Soup Maigre

A mix of early spring greens and fresh peas. Maigre was a phonetic spelling of the French maigre, or meager, referring to the soup’s lack of meat. A meager soup.

The Jewish Manual, or Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery with a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette is the oldest known English-language Jewish cookbook. The first edition was published in London in 1846 and the author is credited as “a Lady,” who was thought to be Lady Judith Montefiore. Montefiore’s Ashkenazic family emigrated from Holland to England in the 1770s and became wealthy as linen merchants. She married into a Sephardic family who had emigrated from Italy in the 1740s. Setting the standard for the Jewish cookbook authors who would follow her, Montefiore emphasized that keeping a kosher table didn’t mean being stuck in the past. Jewish cuisine could and would evolve, adapting fashionable dishes to kosher requirements.

According to Chaim Raphael’s introductory essay to the reprint, in the 1840s, there were about 30,000 Ashkenazic German Jews and Sephardic Jews living in all of England, two-thirds of whom lived in London. Some of these families had been in the UK since the 17th century. The food of The Jewish Manual suited these old, often wealthy families – or the social climbers who wanted to be like them. Montefiore, in her preface, lays out the origins of her selected recipes: “Our collection will be found to contain all the best receipts, hitherto bequeathed only by memory or manuscript from one generation to another of the Jewish nation, as well as those which come under the denominations of plain English dishes; and also such French ones as are now in general use at all refined modern tables.” In addition to her French and English recipes, Montefiore included traditional German and Dutch recipes, and even recipes for game birds and venison. According to historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, wealthy Jewish families would have “a ritual slaughterer accompany on hunting expeditions,” so that game could be killed under the laws of kashrut. Most significantly, this book contains what are thought to be the earliest Sephardic recipes written in English – but more on that in next month’s post. 

Additionally, in the back of the book, Montefiore includes cosmetic recipes and advice. An “old Roman receipt for improving the skin” calls for “half a pint of fresh asse’s milk”; and a lip balm recipe requires spermaceti, a substance harvested from the skull of a sperm whale.

As I flipped through the book in the AJHS collection – a reprint of the original – dreaming of what to cook, a recipe for a spring vegetable soup called “Soup Maigre” caught my eye. Maigre was a phonetic spelling of the French maigre, or meager, referring to the soup’s lack of meat. A meager soup. I was familiar with this recipe; I had come across a version of it in Mark Zanger’s The American History CookbookZanger’s “Soup Meagre” was pulled from an early 18th-century American manuscript, and was a mix of early spring greens and fresh peas. Its presence in this Jewish cookbook captured my attention because Zanger notes that Soup Meagre was a meat-free soup intended for the fast days of Lent. But a Catholic Lenten soup works just as well for a dairy kosher meal.

Here is Montefiore’s recipe in The Jewish Manual:

Soup Maigre

Chop 3 lettuces, a large handful of spinach, a little chervil, a head of celery, two or three carrots, and four onions, put them on the fire with half a pound of butter, and let them fry till slightly browned, seasoned with a little salt, sifted white sugar, and white pepper, stew all gently in 5 pints of boiling water for about 2 hours and a half, and just before serving the soup, thicken it with the beating yolks of four eggs, mixed first with a little of the soup and then stirred into the remainder. 

As nervous as I was about boiling lettuce for two and a half hours, I resolved to follow the recipe to the letter.  While the soup stewed, it smelled like the warm, limp lettuce on the top of a take-out hamburger. When I tasted it, I was impressed the soup was not as awful as I thought it would be. It was certainly buttery, and the lettuces had a decent texture. But to me, the whole mess tasted like some burnt lettuce. However, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I spend a day with a dish, smelling and witnessing it through the whole cooking process, I have a different experience than a person I serve it to. So I called upon my neighbors and delivered tupperwares of soup to their doorsteps.

They loved it. All of them adored this soup. One said it was hearty, another found it comforting, like something his grandmother would make. So you’ll have to decide for yourself! Below, my adapted recipe for the 1846 Soup Maigre. But below that, I’ve also included a recipe for my own Soup Meagre variation, which is my perfect early spring soup.

Soup Maigre

½ pounds (two sticks) unsalted butter

4 small or two large onions, chopped

2 large carrots, chopped

1 head of celery, chopped

½ bunch chervil or parsleychopped

1 large handful spinach

3 lettuces (I chose cabbage, iceberg and romaine), chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons white pepper

2 egg yolks

  1. Add the butter, onions, carrots, celery, parsley, spinach, and lettuces to a large stock pot in that order. Cook over medium high heat for 15 minutes, stirring vigorously every 5 minutes.

  1. Turn heat to low. Add 10 cups water, salt, sugar and white pepper. Stir. Cover and simmer for two and a half hours.

  1. Slowly add 1 cup of the soup to the egg yolks while whisking constantly. Add the yolk mixture to the soup, stirring constantly, until the soup thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Serve.


Sarah’s Soup Meagre

From the Ashfield Family manuscript, approx. 1749.  Adapted from The American History Cookbook by Mark Zanger.

½ pound (two sticks) butter

2 large onions, chopped

3 handfuls sorrel (or three handfuls spinach and 2 tablespoons lemon juice)

1 handful parsley, chopped

1 cabbage, chopped

Any other early spring greens you like: dandelion, lamb’s quarter, arugula, baby kale, etc.

Peas, fresh or frozen

3 whole cloves

Salt & pepper

  1. Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook until translucent. 

  1. Add 3 quarts water, sorrel/spinach, parsley, cabbage, other greens, cloves, salt and pepper.  

  1. Simmer over medium-low heat until cabbage is tender but not limp, 30-45 minutes. Add peas and simmer for another 5-10 minutes until tender. Serve with buttered hunks of bread.


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