It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of the good fortune of a little time on their hands must be in want of a copy of Jane Austen’s much beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice. Apparently, war-time physicians of WWI thought so, too. As David Owen* discusses in his essay, “Conscripting Gentle Jane: Getting the Austen Treatment in the Great War”, Austen’s fiction was actually prescribed to convalescent soldiers in WWI who were recovering from shell-shock or injuries. Her fictional world was deemed soothing to those suffering from the physical, mental, and emotional trauma of gruesome trench warfare. Owen* argues (p. 41) that such a prescription had another motive, too: it “presse[d] Austen’s fiction into national service, reinforcing the image of a worthy and ‘upright’ England and of its noble values and distinctiveness, subliminally pervading the recuperating soldier’s consciousness with a greater sense of duty.”
I am no Austen scholar. But, I have read Pride and Prejudice every year of my life since I was a teenage girl—and sometimes more than once a year. In college, one of my English professors likened the social interactions of the environments in which the heroines of Austen’s fiction move and circulate to trench warfare. Anyone who has read Austen as voraciously as I have intuitively gets that wonderful simile. The manners and subtle emotional lives operating beneath the veneer of the balls and dinner parties, the card tables and sitting rooms are, indeed, like trenches. In Pride and Prejudice, there is only so much room for the heroine to maneuver under the constant bombardment of little and great humiliations. One of the principle sources of suffering for Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is the frequent impropriety of a vexatious mother and the “determined flirt” of an indomitable, frivolous, and vain Lydia, whose impudence and foolishness even tax the patience of the good-humored and impeccably polite Bingley. When Lydia, come with her mother to Netherfield to assess the severity of Jane’s illness, boldly asks Bingley keep his promise and host a ball for the neighborhood, we see a little of the behavior that is but a precursor to the younger Ms. Bennet’s doubtful ‘elopement’ with George Wickham. While Elizabeth shrinks from utter embarrassment at Lydia’s uncouth and unsolicited forwardness, Bingley graciously tells Lydia that she may name the day of the ball “once Nicholls has made white soup enough.”
White soup. A delicate Potage a la Reine which graced English aristocratic tables from medieval days onward. Veal stock, poultry, rice, anchovies, peppercorns, herbs, onions, and celery. A culinary expression of taste, elegance, and refinement. An aesthetic and gustatory showcase of 18th c. “good breeding.” It is, of course, at the very ball in which this white soup is served that Elizabeth and Jane’s mother, sisters, and cousin (Mr. Collins) display their impropriety to such a shocking degree that, “to Elizabeth it appeared that, had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to display their parts with more spirit or finer success…”
This elegant white soup, then, is the backdrop — a kind of prop-foil–for their horrific “table” manners. The Bennet family’s “total want of propriety” (Darcy’s words) at the ball will, we find out later, constitute the principle motivation for Darcy’s interference in separating Bingley from Jane, even though Jane’s behavior and manners are in consummate complimentarity with the world of white soup and could not be more temperate, compassionate, elegant, refined, or pleasing.
You may wish, of course, to try an 18th century version of white soup. Perhaps someday soon, I will, too. But, today, I offer you, dear reader, my own white soup—which can be adapted to be vegetarian or vegan. So, if you have the good fortune of a little time on your hands, make a steaming pot of it and grab your Austen.
*Owen, David. 2016. “Conscripting Gentle Jane: Getting the Austen Treatment in the Great War.” in David Owen and Cristina Pividori (eds.), Writings of Persuasion and Dissonance in the Great War. Leiden: Brill, 31-45.
Roasted Root Vegetable Soup with Parsley Crema and Crispy Shallots
This delicious, earthy "white" soup can be made as a vegetarian or vegan option. It is also Gluten-Free.
- 3 large garlic cloves, lightly chopped
- 1 leek, thinly sliced white part of the leek only
- 6-7 medium sized potatoes, cut up into small chunks
- 1/2 large rutabaga, cut up into small chunks
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp cumin seed
- 1/2 tsp caraway seed
- 1 tsp fennel seed
- 1 1/2-2 quarts stock (veg., chicken, or mock chicken) for a vegan soup, use veg. or mock chicken stock
- salt and pepper
- 1 bunch (=~2 cups tight-packed) Italian flat-leaf parsley
- leaves from 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 garlic clove
- 1/3 cup grated pecorino romano or parmesan, if pecorino is unavailable. For a vegan option, use 2 TBSP nutritional yeast instead.
- 1/3-1/2 cup olive oil use a little extra if it needs thinning
- quick squeeze of fresh lemon
- 1/3 cup walnuts, toasted pine nuts, or pistachios
- 1/2 cup half-n-half for a vegan option, use a non-dairy milk or creamer, such as So Delicious Coconut Creamer
- salt to taste
- 1 shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup olive oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Line a rimmed cookie sheet or roasting pan with parchment paper.
Toss the 3 chopped garlic cloves, leek, potatoes, and rutabaga with olive oil. Sprinkle reasonably generously with salt (I use gray salt--it's fabulous) and cracked pepper.
Place vegetables in the oven and roast until al dente, about 45 min. When they are finished cooking, take them out of the oven to rest for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, make the parsley crema sauce. Place all ingredients for this garnishing sauce in a food processor and process until smooth. Adjust texture by adding more half-n-half and/or olive oil if necessary in micro amounts until you have the texture you want. I prefer it a little thinner than pesto. Adjust salt to personal preference.
Then, while vegetables are still cooking, crisp the shallots. Place shallots in a frying pan (I prefer a cast iron pan) with olive oil. Fry until shallots are crispy brown, about 10 min. Using a slotted spoon, place shallots on a plate lined with paper towel.
Then, while vegetables are cooking or resting, chop your onion and saute it in a little olive oil in a dutch oven (or soup pot), along with bay leaf, cumin seed, caraway seed, and fennel. Saute over medium heat until onion is starting to get translucent, about 10 min. If vegetables are still cooking, turn off the heat until they're ready and have had a few minutes to rest.
Add cooked and rested roasted root vegetables to the onion/spice saute (and, turn the heat back on to med. if you've turned it off). Stir for a few minutes to let the flavors mingle.
Add stock (1 and 1/2 quarts for a thicker soup; 2 quarts if you'd like to thin it out a bit. I used 2 quarts) and stir.
Bring to a soft boil and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Let simmer for about 20 min.
Turn off the heat for a few minutes to let the soup rest. Then, pour about half of it into a blender. Blend until smooth. Add blended soup back into the unblended soup. Stir well and reheat as necessary.
Adjust salt and pepper to personal preference. Bowl up. Drizzle each soup-filled bowl with a little bit of parsley crema and some crispy shallots. (In these images, I also added a touch of olive oil and a little chopped radicchio). Enjoy 🙂