A Remedy to Cure all Ills

A Remedy to Cure all Ills

If there is one thing in life people can agree on it is the magical medicinal properties of chicken soup. From sniffles to full blown flu this simple recipe is credited for helping alleviate many symptoms and is thought of as the ultimate cure – alongside more modern cold and flu tablets that it is.

Chicken soup has a long history, its recipe changing through the centuries with different family versions claiming to be the best. The humble cure all started in the form of a broth or jelly in the 18th century and later moved to using the broth to make the soup we all know today. These recipes are not always indicated as ‘medicinal’ in cook books – however there is evidence that they were used to cure ills.

Taken from an 18th Century cook book this recipe for ‘Cock Broath’ uses ivory shavings believed to have medicinal properties. It is an ingredient we would not see in modern recipes, due to the lack of proof of its medicinal properties – despite still being used in many Chinese medicines.

The phrase ‘ivory shavings’ gives a modern audience the image of thin sliced curls of stiff ivory – inedible and surely adding a crunch to the broth. However, this was not the case. Ivory was expensive and every part of it was valuable, including the dust produced from carving it into fine sculptures. This dust had multiple uses, and its popularity in Europe came from its uses in stiffing straw hats. It might be presumptive to state a link here, but it is also plausible as to why the dust was more common in cooking then we might think, given ivory’s price.

In Chinese culture, ivory is said to help sore throats and consumptive fevers, and is even said to change colour when it touches poisoned food, and more – all of which are myths. That’s not to say that they were originally, a myth today may have been truth in the 18th century and the medicinal properties of ivory easily accepted. Medicine was still based on humoral theory, and aliments were treated as single symptoms. With further digging we could find out whether ivory was attributed to a certain humour – but for now, most information on ivory is that it’s trade is currently banned.

Ivory aside, jellies were often used as medicinal cures. One used by Henry Baker was a ‘black current’ jelly for a sore throat that he had been given by a vicar. Baker praised the effects until he noticed that it had stopped working so well, and complained to his friends of it. They told him that it he shouldn’t use an old batch and needed a fresh one for it to have an effect again – and lo and behold, upon making it fresh he once again praised its effectiveness.

Now granted, black current jelly isn’t the same as chicken soup, but what we are seeing in Barkers story is the faith people had in medicinal jellies. Not only has Baker recommended the jelly, which we see in cook books with marks or ticks by ‘proven’ recipes, he has also identified that medicinal potency is linked to the age of the jelly. We see this today in the (maybe) famous line from films – ‘eat it while it’s still fresh’.

We wouldn’t think of eating a chicken jelly today to cure a cold, as we often associate jelly as being cold whereas chicken soup is ‘hot and hearty’. A black current jelly on the other hand would still be normal to eat for a sore throat. It’s not that jellies have lost their place as cold foods – more that our taste buds have changed since cold meat jelly.
But what’s all this got to do with chicken soup though I hear you ask? The answer: chicken soup didn’t start off as chicken soup – first we see it as broths and jellies.

Moving into the 19th century, we see a chicken broth tailored to ‘invalids’ in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management that uses a fowl “unsuitable for eating”. Previously, cook books had been mixed with food and medicine recopies, Mrs Beeton’s book split the medical food recipes from everyday in her section for ‘invalids’. This split indicates the acknowledgement of the need to tailor recipes, and we see chicken broth clearly associated with the sick, and not just as a recipe used for a multitude of dishes.

Although not specifically chicken, Mrs Beeton also discusses the need for beef tea and jellies to be readily available for the sick. She does not know the full nutritional value of using beef tea and jellies but is using advice given by Florence Nightingale to support their effectiveness.

Just like today, the magical healing powers of chicken soup are endorsed by one well-known name, and backed up by word of mouth. The origin of the success of chicken soups is unclear – however it is clear that it has been a cure for a long time. Despite the headlines associated with chicken soup as a ‘cure all’ there isn’t medicinal evidence to fully support this. There are many health pages advocating its benefits and easily a few thousand plus will attest that it can cure a cold.

In reality, chicken soup is the personification of home and health. From its beginning as broths and jellies to the soup made from these original bases, chicken soup has been present in the household for several hundred years. Its association with comfort helps build the image of a home cure that people claim has worked for them time and again. As we are yet to find a better medicinal cure I believe it is safe to say chicken soup will continue to be the remedy to cure all ills.



Baker, Henry ‘Some Observations concerning the Virtue of the Jelly of Black Currents, in curing Inflammations of the Throat. By Henry Baker, F. R. S., Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 41 (1739-1741), pp. 655-60

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, electronic <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10136/pg10136-images.html> [accessed 24th January 2020]

Chaiklin, Martha, ‘Ivory in World History- Early Modern Trade in Context’, History Compass, Vol. 8, no. 6 (2010), pp.531-32


Wei, Clarissa, ‘The Myths of Medicinal Ivory’, KECT, < https://www.kcet.org/food/the-myths-of-medicinal-ivory > [accessed 24th January 2020]

6 thoughts on “A Remedy to Cure all Ills

  1. Really interesting stuff!
    Reading this, i still can’t believe that ivory was used as a remedy. I don’t see myself using it in my soup any time soon!
    Did you find that the remedies would differ with age groups? Would children sample a nice ivory soup?

  2. Do you think other remedies we have as family folklore, like ginger and honey tea, would arise from the same place as chicken soup?

  3. I liked the study into the Chinese ideas about ivory and the fact that they still use it today, really shows how these ideas hold on. When studying this did you find out where they would’ve gotten this ivory back then? I’d imagine it would be difficult to hunt down.

  4. As chicken soup is one of my favourite dishes to eat when being ill, I was really curious about this blog. I liked how you presented the history of it, I was quite suprised by the usage of ivory shavings in chicken soups! Have you found any other suprising ingredients when researching for this blog?

  5. This was so interesting! I loved how you talked about the history of chicken soup and how it started out, and how it was different in different cultures. Do you think it would still cure people as well today if it were a broth or jelly instead of soup?

  6. Loved this post, its interesting how you’ve managed to use one recipe to make connections in theory internationally and across time with different recipes. But what about you? Do you swear by chicken soup when you’re ill?

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