Heard of Alexis Soyer? For anyone worried about foodbank Britain, he’s the type of celeb chef we actually need

by Ian Stewart

So the annual blow-out is over, and those who invested heavily in the usual orgy of food and booze that dominates the end of December are now hoping to stick to their new year’s resolutions.

In the la-la land of TV commissioning, amongst assorted cop shows, property porn and reality dross, the food programme seemingly has no equal. After all, it is a catch-all subject isn’t it? We all have to eat, and thus food can be used in almost any situation, and the genre can be whisked, diced, stirred and folded to fit almost any situation. If you enjoy seething, duplicitous competition – and lets face it, I do – then Come Dine With Me fits the bill. If your tastes are more towards middle-England and Midsomer Murders, then the Great British Bake-Off will have you in its thrall.

Then we have the TV chefs and food writers – really quite a varied category, as some do actually seem to want you learn something practical (Delia, Nigel, Jamie), whilst others are simply selling an impossible dream (step forward Nigella and Heston). Not to mention various restaurant owners and chefs with cookware and an image to sell – Raymond, Aldo, Gordon, James and others to spare. Of course there is the big daddy of them all… Masterchef.  Re-jigged into a competition where hopeful amateurs may, if very lucky, parlay victory on telly into an actual restaurant, possibly even a chain with the right backing.

Weekly, when in season, John Torode and Greg Wallace torture innocent people wearing white jackets for our entertainment. Greg Wallace… the man fascinates me to a slightly unhealthy degree. Having started his media career on Radio Four’s exciting “Veg Talk”, the sometime onion seller now earns a living by repeating whatever John Torode says, but in a different order. “I like your food” becomes “your food – I like”, and the inanity-meter goes into overdrive – “that is a serious plate of food” or “your flavours are your strength,” (disturbing, if you think about it too much!).

In an age where food prices are almost constantly rising across the world and when many children will go to school with nothing in their bellies, a plate of food can indeed be serious. Yet you will find no reference to food as sustenance in most food programming – Jamie’s campaigns and the odd cooking on a budget series excepted. Nope, it is all about ‘food porn’ and the aspiration, apparently, to own a Dualit toaster, and cook on an Aga. To find out the reality of food in modern Britain, you would do much better to listen to the odd snippet on the news.

So, when kids fall asleep by mid-morning, when that charming euphemism of malnutrition, “food poverty”, is on the rise, the foodie celebs are next to useless. It hasn’t always been this way – there have been great chefs, great showmen, who actually affected ordinary lives for the better.

Step forward Alexis Benoist Soyer – cook to princes, dukes and assorted mid-Victorian useless mouths at the Reform club, the kitchens of which he also designed, introducing refrigeration, adjustable heat stoves, and cooking with gas.

Born in Meaux (where the Brie comes from) in 1810, he spent much of his career as many talented chefs do today. Soyer was perhaps the first of a long line of celebrity chefs to clutter up our culture with publicity and gadgets. Yet here was a man who took practical steps to improve the lives of the common people, not just by organising vacuous expensive charity banquets, he actually tried to alleviate the poverty and ignorance around him.

Having patented a portable “miracle stove”, that quickly became a must-have for the upper middle classes, in 1847, he then turned his mind to the great famine in Ireland. His south Dublin soup kitchen, again to his design, served over a million portions of his nutritious (but poorly named) famine soup, saving uncounted lives. I write “nutritious” on purpose, for the great Alexis not only staved off hunger but also concentrated on the content of that food – perhaps the first time any great chef had done so in regards to the poor.

His second soup kitchen was based in Spitalfields, then as now the home to dire economic conditions. This he part-funded with his own money, as well as charitable donations from the more high-minded of the rich.

Having witnessed the wretched conditions of the working classes at first hand, and the awfulness of their daily diet, Soyer wrote a number of cook books designed to make it possible for most people to understand nutrition, and to be able to eat healthily on a minimal income with minimal equipment (Heston, Nigella, Aldo, Gordon – take note). Charitable Cookery, Shilling Cookery and other works helped to improve the lot of workers in a way that the over-fetishised doyenne Mrs Beeton never did, nor wanted to.

There were of course howls of derision, mainly from those who felt that a professional chef had nothing to teach any housewife, and that he was patronising the poor and the Irish, yet what he said was true. His instructions for the design and operation of soup kitchens fed the poor across the world, via their adoption and adaption by various charities across the world, including the Salvation Army and Oxfam.

