Janet (j4) wrote,

Heart of stone soup

I cut toast into heart-shapes this morning, which I feel was a doubly noble act of romantic whatnot coming from somebody who doesn't normally get up in time for breakfast. Still, it's only once a year, and it did leave me with some interesting-shaped offcuts of bread to dip into my cup-a-soup for lunch. Ahh, modern love!

Interestingly, though, the tradition of eating soup on Valentine's Day actually goes back to at least the 17th century. The following recipe for "St Valentine's Broth", taken from A Gentlewoman's Receipts and Experiments in Cookery by Frances Sweet Addams, is representative:
Take an ounce of China-root, thinly sliced, steep it twelve hours, in two quarts of fair water, on moderate Embers, and then put a pritty big Cock-chicken into it, put Maiden hair, and Wood-sorrel, beaten with Raisins, Currans, and Dates into the Belly, tying up the vent, add a handful of French Barley well bruised, and when the chiken is boyled almost to a Jelly, strain out the Broth, if there wants more water, you may add more in the boyling. This is an excellent strengthener and restorer for the weary Heart, but too greate a use can induce Fever.
The inclusion of 'maiden hair', or Ginkgo Biloba is it is now more scientifically (if less poetically) known, is the key to the soup's supposed aphrodisiac properties -- the 'Fever' coyly referred to by the author is certainly that of desire -- though it is not clear whether this belief derives from the herb's name (recalling Rapunzel in the tower, a timeless symbol of female desirability and unattainability) or, more prosaically, from its anti-inflammatory and circulation-improving qualities (undoubtedly beneficial to the heart, regardless of the romantic impulses attributed to that muscle).

This soup and others like it remained a fixture of the Valentine's Day feast well into the 18th century, and in fact it has been suggested by critics that the "white soup" mentioned by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice (1813) is something similar; Mr Bingley says:
"...but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards."
The timeframe of the book certainly allows for the Netherfield ball to be conceived with Cupid's celebrations in mind, though Austen does not allow such sentimental fripperies to cloud the telling of her own unique brand of love story.

As well as the health benefits of the soup itself, other traditions and superstitions have inevitably sprung up in connection with it. Several contemporary sources record that the kitchen girls responsible for the preparation of the soup would always make a wish as they stirred it, and many go on to suggest that a kind of rudimentary divination would be performed with the ingredients in the soup. The anonymous writer of The Accomplish'd Lady's Delight In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, Study of the Psyche, and Cookery suggests that
"if [the person stirring the soup] sees perchance a curle or loop of China-root then for her that may betoken a Wedding-band; a prodigious knot of maiden-hair, Beauty; and so on, to the limits of the Imagination."
She goes on, however, to warn against the power of that imagination, suggesting that those who seek their fortune in the soup
"...should beware, for any one of several Ingredients whose Shape likens to a Coffin may be interpreted as the mark of impending Death by her sensation-seeking companions."
Similar traditions and customs have been recorded in continental Europe, notably the Westphalian tradition of Valentinstag Suppe (a false reverse etymology of this phrase gave us the modern phrase "tag soup", a humorous slang term for HTML which appears to have more to do with the art of divination than semantic or logical markup), and it is certainly folk traditions such as this which the Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach had in mind when he remarked that his celebrated inkblot tests would "reveal the machinations of the mind to itself as effectively for the servant girl accustomed to dabbling in the soupy waters of divination as for the practiced surgeon with all the scepticism of his trade." (H. Rorschach, Psychodiagnostik, 1921; trans. B. Lott as Psychodiagnostics, 1930.)

Meanwhile, popular science has its own contribution to bring to the table; by averaging the calorific content of the six most popular soup recipes in the UK and calculating the effects of the seasons on the metabolic processes, nutritionists at Hull University have determined that 14th February is "mathematically speaking, the best day to eat soup". Easily digestible, soup replaces some of the essential toxins purged in January's dieting binge; also, for many of us, soup is psychologically comforting as it invokes memories of home and childhood and restores to us a sense of a nurturing environment which we may be missing in our busy adult lives. This emotional groundedness frees up spare neurones in the brain which can trigger the release of pheremones which make us more desirable to the opposite sex.

Sadly, though -- or perhaps it is for the best -- neither soup, nor science, nor psychoanalysis can really answer the perennial question, "Is it love?" Agony aunts may advise about it (or actuaries may assess the assets of an amour); bookies may take bets on it, chemists may control test it, and dictionary-compilers may despair at the dilemma of deciding on diptychs to define or describe it; to skip ahead in the alphabet a little, philosophers and psychotherapists may pontificate about it, and you -- yes, you -- may yearn for it, but true love resists definition. However, if you're lucky, you might just get a roll with it.

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