Think of it as comfort in a bowl. Soups, stews, and chilies certainly provide an economical source of nourishment. But these creations are so much more than the sum of their ingredients. No two batches can be exactly alike because each carries the terroir — the flavor signatures — of its components, captured at the moment of preparation. In addition, each version of a soup, stew, or chili recipe is influenced by the whim, the mood, the loving hands of the cook.
A good recipe can ensure a good dish, but it can't predict the grace notes added by time, place, and human expression. A bumper crop of fresh zucchini, a particularly fragrant bunch of basil, a dish of savory leftover pot roast; such variables are what make any slow-simmered jumble of ingredients a wonderful, original work of art.
Anthropologists quibble over where and when the first pot of soup or stew appeared. Some credit the Neanderthals with softening foods in water in a hollowed bit of bark. Others note later evidence that African and European tribes learned to cook meat and plants together in the sealed stomach cavities of animals, while South American tribes used hollowed turtle shells as soup and stew vessels. Purists date the first real soups and stews — and in South America, where peppers were thrown in, chilies — to around 10,000 b.c., when ceramic pots appeared on the scene.
References to soups and stews appear in the earliest surviving cookbooks, including some dating to the third century. By the Middle Ages, sages and essayists were recommending chicken soup as a cure for all manner of infirmities. Early American writings on food trace recipes and soup customs with English, German, and French origins. Added to that early melting pot were offerings from Native Americans featuring tree nuts and wild greens. Journal entries from the colonial period make clear that soup, then as now, was considered a community-building dish that required both generosity and sharing.
Soup became a lifesaving elixir during the Great Depression. Beginning in 1929, churches and charities opened makeshift dining halls serving hot soup and bread to anyone who lined up for a meal. Eventually, soup kitchens cropped up across the U.S., with bean and chicken soups being ladled out in most cities and towns. Many were operated by the Volunteers of America, some by municipal governments and nonprofit groups. Al Capone even opened a soup kitchen in his hometown, Chicago.
Modern households appreciate these ancient dishes for the same reasons as our ancestors; namely, sustenance and satisfaction. However, in addition, we've learned that soups, stews, and chilies can be an easy and accessible way to sample the flavors of other cultures, to expand our own culinary horizons, and to entertain friends. A hearty Louisiana gumbo, a delicate ginger-scented broth, a fiery but rich Thai coconut chicken soup — the varieties of soups, stews, and chilies in the world are limited only by the collective imaginations of cooks.
In The Everything® Soup, Stew, & Chili Cookbook, you'll find a broad sampling of both classic and innovative dishes from around the globe. You'll also learn everything you need to create your own unique offerings. The important thing to remember is this: Relax; soups, stews, and chilies are naturally forgiving dishes. Enjoy the process, and your family and friends will love the results.