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Recession Proof: Rumsford’s Soup

If you read much food writing, you may have encountered writer MFK Fisher’s notes on thrifty cuisine.

In her 1942 recession-proof tome, How to Cook a Wolf she wrote of an inexpensive, nutritious meat-grain subsistence loaf (writer Jeffrey Steingarten later taste-tested that very recipe in The Man Who Ate Everything).

But far earlier than that, in the late 1700s, a remarkably multi-talented scientist/inventor named Benjamin Thompson (later known as Count von Rumford) was also interested in nutritious subsistence food, which led him to the creation of Rumford Soup.

Soup Bowl

The original Rumford Soup was composed of nothing more than pearl barley, yellow peas, potatoes, salt, old, sour beer and maybe a bit of vinegar for balance. Cheap eats, indeed.

In today’s prices, Rumford’s recipe makes a meal for less than $1 per person, the most expensive ingredient being the beer.

This soup (as well as his efficient stove innovations) caught on in Europe and America and led to the establishment of the soup kitchens that nourished generations of the poor.

The traditional version of the recipe goes something like this:

Classic Rumford Soup (Serves 6)

1 cup pearl barley
1 cup dried yellow split peas
4 cups diced potatoes
1 tsp salt, or to taste
3 cups water
3 cups (2 12oz bottles) wheat beer (hefeweizen)
Malt or cider vinegar (to taste)

  1. Put the barley, split peas, potato cubes, salt and water in a large stockpot. Slowly simmer the mixture for 1 to 2 hours, adding additional water, as necessary.
  2. When the soup begins to thicken, add the beer and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Season to taste with a little vinegar and more salt, if needed. Serve with bread.

I think this recipe could be improved immensely by replacing the beer with some flavorful stock and adding some ground black pepper, a liberal sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of fresh parsley… but all that would obviously add a few cents onto the per-person price.

I’ve come up with a revisited version of Rumsford’s famous soup, which is a little more dolled up and comes out to about $2 per serving if you make your own stock.

The Rumsford Soup Redux (Serves 6)
4 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups split yellow peas
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 cup pearl barley
1 to 2 bay leaves
1 to 2 carrots, peeled and sliced (1/2”)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & ground black pepper, to taste

Soup Garnish (optional)
1 small red onion, minced
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Juice of 1 lemon

  1. In a heavy-bottomed stock pot, combine the 4 cups broth with the peas and the potatoes.
  2. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Covered and cook until the peas and potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion in the oil about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and add to the potatoes and peas.
  4. Add the barley and carrot and continue simmering until the barley is tender, about 40 minutes.
  5. Prepare the garnish by combining the chopped onion, parsley and lemon in a small bowl.
  6. Remove the soup from the heat, and if it seems a bit thin, add a little more water. Stir in the grated cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serve with small spoonful of the garnish (if using) atop each portion.

Obviously, Rumsford’s soup was vegan-friendly, and my modernized version can certainly be made vegetarian or vegan as well… just make sure the stock is veggie and skip the cheese.

AND as promised, here’s the solution to yesterday’s soup crossword.

Yours in tasty thrift,
Miss Ginsu

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