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Pepper Pot Soup – how a simple dish became a national celebration

Pepper pot soup is a most unassuming dish – in fact, you would think somebody just raided the bottom of their fridge or store cupboard and made something with what vegetables were left and looking a trifle sad. But that’s the beauty of the dish, it’s simple but wholesome and tasty, a little like our mantra at Simply Souperlicious.

Pepper Pot Soup Origins

Also known as Philadelphia Pepper Pot, this dish was brought to the area by people from Africa, the West Indies, and the Caribbean.  Colonial Black women served the dish in their homes, and also in the homes were they worked. They also served the soup at local markets. In fact, many culinary historians consider it to be an early street food.

Pepper Pot Soup and the American Revolutionary War

The depth of this dish evolves around its history back in the late 18th Century and the American Revolutionary War against the English. In those days, it became known as ‘the dish that won the war’, in spite of the cold and harsh winter that the soldiers were suffering, along with a dire shortage of food, things were looking tough. American farmers had left the area desolate and had sold their store of vegetables and any other foodstuffs to the English for cash.

By now you will have realised that this is truly an American dish, even though variations of it exist in many other countries – like most recipes, in fact. Needless to say, with such a dearth of ingredients, the cooks had their work cut out, so what wasn’t already there, they foraged for, in the hope of turning out a nutritious and filling dish. As the saying goes, ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and this was certainly the case.

I have to say, seeing the words National Pepper Pot Day, I instantly assumed that it would be some kind of pepper stew, using bell peppers, but there was a little bit more to it. I also had thoughts of Provencal style ratatouille, or a more pronounced Caribbean pepper dish, all kinds of ideas. I stand corrected!

Celebrated on December 29th every year, it’s all about food, no real events other than families getting together on a cold winter’s day and just being a family. With all the excesses of Christmas, a humble celebration like this is by far the best thing to do, bringing people close around a very historical and traditional occasion.

Of course, now any home cook can adapt the basic recipe to include what people enjoy (pretty sure it won’t include tripe like the original version did!). It had few basic ingredients back in 1779 and the Battle of Valley Forge – potatoes, onions and carrots were predominant, perhaps celery if they could find any, but they certainly wouldn’t have had stock or bouillon cubes to bring out the flavour! Scraps of meat or offal – I dread to think the condition that would be in, or what genus the animals were! They probably would have struggled to unearth a selection of herbs and spices, to zest it up – who really knows?

Intrigued by cuisine from all parts of the world, particularly food that has an origin in that particular country, and that also dates back several hundred years, sad as I am, I spent time at the local library, researching pepper pot soup (well, it keeps me out of mischief I suppose!). Food history for me is far more fascinating than studying the school syllabus of the various kings and queens and their battles – someone just tell me what they ate, and I will be happier! It was interesting to find how people had adapted the ‘original recipe’ to reflect today’s cuisine – are we really this spoilt? It no longer becomes a basic and humble soup, but more of a gastronomic event, with chefs using 20 ingredients – a far cry from 1779!

Anyway guys, wherever you are in the world, and whatever is happening around all of us, celebrate National Pepper Pot Day with your family and close friends. It really is your day in the US, or wherever you are living. Spice it up and make it with love!

Author picture
Bev Perkins

An experienced chef, recipe developer, food writer and qualified nutritionist, Bev’s career has encompassed over 40 years. Educated in London and Paris, and with an unquenchable thirst for travelling, Bev’s passion for cooking evolved with a deep desire to learn about every cuisine in the globe, so whilst resident in Paris she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu (formerly L’Ecole Culinaire de Paris) and spent two years learning her art. She furthered her experience working in restaurants in all corners of the world from bistros to Michelin-Starred establishments and finally with her own catering company providing food to both corporate and individual clients. An experienced writer and editor, Bev is never happier than with a pen in one hand and cookery book in the other!

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