Poorhouse Soup

bowl of soupI was looking for a soup recipe to make on a cold winter day, and saw a recipe for Poorhouse Soup in a hundred-year-old church cookbook, and was immediately intrigued.

The soup is a pureed white been soup with potatoes, onions, and tomato juice. A little cayenne (red) pepper is added to give it more flavor. The soup was nice, though even with the cayenne pepper I found it a bit bland. If I made it again, I’d probably experiment a bit with the spices.

A hundred years ago many communities had publicly-funded poorhouses where the financially challenged could live. The food in the poorhouses was notoriously bad, and the residents often had to work on the poorhouse farm. This was seen as a way of encouraging people to not stay for long. Was this recipe actually based on what they fed residents at the local poorhouse? . . . or was the recipe name an inside family joke? It was an inexpensive soup to make and contains no meat, so maybe the cook’s family felt slightly annoyed that they were eating such a “cheap” food and joked about it being Poorhouse Soup.

Here’s the original recipe:

Recipe for Poor House Soup
Source: Cement City Cook Book (1922), compiled by S.W.W. Class of the Baptist Sunday School, Alpena, Michigan

Since “poorhouse{ is one word in online dictionaries, .I spelled “poorhouse” as one word when I updated the recipe even though it was two words in the original recipe. I’m not sure whether the way poorhouse is written has changed over the past hundred years or if the recipe author didn’t know how it should be written.

This recipe is lacking a few key details – such as how much water to add to the beans, both for soaking and for cooking. Based on the directions on the package of dried beans, I decided to soak the beans in 5 cups of waters of water overnight. I then drained the beans, and used 3 cups of water when I cooked them.  This seemed like an appropriate amount of water, and the soup had a nice consistency.

I know that recipe is for Poorhouse Soup – and that it is supposed to be a very basic, economical food, but I just couldn’t help myself, and garnished the soup with a few thin slices of green onion. It made a plain soup look special.

The soup wasn’t as flavorful as many modern soups (maybe I didn’t add enough cayenne pepper), but I think that it now would be considered a healthy food option rather than something for the poor (though it still is very economical to make).

Here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Poorhouse Soup

  • Servings: 4 - 5
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

1 cup white beans  (great northern, navy, cannellini, or other white beans) – I used great northern beans.

5 cups water for soaking

3 cups water for cooking

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 medium onions, chopped

1 cup tomato juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne (red) pepper

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon butter, softened

sliced green onions or other garnish (optional)

Put beans and 5 cups water in a bowl, and soak overnight, then drain.

Put the soaked beans, 3 cups of water, baking soda, potatoes, and onions in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil using high heat; then reduce and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until the beans are tender.

Remove from heat, cool slightly, and then puree using a blender or food processor (or press it through a sieve). Return to saucepan, stir in the tomato juice, salt, and cayenne pepper; reheat until hot and steamy.

In the meantime, put the flour and butter in a small bowl; stir to combine. Put a small amount of the hot soup in the bowl and stir until smooth. Then stir the mixture into the soup. Continue heating until the soup thickens slightly.

If desired, garnish the soup with sliced green onions or other garnish.


32 thoughts on “Poorhouse Soup

  1. The soup actually sounds pretty good, but I agree it might need a little more spice.
    I’m sure at the time, poor house was two words. Many words evolve like this, often spending time hanging around with a hyphen, poor-house, and then ending up as you spelled it, all one word.

  2. Another tasty addition to my recipe box : )
    I believe you are correct: this is one healthy soup, and the “poor” foods of yesteryear seem to be today’s health foods.

  3. This soup does have a lot of good stuff in it. It seems like it make a great base for something to start with, like maybe eventually load it up with a ton of veggies or something. We may not have poorhouses today, but we do have homeless tent emcampments. 😦

    1. I like your idea – it would make a great base. Your absolutely right – unfortunately we still have many people who are really struggling.

    1. I also really like church cookbooks. Church members generally contribute their favorite recipes -with the net result that there are a lot of great recipes in the compiled book.

      1. Oh, yeah…there is a lot of skin in the game for the ladies. Bragging rights and all that. There are a few hold outs who would rather be tortured than share their prized recipe!

          1. Me and my family’s dip recipe, lol! I don’t give that out to no one, unless they’ve been in the family a loooonnnggg time.

  4. You did a Beurre manié! That’s the mixture of flour and butter and it’s used for thickening soups and sauces. I just recently learned about this (I’ve been cooking for over 40 years, mind you) from the youtube channel Glenn and friends cooking. Lovely channel and some fantastic recipes from old cookbooks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s