Introduction: In this article – to celebrate tomorrow being National Pepper Pot Day – Gena Philibert-Ortega provides stories and recipes about this famous soup. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
What soups did your ancestors eat? One of the more popular 19th century soups was Pepper Pot soup, also referred to as Philadelphia Pepper Pot. This soup combined meat, vegetables, and black pepper to create a hearty stew. To celebrate this special soup, tomorrow is National Pepper Pot Day.
Like many food history stories, this soup has an origin story that is more fanciful than fact. The story recalls that the soup was served by George Washington’s head chef at Valley Forge. The story goes on to say that the soldiers were given a gift of hundreds of pounds of tripe (cow stomach). The chef added this to vegetables and ground pepper to make a soup which helped to raise the spirits of the soldiers during that harsh winter. The name, Philadelphia Pepper Pot, was said to be coined by Washington himself in honor to the chef’s home town.
While it’s entirely possible that such a soup was served at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War, it did not originate there. Pepper Pot soup was described in Jamaica in the 1600s and by 1769 it had been known to the English for a hundred years. (1) According to the Colonial Williamsburg website, “Pepper Pot soup started as an African stew. It followed the path of the slave trade to the West Indies and to the Atlantic coast of North America.” When it became known to Philadelphia, German Dutch influence substituted tripe and veal knuckles for the meats that had been used previously in the recipe. (2)
Popularity of Pepper Pot
There’s no doubt that Pepper Pot soup was popular in the United States. It was the street food of early America. Eating the soup was even depicted in an 1811 painting by John Lewis Krimmel that shows an African American woman ladling soup into bowls for customers in the Philadelphia Market. (3)
In some cases, vendors went out on the streets or door-to-door selling the soup. In this 1871 newspaper article, Ann Pabor is described as spending her night dispensing pepper pot to “gamins” (referring to boys who lived on the street). Unfortunately, Ann’s attempts to help others resulted in her being robbed by a woman who boarded with her.
Not surprisingly, this “fast food” was also popular with those who wanted to do the 19th century version of “dine and ditch.” Numerous articles I found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives told of diners hesitant to pay what they owed for the soup they consumed.
Pepper Pot’s ingredients differ depending on where and when it was made. This 1904 recipe in the newspaper column “Womanly Answers to Womanly Questions” is provided as an answer to a writer who wants a Pepper Pot recipe that can be “vouched for.” The recipe includes tripe, potatoes, and a garnish of hard-boiled eggs added after the soup is cooked.
Pepper Pot was a recipe that harkened back to the “old days.” A 1910 newspaper article reports that “There were never cooks like the cooks before the war [Civil War] – that is an aphorism with the southerner of today. The old-fashioned cook perhaps owes her fame, North or South, to the fact that she gave her mind to cooking and believed in her vocation.” This column of “old-fashioned” recipes includes Pepper Pot, Brunswick Stew, Creole Salad and Old-Fashioned Apple Pie. For the Pepper Pot recipe, the cook is instructed to add “a pint of any vegetables you happen to have, as many kinds as possible, well cut up and mixed in equal parts” before adding honeycomb tripe, mutton, and salt pork.
Previous generations didn’t have to follow a recipe in order to enjoy Pepper Pot soup. Your family may have dined on a ready-to-eat version via a can of Campbell’s soup which was available in the early 20th century until the beginning of the 21st.
Your Family’s Pepper Pot Recipe
Today is a good day to try your hand at Pepper Pot soup. Did your family, past or present, dine on Pepper Pot? Do you have a family story about the soup? Please share it in the comments section below.
(1) Rumble, Victoria R. Soup Through the Ages: A Culinary History with Period Recipes. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2009.
(2) “The Long Journey of Pepper Pot Soup,” Colonial Williamsburg (http://recipes.history.org/2017/05/the-long-journey-of-pepper-pot-soup/ : accessed 25 November 2018).
(3) “Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market,” PBS (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h251.html : accessed 25 November 2018).