December 20, 2008

Alexis Soyer- 19th Century Celebrity Chef

In 1841, the Globe observed that

The impressio grows that the man of this age is neither Sir Robert Peel, nor Sir John Russell, [nor] even Ibrahim Pasha, but Alexis Soyer.

The first two should be recognizable to us all- Peel was a great reforming Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Russell too served as Prime Minister, Ibrahim Pasha an Egyptian general- but who was Alexis Soyer? Soyer was an immigrant to Britain, he had worked an apprenticeship in the kitchens of Versailles in the 1820s and 1830s, became cook to the Reform Club in the 1840s and left that to open his own resturant, opposite the Crystal Palace in 1851. Soyer might not be a well known figure today- but he is an interesting figure. For like Jamie Oliver today, Soyer advised the British government on food and also attempted his own public initiatives to improve the health of the nation. What he did though and the contrast to Jamie Oliver's recent enterprises is an interesting one if we are to understand the different remit of the British state today and in the 19th Century.

Oliver today, for those who do not know, is a well known television chef in the UK and has embarked on an endeavour to improve the food of school kids and the population at large in the UK. Hold that thought in your mind. What Soyer did was very different. His two most famous interventions into politics were separated by almost a decade. In the 1840s, Soyer provided food to Irish men and women starving in the famine. His soups were offered in Dublin for free to releive the situation. The second thing that Soyer did came a decade later- he was instrumental alongside Florence Nightingale in providing better food to troops in the Crimea in hospital. Indeed he invented a portable stove that as the 'Soyer' stove was still being used by British troops in the first Gulf War. Soyer was prompted to intervene by the realisation that the troops in the Crimea were being served worse food than prisoners in the UK.

Soyer's endeavours were directed against two of the main problems of the 19th Century state. He attempted to do something that traditionally food did: stop famine and provide recourse to the starving in moments of disaster. From the 19th Century on, such famines have become less common in industrialised societies but we should not forget how important the fear of famine was as a political factor still. The Irish famine was a key part of an Irish story of neglect by the British: it would have been within living memory for some of those who were around in the Irish civil war (1916-22) and definitely within the living memory of their parents. The other aspect of what Soyer did was to attempt to improve the standards of health within the army. The 19th Century saw a growing movement within Britain towards a proffessional army- cemented in part by the consequences of the Crimea and also by the reforms of Gladstone's 1870 government. But we should be careful to understand what Soyer's endeavours were: they were charitable (in Ireland) or directed to a specific patriotic purpose.

Contrast that to Jamie Oliver who wants to improve the diet of every school kid in England- that is a much more extensive project than anything Soyer wished to do. We are extending ourselves to the whole population- and dealing with a problem that might be one of over abundance rather than scarcity. The difference between Soyer and Oliver's charitable impulses is their scope- and that reflects the increasing scope of the state. From the Boer war onwards, the British state became interested in the health of its citizens- we can detect one of the reasons for that in some of Soyer's work. From the 19th Century, the diet and health of your soldiers became of interest to you as a politician or strategic thinker: in the era of mass warfare that meant the diet and health of your young men as a whole cadet rather than just of the young men serving in the army. Soyer's career therefore indicates one of the reasons why his era would change into the era of Oliver- but its important that we see the aspirations of the British state in the 19th Century not as a step to the 20th but in its own right. Soyer's endeavours allow us to define the scope of what was viewed as possible to do in the 19th Century- and a useful way of understanding the evolution of the state in that period.