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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 <> [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, < > [accessed 24th January 2020]

Venison or Chocolate

Gifting food in Early Modern England vs Present day

Missed an anniversary? No idea what to get someone for Christmas? Need to make up with a friend? What to do? Simple answer- food! Giving food as a gift has long been a tradition for any occasion. It is either a gift from the heart or can be quick easy option to make someone happy in a rush to find a gift. The meaning behind gifting food has come to hold a far different meaning than it did in the early modern period. This leaves us with the question of has the meaning of gifting changed diachronically? By looking at the importance of gifting food in the Early Modern period, we can compare whether our meanings behind gifting food is still as significant to our society.

Try to cast your minds back to the 16th and 17th century. Life is far different from our own and food is, in some households, meticulously recorded in Account books. In these account books, gift giving appears to be centered around seasons, particularly during New Year, where a rise of gifts are recorded.[1]

This is not unlike our own society at Christmas, but intentions behind the food are not the same. Today we gift and receive to families and friends, in the Early Modern period the biggest group of gift givers are marked as unidentified and must be, according to Felicity Heal, assumed to be tenants.[2] A large number of gifts from the ‘unidentified’ are recorded as capons and peahens items that would be gifted as part of the custom of providing ‘boon’ hens, used to show they expected entertainment in return.[3] Today, we do not give gifts with the expectation of receiving something in return, rather to show our gratitude, which we are grateful for if reciprocated.

Figure 1- Fruit Basket

Throughout the year there are entries of other food types ranging from meats of high-status members of society to fruits from poorer tenants.[4] The differing in food groups is due to societal labelling and seasonality, two things we do not see in a modern society. Two main labels that gifts were separated in to were ‘dietary’ and ‘hierarchy’.

Figure 2- Deer Meat Cuts

Taking venison and capons as the example, we can look at how they are broken down due to an emphasis on what was acceptable to eat in accordance to one’s status and humour.[5] Capons were a common gift from tenants to higher status land-owners and were an example of one of the more nutritional birds, whilst venison, also one of the healthier examples of meat, was gifted from one higher status member to another. [6] Both foods meet the dietary requirements; it is the accessibility of the meats separates them by class.

In comparison, chocolate is a highly gifted item in a modern society that is seen to go against health recommendations and can be gifted across all classes. Whilst certainly less defined than in the early modern period, for the purposes of comparison we will assume that there is still somewhat a visible class system determined by wealth. Gifting chocolate does not reinforce a hierarchy as it is accessible to all, whilst venison does as only members of higher status in the hierarchy can obtain and gift it to those of equal status. In gifting chocolate within a modern society we see a focus on convenience rather than the symbolic intention of gifting in the early modern period.

Origins of gifting come from the hunter gatherer society, where the animal would have distributed; the highest quality section of meat would go to the hunter then as more is given out on a first come first serve basis the portions decrease in quality.[7] By the early modern period and definitely by today there is no longer a hunter gatherer society there is instead a consumer society. It is the growth of the consumer society today that has led to the removal of seasonality in the modern period. Better methods of preservation at the end of the 17th century allowed for easier commercialisation of food items but it did not affect the seasonality of when it was possible to gift them.[8]

Fruits, like berries, would only have been available in the summer months, whereas now they are available year-round. Removing seasonality also removes the foods significance as there is no anticipation to receive it. You can still gift a readily available food item but it holds less meaning. Why? Because without seasonality fruits lose their excitement that was built up waiting for them to be in season. The same can be said for sugars and spices which were originally was only available to high classes is now available to all. There is no longer seasonality of food thanks to both consumerism and shops holding items all year round, in contrast you would have to wait for certain foods in the early modern period. Consumerism today has taken away some significance of gifting certain foods.

Figure 3- Chocolate

Gift giving has changed a lot since the 1500’s evolving alongside society with tastes in gifts changing with trends and availability of new technology. The one staple gift is food even though this has also changed to fit society its basis is still the same. Food is universal and essential to life, it can be used as a last-minute gift or one carefully thought about and lovingly homemade for someone. Some of the meaning behind gifting food has changed, as does everything in society, but I do not think you can say the significance has. Whether it’s a thought through gift or mass-produced item the sentiment behind it and in receiving it stays the same. Today you may prefer to receive chocolate over venison and chocolate is easier to come by then going hunting but both items held the same significance in their own time period. It is safe to say that although the meaning behind gifting food has altered there is no alteration in the importance of receiving it or motives of giving.


Berking, Helmuth, Sociology of giving, (Nottingham Trent, 1999), trans. by Patrick Camiller

Heal, Felicity, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, No. 199, (May, 2008)

Heal, Felicity, The Power of Gifts, Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England, (New York, 2004)

Thirsk, Joan, Food in Early Modern England, Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760, (Kings Lynn, 2007)


Figure 1-

Figure 2-

Figure 3-

[1] Felicity Heal, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, No. 199, (May, 2008), p. 49

[2] Ibid p. 49

[3] Ibid p. 50

[4] Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts, Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England, (New York, 2004), p. 36

[5] Felicity Heal, ‘Food Gifts, the Household and the politics of Exchange in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, No. 199, (May, 2008), p. 57

[6] Ibid p. 57

[7] Helmuth Berking, Sociology of giving, (Nottingham Trent, 1999), trans. by Patrick Camiller, p. 65

[8] Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760, (Kings Lynn, 2007), p. 133