The Soup That Won The War

It’s a mighty moniker for a simple bowl of soup. Pepper Pot Soup has been called “the soup that won the war” for its role in helping the struggling patriots defeat the mighty British in the Revolutionary War.

And, it all started 239 years ago today.

In December 1777, the Continental army camped out at Valley Forge during an unusually cold and harsh winter. Food was scarce.

Legend has it, Gen. George Washington asked Army baker general Christopher Ludwick to prepare a meal that would warm the soldiers and boost their moral.

Ludwick found small scraps of tripe and other meats, peppercorns and vegetables. He mixed them together and created Pepper Pot Soup.

The hot – and somewhat spicy – soup was well-received by the soldiers and sustained them to fight another day.

Because of that, December 29 has become known as “Pepper Pot Day” (at least according to Holidayinsights.com, a site that chronicles bizarre holidays).

While this legendary story of how Pepper Pot Soup was born is moving, it may or may not be true. Some historians say pepper pot is a Caribbean flavor and could have been brought to America by slaves.

However, Caribbeans don’t typically cook with tripe the way Europeans do, so this soup is more likely the result of both Caribbean and European influences.

Either way, the spicy broth grew in popularity in the coming years, especially in Philadelphia where it became known as Philadelphia Pepper Pot Soup.

In 1811, artist John Lewis Krimmel commemorated the beloved soup in his painting, “Pepper Pot: a scene in a Philadelphia market.”

While the soup has waned in popularity a bit, it continues to be served at some Philadelphia restaurants.

Wisely, many of the chefs there have chosen to use beef or chicken instead of tripe. Probably a good decision. Something about eating soup with tripe – the stomach lining of an animal – seems a little unappetizing. I decided to follow the restaurant chefs’ advice and use steak. (Just because we’re honoring our patriotic ancestors by eating this soup doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements.)

The soup looks a lot like a standard vegetable beef soup, but it’s so much better.

One of the reasons can be attributed to the use of ground cloves in the soup. I’m used to using ground cloves in dessert dishes like cakes and cookies, but it seemed like a weird ingredient for a savory soup.

However, the spicy flavor of the cloves mixed with the kick from the pepper and the red pepper flakes made for a rich and flavorful soup. It definitely warmed me right up. I might not be ready to fight the British after all of this, but I’ll be a little toastier now as I go to start the car.

Pepper Pot Soup

Ingredients:

1 pound beef or chicken, cut in small pieces

5 slices bacon, diced

1/2 cup onion, chopped

1/2 cup celery, chopped

3 leeks, chopped

1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped

2 quarts beef stock

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 large potato, peeled and diced

2 large carrots, diced

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Directions:

In a large, heavy kettle, saute the bacon for approximately 3 minutes. Add the onion, celery, leeks and parsley; saute until tender. Add the uncooked beef or chicken.

Stir in beef stock, thyme, marjoram, cloves, red pepper flakes and black pepper. Bring the kettle to a boil and turn down to a simmer. Cook, covered, until meat is very tender – about 2 hours. Add the diced potato and carrots; cook for an additional 20 minutes.

Prepare the roux by stirring the flour into the melted butter and cooking for a moment on the stove. When the soup is done to your liking, stir in the roux.

Simmer, stirring all the while, until the soup thickens a bit.

Recipe altered slightly from “Authentic Pepper Pot Soup” from Allrecipes

Other important wartime foods

While Pepper Pot Soup is said to have helped won the Revolutionary War, other foods have been equally heralded for their efforts in defeating the enemy or at least sustaining the troops.

Chocolate – WWII
In 1937, the Hershey chocolate company was approached to create a candy bar to be used for soldiers’ emergency rations. The “D ration bar” – a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour – was dense and bitter and not a favorite of the troops during WWII. Some even called it “Hitler’s secret weapon,” but the chocolate bar gave the Army what it was looking for: lightweight, nutritious food that gave their soldiers plenty of energy.

Hardtack – Civil War
Hardtack was a popular Union Army food made from flour, salt and water. The crackers were produced in Northern factories and were so hard by the time they reached the soldiers they were nicknamed teeth-dullers, sheet-iron crackers, flour tile, ship’s biscuit and hard bread. According to the Civil War Trust, Union commanders liked the crackers because there were “cheap to make, easy to transport and lasted a long time.”

Cornbread – Civil War
While their Union brothers were eating hardtack, food was more scarce for the Confederacy. When they did eat, it was typically cornbread or Johnnie Cakes and sometimes cush, which is cooked beef fried with bacon grease and cornmeal.

Bully Beef – WWI
American and British soldiers consumed this canned meat that tastes like corned beef. Soldiers also ate bread and biscuits. As the war dragged on, there became a short supply of flour and the soldiers resorted to making the baked goods out of ground turnips.