Alexis Soyer was a nineteenth-century celebrity chief. Born in Mieux-en-Brie in France in 1810, Soyer fled to England during the French Revolution of 1830. He quickly became a public figure, publishing books like The Gastronomic Regenerator: A Simplified and Entirely New System of Cookery and The Modern Housewife or, Ménagère.
When the Irish Famine struck in 1845, British newspapers detailed the starvation, destitution and horror of the event. Soyer responded by producing a soup recipe that he believed would produce over 100 gallons for £1. The recipe includes an ounce of dripping sauce, a quarter pound of beef, two middle sized onions, two turnips, two leeks, half a pound of pearl barley, brown sugar and salt. In 1847, Soyer travelled to Dublin to establish a soup kitchen of his own design that distributed his famine soup.
Soyer’s soup kitchen was part charitable endeavour, part exhibition. Affluent members of Dublin society could pay a fee to witness the workings of this famous French chef’s soup kitchen. The exploitative, voyeuristic nature of this transaction was criticised by individuals at the time, and calls to mind charitable appeals today that are criticised for presenting the suffering of others as spectacle for a more affluent audience.
Image: Alexis Benoit Soyer after Robert Thomas Landells wood engraving, published in the ‘Illustrated Times’ 28 August 1858, NPG D45910.