The politics of soup

How the posh ruined eating for everyone

There are two ways to eat soup: correctly or properly.

A good example of the first is a Victorian explorer. See him tumbling out of the tundra and into the tent, where a billy can of soup simmers on the stove. He hunkers over the hot soup, gripping the spoon in his fist and slurps the thin liquid into his mouth, a fast as possible. In his other hand he grasps a heel of bread, which he uses to sop up more of his meal.

The correct way to eat soup is with gusto. After all, everyone loves soup.

For the second, remember any Jane Austen adaptation you’ve ever watched. Behind the gaiety and splendour lies a world of pinched, paranoid social frenzy. One’s behaviour is monitored for evidence of deviance. Not like today, where perhaps bringing a motorbike to the table would be seen as a step too far. Jane Austen novels make it plain: an ill-timed giggle or grabbing the wrong fork means instant opprobrium.

The Regency period was a high point for the art of tutting. Meals maybe grand, but are fraught with dangerous secret meanings. Eating soup properly means that each mouthful is a slow punishment. The eater must battle against their natural inclinations and instead use a method of soup consumption that is antipathetic towards enjoying the food.

The proper way to eat soup is built on a set of rigid, implacable instructions. To breech these would be disaster. Using a special spoon, one pushes the soup in the bowl away from you, before depositing the liquid into your mouth, from the edge of the utensil.

There are also maxims for retrieving the dregs from the bottom of the bowl. A normal people would run a crust of bread through the small puddle to catch the last drops. The proper way requires you to tilt the bowl away from you, obscuring your view of the soup and making it harder to find.

The reason for this?

The counter intuitive excuse for eating soup properly, is that it avoids embarrassing spills, saving ties and shirt fronts. Unfortunately, if you have eaten more than one bowl of soup in your life,you will realise that this is bunkum. This pseudo-explanation has been retrofitted to the practice as a way of stopping questions like:

‘Can’t I just eat the soup normally?’

Whatever contrived reasons the arbiters of soup may try and give, the real reason the proper way to eat soup is so tricky is because it is part of the divisive practice known as etiquette.

No bum to cheese action, please

Here we need to make a distinction between etiquette and manners. Everyone should have good manners. This simply means being able to move food from plate to mouth to stomach without causing feelings of disgust in other diners. ‘Manners’ consists of simple rules of thumb, such as:

  • Eat with your mouth closed
  • Don’t eat baked beans with your fingers
  • Don’t scratch your arse and then pick up the cheese.

While we all need to be taught these precepts, they need little tutelage. I learned not to eat cereals with my mouth open from my cousin Matthew. We were small, I had slept over at my Aunty’s house and we were eating breakfast while watching cartoons. A rare treat for me. I also had a bowl of Ricicles; an even rarer treat as my mother did not serve pre-sweetened breakfast food to her children.

‘Eurgh, that’s gross,’ my cousin commented as I champed through a large bowl of sugar-coated rice crispies, my mouth working the cereals into a paste, with the grim, mechanical efficiency of a rubbish truck compactor.

Matthew advised me to ‘Close your bloody mouth when you eat.’ Despite my initial scepticism that this was possible, small amounts of experimentation showed me that I was capable of enjoying all sorts of foods while keeping the action of mastication a closely guarded secret, behind sealed lips. In fact, it turned out to be a sensible and entirely workable way to consume food.

Using a special spoon to move soup away from your mouth is not a dining tip that small children can imparted to one another. It is based on a complicated set of diktats, devised purely because they are so contrary to how you would choose to eat soup, left to your own devices.

There is no benefit for either the eater or their audience. It is an entirely unnatural action. However, the proponents of the spoon-away-from-you rule would have you believe that this is an entirely more pleasant way to enjoy broths, chowders and bouillons. This is like amateur triathletes trying to persuade you that you should join their next 30 km jog.

While manners exist to make sure that you eating something is a pleasant experience for everyone, etiquette and its arcane rules for consuming soup are about dividing people through subtle and ingenious ways.

The difference lies in how simple the rules are. Manners are taught in seconds:

‘Don’t chew with your mouth open.’


Boredom breeds manners

Meanwhile, the rules of etiquette were borne from idleness and boredom. They then became an invisible wall to separate the clique: those who know the rules and those who don’t.

For etiquette to exist, you need a life that is devoid of any meaningful employment. That means wealth. Busy people, by which I mean poor people, are not interested in the proper direction of travel for cutlery. They have other things to worry about, like ploughing, crop rotation and rickets. Even those who don’t have jobs are busy fighting off starvation, which is a full time job in itself.

With nothing to do, the rich needed to fill their time. Extending mealtimes as long as possible is a great way to munch into all those blank, pointless hours. Modern people are content with the standard three meals and maybe two packets of crisps and a Mars bar. Historically, the wealthy needed to invent different meal times.

By creating as many opportunities to eat as possible, the aristocracy avoided triggering existential crisis, brought on by critical boredom. In fact, inventing different mealtimes became a job in itself. Simply for want of anything better to do, the moneyed classes created elevenses, tea and supper.

While extraneous meals waste some time, it takes no effort at all to complete each one. This is especially true for people who aren’t doing any of the cooking and don’t wash up afterwards. This means that each meal needs to be complicated further, to stretch it out as long as possible. Eating slowly is an option, but hot food goes cold; cold food gets warm; no one likes a skin on their gravy.

It is much easier to add more courses. A two course lunch takes up much more time than a sandwich and a bottle of pop. Add a salad and meat course, and your midday meal is slipping into mid-afternoon without even trying.

