Quintessential France: George Sand on Soup and Souper

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by Jonell Galloway

Well into the twentieth century, the word souper, meaning literally “to eat soup,” was (and sometimes still is) used for the evening meal. It is also the origin of the word “supper” in English. The history is complex and varies according to region, class and period in history, but the word mainly derives from the fact that French people who lived in the country ate their main meal at noon and only soup and bread in the evening. It later came to be used for meals after the theatre or a night on the town, meaning more something small to fill your belly than a full meal. In Paris, this often consisted of eating onion soup after dancing all night. In all cases, supper is lighter and less formal than dinner. Since 1300, the term “supper” was also applied to the last meal of Christ.

This is an extract from George Sand’s 1872 novel Nanon, about the evening soup:

It was Saturday. For Saturday supper and Sunday lunch we ate bread. The rest of the week, like other poor people in the Marche, we lived only on chestnuts and buckwheat gruel. I’m talking about a long time ago; I believe it was in 1787. In those days, many families lived like we did. Now, poor people are better nourished. We had ways of bartering our staple foods and we used the chestnuts to get a little wheat.

On Saturday nights, my great uncle brought back a loaf of rye bread from the market, along with a small chunk of butter. I was determined to make his soup for him all on my own and I had had someone explain exactly how Mariotte did it. I went into the garden to pull up a few vegetables and I peeled them so that they were perfectly clean, using my horrible little knife. Mariotte, seeing that I was becoming skillful, lent me hers for the first time. Before she had never wanted to let me use it because she thought I’d hurt myself.

My older cousin Jacques got back from the market before my uncle; he brought bread, butter and salt. Mariotte left us and I went to work. Jacques made fun of my determination to make the soup all by myself and claimed it would be bad. I was full of pride. Everyone found my soup good and flooded me with compliments.

From Nanon, 1872, by George Sand

French text:

C’était un samedi; ce jour-là à souper, et le lendemain à déjeuner, nous mangions du pain. Le reste de la semaine, comme tous les pauvres gens du pays marchois, nous ne vivions que de châtaignes et de bouillie de sarrasin. Je vous parle d’il y a longtemps; nous étions, je crois, en 1787. Dans ce temps-là, beaucoup de familles ne vivaient pas mieux que nous. À présent, les pauvres gens sont un peu mieux nourris. On a des chemins pour pouvoir échanger ses denrées, et les châtaignes procurent quelque peu de froment.

Le samedi soir, mon grand-oncle apportait du marché un pain de seigle et un petit morceau de beurre. Je résolus de lui faire sa soupe toute seule et je me fis bien expliquer comment la Mariotte s’y prenait. J’allai au jardin arracher quelques légumes et je les épluchai bien proprement avec mon méchant petit couteau. La Mariotte, me voyant devenir adroite, me prêta pour la première fois le sien, qu’elle n’avait jamais voulu me confier, craignant que je ne me fisse du mal avec.

Mon grand cousin Jacques arriva du marché avant mon oncle; il apportait le pain, le beurre et le sel. La Mariotte nous laissa et je me mis à l’oeuvre. Jacques se moqua beaucoup de mon ambition de faire la soupe toute seule et prétendit qu’elle serait mauvaise. Je me piquai d’honneur, ma soupe fut trouvée bonne et me valut des compliments.

De Nanon, 1872, de George Sand

 

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