And then came the Crimean war. To non-students of military history, it may come as a surprise that until the 1860s, most deaths of soldiers during war were caused not by enemy action but by disease and malnutrition. Yep, bad meat was truly mightier than the sword.

Soyer was commissioned to change this by the British government, lately stung by the reports in by William Russell of the Times detailing the squalor and idiocy of army life. His most practical solution stood the test of time – a rugged portable stove that would use any fuel available wherever it ended up. The Soyer stove perhaps outlasted any other piece of kit in the British army, save the Wilkinson ceremonial officers’ sword, and was certainly more useful.

Introduced in the 1850s, my father was still using one for heating water (Aldershot stock) as a professional soldier in the 1950s. At last, the poor bloody infantryman, the gunner, the trooper had a fighting chance of a decent meal by methods other than looting (if you want to see one, then watch the opening scenes of Zulu)

Along with his soup kitchens and “Charitable Cookery”, Soyer stoves helped feed the blitzed civilians of London, Liverpool, Coventry and many other towns. They boiled water for drinking when the mains ruptured, cooked stews and soup, helped to sterilise medical instruments in extreme cases.

They fed the unemployed and the homeless, those that modern TV chefs largely ignore unless cooking for a star-studded charity gala. Today maybe Jamie Oliver has got something of Soyer – his campaigns over school meals and training the unskilled stand out amongst the self-serving servants of the plutocracy.

With the marginalisation of home economics by the Tory Baker education bill back in the 1980s we live in a country where food ignorance as well as food poverty is rife.

Few children leave school with the faintest idea as to how to budget, and stretch food out to get all its value. Food banks are on the rise, and our government responds by replacing Jamie Oliver as school food advisor with Henry Dimbleby, the co-owner of a posh fast food chain.

Time to dust-off Alexis Soyer, and remember that food is a basic need, and should be so much more than entertainment.

Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/


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5 Responses to “Heard of Alexis Soyer? For anyone worried about foodbank Britain, he’s the type of celeb chef we actually need”

  1. swatantra says:

    Great article! Would like to see what a Soyer Stove looks like and if possible get one.
    Should be a lot more useful that the George Foreman Grill, the Infra Red Rotisseri the Coffee Maker and the Tea Lady which are redundant and stacked away in the cupboards of many households.
    Agree strongly that Domestic Science and Metalwork and PE and Games be re-introduced into the School Curriculum.

  2. Hi Swatantra, if you want to see a Soyer Stove, there are plenty in museums across the UK, (National Army Museum, Army Catering Corps/Royal Corps of Logistics etc) as well as images online. They do appear in the first thirty minutes of Zulu, and a few other films as well. Interestingly, Soyer never took out a patent on his design, and therefore made no money from it. On various military nostalgia sites, there are reports that the army were still using some right up until the 1990s, although I cannot confirm this.
    I can confirm dads story, and that my grandad used them during the blitz as head of civil defence catering for the Borough of Tottenham, feeding firefighters and the bombed-out.
    Home Economics should really be seen as a survival skill, along with computer literacy. That the GERBIL gutted the curriculum in the name of progress has been the price we have all paid.

    The Independent today has a terrible story of how financial speculators make billions from food speculation. And I heartily recommend tonights Despatches programme on supermarket pricing on Channel Four…

  3. lemt says:

    Good piece. A question though. Is it schools’ job to teach students to budget or to stretch food? There’s a tendency to lay everything at the doorstep of our educational system, whereas people used to learn to cook and handle money from their families. If families aren’t equipped to teach these things, maybe a community approach is a better approach than adding them to an already packed curriculum. (Although I confess to having a cookery GCSE…) And if we can’t do this through community action, we probably shouldn’t expect schools to do it for us.

  4. swatantra says:

    Hi Ian, many thanks for that; I’ll look out for these Soyers, and the Dispatches programme tonight.
    lempt, schools have all the resources pots pans oven and time and the expertise of food specialists which some parents don’t have; same goes for woodwork and metalwork and sports; schools have all the equipment on site. thats why these life skills need to be taught in schools. Schools are not just there for getting you paper qualifications, and they are certainly not there to get you a job, but to build an all round individual and character.

  5. Simon Jarman MBE says:

    I have SOYER STOVES for loan or sale, I am an ex. Army Chef – having cooked with these all over the world, I use them to cook for youngsters and for survival. If you want some modern pictures or see one in use, please let me know. I can do presentations on this great man. He has been my hero for many, many years .

    Kind regards,

    Simon Jarman

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