Boiled shoes

Carolyn Hart

All my culinary life I’ve worked on the principle that when there seems to be nothing left to eat in the house, you can always make soup. That’s because I was brought up in a frugal post-war household, where scraps were never wasted. Leftovers sat about in the fridge, or larder in those days, in little bowls or on saucers, waiting for action. You can make a soup out of leftover anything—from old lettuce and whiskery cheese to a pair of old boots, as I tell my children. Indeed Quentin Crisp went one step further and made a soup out of nothing.
“Tibetan Workhouse Soup: take a saucepan which has been used for a variety of purposes without ever being washed up. Fill with water and bring to the boil.”

My children rely more heavily on Deliveroo for food than on the leftover  green sludge lurking in the vegetable rack, and think the idea of boot soup is a joke, but recently I was thrilled to discover an actual recipe for cooked shoes. It’s a mysterious entry in a medieval cookery book first published in 1545. 

A Proper New Booke of Cookerye is by an unknown author, and was one of the first cookbooks written in English and aimed at general readers,  specifically women who were running their own households, so the recipes are more detailed than those usually found in cookery books of this era.

It begins with a comprehensive list of seasonal meats, still useful today, in fact, and from which you can learn such handy rules of thumb as:

A fat pigge is ever in season. A goose is wurste in Midsommer mone and best in stubble time . . . Hennes bee good at all tymes but best from November to lent. Pecockes be ever good but when thei bee young and of a good stature  thei be as good as fesantes. A Mallarde is good after a frost till candlemas so is a Tele and other wylde foule that Swymmeth. A Hare is ever good but best from October to lent.

Apart from the list of meats, the author also includes 49 recipes, mostly for meat and pies and a couple of puddings. The recipe for boiled shoes comes near the end, and begins promisingly:

To Make Shoes

Take a rumpe of beife and let it boyle an hower or two and put therto a gret quantitie of cole wurts and let theim boyle together thre (e) howers then put to them a couple of stockdoves or teales, fesand, partrige or such other wylde foules and let them boyle altogether then ceason them with salte and serue them forth.

Similar to the recipe by Roman cook Apicius which spends pages instructing the novice chef on how to make a complicated sauce, only mentioning at the end that the sauce should be poured over the roast pig. I like the way the several types of bird needed for the Shoes recipe are only mentioned in passing, long after the time you should have been plucking and gutting. Cole wurts, translated as cabbage, kale or other leafy vegetables and herbs, are much easier to get hold of at the last minute than a couple of stock doves and a teal.

The shoes themselves only appear in the title, so perhaps  they’re nothing but a medieval spelling mistake, or possibly a sole-shaped piece of tough beef that needs a good stew, rather like the legendary black herring, so desiccated they were stored in the joists and joints of sailing ships on long-ago sea voyages, eventually becoming part of the vessel’s internal structure.

Boiled shoes don’t make many further appearances in cookbooks until the 20th century, when they take a leap into film. The 1925 silent comedy The Gold Rush contains a scene in which Charlie Chaplin boils a shoe and eats it, twirling up the laces on his fork like spaghetti. And in 1980, Werner Herzog ate his own shoe as a result of a lost bet. He cooked it with the help of Alice Waters at her restaurant Chez Panisse. She braised
Herzog’s boots in a pot of rendered duck fat with “thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper, bay leaves, the whole nine yards”. The leather never softened but Herzog ate some of one boot by chopping it up with a pair of poultry shears. He later turned the event into a short film entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, dedicated to people who want to make films but are afraid to start.

Since you’re unlikely to find cooked boots on Deliveroo, and modern day trainers, if you were thinking of doing a bit of DIY boiling, would only make a very thin gruel, it’s probably best to save your shoes for purposes other than soup. But, just in case you’re in the last-dregs saloon food-wise, and unable for some reason to get out to the shops, here’s a recipe for Scrapings Soup, made not with footwear but with things that grow naturally in the back of anyone’s fridge or cupboards . . .

Scrapings Soup

Feeds as many as necessary.

olive oil

bay leaf

1 large onion, peeled and chopped, or substitute a leek

a knob of butter (optional)

Any vegetables you happen to have lying around (e.g. potatoes, parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, celery, old tomatoes), peeled and chopped

A few frozen peas (optional)

water or stock or stock cube

a handful of fresh herbs, spinach, parsley or other greenery (old kale is good for this), chopped

single cream (optional)

Heat the oil in a deep pan or medium-sized saucepan. Add the chopped onion and the bay leaf and fry for a few minutes over a low heat. Add the butter and cover and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring from time to time,  until the onion is soft and translucent.

Add the chopped vegetables and peas if using and cook for a few minutes, stirring so that all the vegetables are covered in the oil.  Crumble in half a stock cube (if using), raise the heat, stir and add the water to cover the vegetables (or substitute stock for the water and omit the stock cube). Lower the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until all the vegetables are cooked through. Add more water if necessary. Add the herbs and continue to cook. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in a spoonful of cream (if using). Blend to make a smooth soup, or serve unblended in bowls or mugs. You’ll be surprised how good it is.

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