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?
It’s common advice, if not universally agreed, that large meals right before bedtime are bad for one’s health. This conviction has been around for quite a long time. Middle English educational texts warn again eating “rere sopers”, or late suppers. “rere” is the same word as the modern “rear”, evolving out of Anglo-French. (See OED rear-, comb. form) These meals were a sign of gluttony (a vice) in food and therefore, quite likely, a sign of overindulgence in life in general.
In “How the Goode Man Taght Hys Sone” (“How the Good Man taught his Son”), the fifteenth-century author warns,
And loke thou wake not to longe,
Neydur use no rere sopers to late;
For were thy complexion never so stronge,
Wyth surfett thou mayste fordo that.
(“And mind you don’t stay awake too long / nor eat rere sopers too late, / for were your complexion ever so robust, / with excess, you might do it in.”)
Other authors are no more approving, with John Lydgate, in his fifteenth-century bestseller, The Dietary, advising that his reader should “Suffre no surfitis in thyn hous at nyht, / War of rer sopers and of gret excesse.” (“Suffer no excess in your house at night, / beware of rere sopers and of great excess.”)
Finally, Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s early fourteenth-century work, Handlyng Synne, warns that “Rere sopers yn pryvyte, / with glotonye, eachone they be”. You may eat your rere soper in private, but that doesn’t make each of them any less gluttonous. Unlike the other authors, however, he continues on in more obliging detail, explaining some of the other problems with eating rere sopers, such as the danger of eating after midnight on Thursday, when Friday is a day of fasting on water and bread only. (lines 7279-7290) Really, Mannyng is an advocate of every meal in its place. Early dinners are no better than rere sopers, he believes. (l. 7292)
Rere sopers are only mentioned in order to tell the reader to not eat them, but at least, as a result, these Middle English authors provide their label for late suppers, a mealtime which, however deplored, was common enough to earn a fixed name.
© S. Worthen 2009