 1600s by the French “soupe”. The word is also found in Proto-Germanic language as “sup” which means ‘to make liquid’.

Soup makers in medieval Europe made soups based on a range of ingredients from meats to vegetables. They stuck to the tradition of pouring soups over toasted bread.

In 18th century France, street vendors sold a restorative soup known as a “restoratif”. Soup had for a long time been known for its healing properties. When an enterprising man named Boulanger decided to open a quiet eatery featuring soups, eggs and other restoratifs, the first restaurant was born.

In 1897, Dr John T. Dorrance, a chemist at the Campbell Soup Company invented its famous condensed soup. Condensing soup allows it to be packaged into a smaller can and sold at a lower price than other canned soups. To serve it, the soup is usually doubled in volume by adding a “can full” of water or milk.

Soup has come a long way from its humble origins as a bone broth in a cave. Today, Campbell’s Tomato, Cream of Mushroom, and Chicken Noodle soups are  the most popular. Each year Americans eat 2.5 billion bowls of these three soups alone. 

In the 1950s canned soup became very popular as either a standalone meal or an ingredient in other recipes. This is about the time we started to eat tuna-noodle casserole made with condensed soup, tinned tuna and crushed potato chips on top. But the history of cooking with canned soup goes back farther. “Helps for the Hostess”, the first cookbook using soup in recipes, was published by Campbell’s in 1916.

Cooking tasty soup from scratch is the hallmark of a chef and the home cook, however condensed soup is so much more. Canned soup is so much a part of North American culture that artist Andy Warhol became famous for painting the image of a Campbell’s soup can, over and over again … much like our consumption of soup. (Most of the information in this column comes from the Campbell’s Soup website.)