Another way to increase the amount of time a meal takes is by adding unnecessary intricacies. It is possible to eat several servings using the same utensils. Unlike spanners, knives and forks have a pretty universal functionality. As do spoons.

By increasing the number of pieces of cutlery needed, the process of clearing the table between courses takes ages. There’s a horde of invisible lackeys up to their armpits in suds, so having seventeen forks per meal isn’t a problem. It also means the manhours required to heave all of this metalwork off the table is pushing lunch well into early evening.

What is left? Surely there can’t be any other ways to add unnecessary minutes onto a meal? Unless of course, you make the act of eating as difficult as possible. This is achieved by imposing arbitrary rules as to how each piece of food should make its journey to between the teeth.

Our explorer ate his soup in a way that guaranteed he could deliver the largest amount of hot liquid sustenance to his stomach in the shortest time possible. For the genteel rich, this would mean extra time grappling with the emptiness and despondency at the heart of an indolent life.

Their response: etiquette. These intricate and pointless rules for how to approach each foodstuff start life as a way to stretch out the barren, empty hours. But they are soon codified by ritual and become entrenched in the process of eating. They are now the proper way of doing things.

Slurpin’ is verboten

The rules are now a secret code known only to a small, select group. They are a way of telling who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. Soup-eating is only a small part of a larger set of strictures that the idle rich then set about teaching their children. As these rules are subtle and multifarious, you need to create special schools. Vast amounts of time are then spent learning the rules. After expensively honing their skills, the children are tested using society balls and other social engagements.

The process is ongoing, until the act of pushing one’s soup away from you is an unconscious act. More so, to not push the soup in the opposite direction to intended travel is shocking and repugnant. If you are unsure if you had an expensive education, ask yourself if you’ve ever gasped at someone picking up a fish knife during the meat course?

Here, the second element of soup delivery – bringing the broth to your lips, to tip the liquid between them, instead of ramming the spoon down your gullet – makes it almost impossible not to slurp the soup. Yet, the rules say that consumption of soup should be as soundless as a quiet day in a mime school.

Outsiders may be able to ape the motion of spoon through soup. They quickly reveal their lack of breeding by making a noise like storm drains unblocking as they suck the stuff off their cutlery.

Peas: the secret to business success

As power began to shift from the aristocracy to the bourgeois, the new ruling class wanted to mimic the pretensions of the old elite. What clearer signal could exit than adopting the icons and symbols of wealth. While money buys large houses, it does not bestow legitimacy in the same way as learning the secret signs by which the rich identify each other. This was how etiquette began its journey through the social scale.

Unfortunately, there are so many of these rules that faking it and fitting in will never really work. Despite the Sisyphean task of succeeding at complicated eating rituals, the middle classes persevered. In fact, they became the ruthless enforcers of ‘proper’ eating. Without the luxury of time and leisure, rules are communicated quickly. As any middle class person knows gossip, ridicule and back-biting are the only way for people to learn how to behave.

I once had to sit with my best friend through an anguish-filled meal where he was taught to eat peas the ‘proper way’. This involves holding the fork with the tines facing downward and smushing the peas onto them, in the hope that enough cling on to make it worth the fork making a trip to the mouth.

The easiest way to eat peas is obviously smoother them in tomato sauce and use the upward bend of the fork’s tines to scoop a healthy portion off the plate and straight between your chompers.

The constant fear that you will be caught out as an oik still persists. My best friend’s lesson in pea-eating being a case in point. Unlike me, he’ll never be embarrassed if the Lord Mayor asks him to a pea feast. This is the intention of the lesson: that he’d be prepared in any situation where the possibility of social disgrace loomed. Despite my Google search throwing up no instances of a career ruined by poor vegetable management, the threat is always there.

My friend’s ongoing success in his career, must surely be a sign that his early indoctrination in personal food delivery has harvested some results.

Not that my family was immune. For instance, we owned lots of different types of spoons. Not just the big three (soup, dinner and tea), but jam, grapefruit, coffee and pickle, as well.

Our vintage pickle spoon is a personal favourite. It has a wide bowl, perfect for scooping onions out of a jar, with wide perforations that let vinegar escape. As well as being a pleasing piece of design, my deft handling of it over the years means that I am well set should I ever have to fish a pickled egg out of a jar for a passing dignitary.

Middle class mania about their perceived place in society, how to protect that position from those underneath, while mercilessly toadying to those above, means that merely taking a mouthful of mulligatawny is a political act. Like a roomful of cynics all trying to catch a magician out, every muscle twitch and flinch is examined by your audience to betray the tiniest waiver or clue that reveals something of the bigger picture.

Etiquette is not about enjoying meals, it is a way to discover who should be discretely frisked before leaving, in case they have away with the silverware. In the end, dinner shouldn’t be a roomful of tripwires to navigate through, so next time you have soup, just drinking it out of a mug. It maybe rude, but it’s a darn sight easier.


4 thoughts on “The politics of soup

  1. kazaj21

    Very funny and so true. I still remember the etiquette lessons drummed in by my aspiring middle class mother. Her little tick was not to cut your bread roll in half and slather butter on both halves but that you should first gently tear the roll apart then pull off small pieces and only at that point could you use your butter knife to place a delicate amount of butter on each piece. What a faff 😉


    1. Thanks kazaj21. Thank for your comments and sorry it’s taken me while to reply. I hadn’t considered the bread roll. Your mum was an etiquette grand master. If I ever went anywhere posh, I’d probably have to leave the roll – my education didn’t stretch to baked goods.


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