American tomato soup



'Tomato top' by FoeNyx is licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0
‘Tomato top’ by FoeNyx is licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0

‘Potage tomate, à l’Americain’ was served on the 17th November 1875, as the first course of what Alan S. Cole described as ‘A capital small dinner’. Whistler seems to have been developing an American theme in this menu which also included ‘Poulet à la Baltimore’ served with Hominy grits.

My image of an American tomato soup is cream-based and smooth (probably because of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato). However, according to Smith’s history of The tomato in America (2001), milk or cream was first added to tomato soup from the early 1880’s onward. Early American tomato soup recipes such as one from The Cook’s Own Book, by N.K.M. Lee published in 1832, are more like vegetable soup, with meat and many other vegetables combined with relatively small amounts of tomatoes (Smith, 2001). A recipe in Edward Hooper’s The practical farmer, gardener and housewife, published in Cincinnati in 1840, includes a similar quantity of tomatoes, beef shin and lots of seasonings including okra. Three Tomato soup recipes were included by Fanny Farmer in The Boston cooking school cookbook (1896). These included one stock-based, one plain and one with milk (described as a mock-bisque). The first of these is quite similar to (although simpler than) a similar recipe in Escoffier’s cookbook for Purée de tomates (otherwise Portugaise). American tomato recipes included the full range of seasonings (horseradish, parsley, cloves – included in Fanny Farmer’s soup recipe -, nutmeg, garlic, mustard, ginger, allspice, and many others, as well as a wide range of vegetables, one of the most common being okra) (Smith 2001 p.84, 86).

Tomato soup was served at Whistler’s table in many seasons of the year, in this particular case in November. Tomato canning was well established in the US by this time (Smith 2001). According to the British tomato growers association, commercial growth in greenhouses began in the 19th century in Kent, after large sheet glasses began to be produced. By the time Fanny Farmer’s cookbook was published, fresh tomatoes were available in the US year round (nevertheless, all her recipes are based on tinned tomatoes!) (Smith 2001).

What was distinctly American about this tomato soup? A combination of a long history of experimentation with cooking methods, overblown health claims, and developments in preserving, growing and transporting tomatoes means that they were exceptionally popular and widely available in the US (Smith 2001). Perhaps the US popularity of tomatoes and tomato soup provided grounds enough for the name. Alternatively, perhaps an exotic ingredient such as okra was added – this vegetable occurs in the Whistler menus in 1899 in a ‘Potage okra a l’Americaine’ (and possibly also in 1894 in ‘Potage – Nouvelle Orleans’). Since this seems likely to result in a more interesting soup, I adapted a recipe including okra, published in 1840 by Edward Hooper.

‘Take a shin of a fat ox, or a portion of a knuckle of veal; wash it clean and put it in a soup or stewpot, that covers close; add five or six quarts of water, eight or ten tomates, peeled, thyme, savory, marjoram and parsley, two onions sliced, a little okra, a spoonful of flour, well mixed in cold water, and stirred a short time before serving up; cook four hours, skim off the fat and add plenty of salt and black pepper; epicures require a little cayenne’ (Edward Hooper, 1840, p.495).

American tomato soup (following Edward Hooper)


350g stewing beef (not too lean)

2 pints water

8-10 fresh tomatoes or two 400g tins

3-4 sprigs of thyme, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 2 teaspoons oregano

2 onions, chopped

90g okra, topped and tailed and cut into 1cm rounds

Salt, pepper and cayenne

First, peel the tomatoes – cut a cross in the skin at the base, add to boiling water for about a minute, remove and place in cold water. When cool enough to hold, remove and peel off the skins. Add the beef, water, tomatoes, herbs, onions and okra to a large saucepan. Simmer on a low heat for about four hours. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.


A good hearty soup for a cold November day!


Whistler Menu, 17th November 1875, # 6855

For all other sources please see the Bibliography.


Published by

Katharine MacDonald

Katharine MacDonald is an archaeologist, food and art lover. As daughter of art historian Margaret, she has been familiar with James McNeill Whistler all her life, and has a very strong appreciation for his taste in art, cuisine and places to visit.

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