By Mark Wieser
Milk soup is one of the oldest, basic foods consumed among farmers from the around the world, however, I cannot ever recall having it. My niece, Jenny, however, remembers it well. Seems that when she or one of her siblings were feeling ill, Mrs. J. Hardin Perry always brought some over. I grew up being served a variation of it, called Milk Toast.
Milk Soup probably originally came about because not all milk could be turned into cheese or butter. What had started as historically an economic measure turned into a cultivated taste sensation. It was typically eaten hot either for breakfast or as a cheap cost-savings meal. With added sugar it was often supposedly also served to the sick and elderly which is likely what prompted Mrs. Perry.
While it existed in nearly every culture, it is thought to remain more common among Poles, Czechs, Russians, and other Central and Eastern Europeans—exactly for what reasons, I am not certain. It seemed strange for Western Europe to be left out, particularly Switzerland. In fact, it was the 1st War of Kappel that pitted the idyllic Swiss countryside against one another during a dispute over religion. Men were prepared to spill blood over their theological differences. Fortunately, it was resolved thanks, perhaps, to an iconic pot of milk soup.
Apparently, the soup played a role in resolving a deeply rooted issued in 1564 by the enemies sharing the milk. Protestant forces from Zurich and Catholic forces from the canton of Zug were facing one another on a field of battle near Kappel am Albis in 1529 to settle matters over the administration of some disputed territories. While the armies prepared for a fight, a local magistrate (justice of the peace) mediated between the rival forces off-site. Much like opposing teams of football waiting for a referee’s whistle, the delay caused them to have time on their hands. The tired and hungry opposing forces began to disarm and fraternize. This was not unusual. During the American Civil War; northern and southern soldiers often fraternized by singing Dixie, written by an Ohioan and the favorite of Lincoln, during endless moments while their commanders pondered their next move. It also happened during World War I as the carols of O Tannenbaum and Silent Night were sung by both sides.
Legend says, the opposing Swiss soldiers set out a giant soup pot in the center of the battlefield: the Catholics brought milk and the Protestants bread. The crossing of spoons eased tensions long enough for the negotiators to arrive at a peace agreement—at least for several years. This truce is actually memorialized by the Milchsuppenstein monument atop a hill overlooking Lake Zug.
No one thinks of making milk soup anymore. Perhaps the fad for drinking skimmed milk contributed to its demise. The USDA’s standards state that whole milk must have at least 3.25% milk fat. (Depending on the kind of cow—it can be much higher.) Low fat milk is still 2.08% fat, but even that much less fat makes all the difference in the world. And, it is all about taste! As you may imagine, I cannot imagine milk soup made with low fat milk worth eating.
The following recipe has appeared in every edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook beginning with its first printing in 1916 and was submitted by Mrs. O. W. Striegler. If you have never tried it, better hurry for today’s cookbooks largely ignore this once satisfying soup for which some soldiers laid down their arms.
1 qt of whole milk
¼ qt water
Pinch of salt
Dash of cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
Zest of lemon, 2 fresh peach leaves, or 1 tsp vanilla (choose one) It is rare to find any recipe suggesting the use of peach leaves.
Dissolve cornstarch in heated water
Add milk, salt, beaten yolks and either the zest of a lemon, fresh peach leaves or vanilla
Stir constantly until mixture begins to thicken.
Remove from heat and pour into a dish
Drop in beaten egg whites one spoonful at a time
Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon
Cover at once – heat will cook the egg whites.
Milk Toast was often occasionally served in our home when in was sick. It consisted of nothing, but a cup of hot whole milk poured over a slice of sugared toast. (Home baked bread was the best.) I usually added even more sugar, cut the soaked toast into bite-sized pieces and enjoyed it most heartedly.