Brandon serves up the life story of a man who changed the way rich and poor ate.
Alexis Soyer cooked for 19th-century England. Moving from France to Blighty as a young man, he cooked at Aston Hall and at London’s Reform Club, where his creations—haricot and lentil salad, truffles stuffed with ortolans, “New Spring and Autumn Soup”—earned him renown as he transformed the kitchens of the Reform Club into “one of the sights of London.” But, as Brandon’s (Surreal Lives, 1999, etc.) well-chosen title makes clear, Soyer was no mere servant to English bon vivants. He was also a culinary innovator and social reformer. In the late 1840s, he became consumed by the problems of the poor and designed a new soup kitchen to serve them. Disgusted by what was available at most such kitchens, he published Soyer’s Charitable Cookery: or, The Poor Man’s Regenerator, which spelled out healthy, cheap recipes for the “poor and labouring classes.” When he set up a soup kitchen in Dublin, he was heralded as a savior. Soyer’s final act of service was to the British in the Crimean War, where he invented an innovative field stove and oversaw the kitchen at a military hospital in Constantinople. His 1858 death was mourned throughout the Empire. As Florence Nightingale commented, Europe boasted plenty of other gourmands, but there was no one else who had turned his epicurean skill to the nutritious feeding of the masses. Brandon tells Soyer’s story briskly, though not flawlessly. A confusing literary device—structuring the book around a menu, and opening each chapter with a recipe—distracts from the overall fare. (Do we really need to know that the mention of bones, in a recipe for soup, reminds Brandon of “my mother’s continually simmering stockpot”?)
Quibbles aside, devotees of Ruth Reichl and M.F.K. Fisher will gobble up this delicious new gastronomic biography.