chocolate soup

Once, I went on a cruise, from New York City to the Bahamas and back again. One evening, one of the appetizer options was chocolate soup. I was excited by the concept, and the realization was good enough that I had it for dessert too. (It was remarkably difficult to talk staff – bound by default rules and habit – into letting me have an appetizer again instead of dessert; after that, they wondered if I wanted another main again too.) The soup was light, a little milky, and not too sweet. It was, as chocolate goes, refreshing. In retrospect, on the basis of nothing more than style, I wondered if it had gone out of fashion in the ’70s.

The second time I encountered chocolate soup, at least verbally, was at a conference paper at last month’s Renaissance Society of America meeting in Venice: “Of Chocolate Soups and Stuffed Sturgeons: Feasting for Power in the Archbishopric of Karlovci”, given by Jelena Todorović of the University of the Arts in Belgrade. The talk used chocolate soup (along with the stuffed sturgeons) as passing, if eye-catching, examples of power-claims expressed through food. In other words, while really quite an interesting topic, what it told me about chocolate soup was that it was made and eaten in eastern Europe by the late sixteenth century, and that it was (no surprise) a luxury, high-status dish at the time. Had there been late sixteenth-century cruise ships, few of us would have been rich enough to afford such an opulent soup.

That chocolate soup I ate aboard ship didn’t remind me of hot chocolate. It wasn’t just that it was cold – it had something else to it. Savory stock? Fruit purée? I know, I would have been able to taste the difference, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking of analyzing it in that way, and now it’s years too late to do so. Looking around, many of the recipes for it sound just like cold hot chocolate, such as one from the Food Network. Damian Allsop‘s version suggests fruit purée as an alternative to water for thinning it. Waitrose suggests folding in the cream-and-chocolate mixture to a sabayon, adding eggy depth, a little like a chocolatey egg nog. Jacques Torres‘ version is specifically conceived of as an innovative of desert. Really, all of these think of this soup as a dessert.

If modern recipes all conceive of chocolate soup as a dessert variant – as, indeed, did the sellers of the rich chocolate ravioli I had the other week, which we, contrarily, ate as a main with a spicy tomato-based sauce – then why was it strongly conceived of as an appetizer when I first encountered it about a decade ago? When, for that matter, I now wonder, in the course of feasting, might the Archbishop of Karlovci have enjoyed his soup?

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*© S. Worthen 2009