Of American-English origin, the colloquial phrase (from) soup to nuts means from beginning to end, completely, exhaustively.
The literal meaning of this phrase is all the successive parts of a meal, from soup at the beginning to nuts and fruits at the end—as illustrated by the following from The Charleston Daily Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) of Monday 17th January 1870:
We have lately had the pleasure and privilege, along with a friend, of a dinner, at the Charleston Hotel, as an invited guest. The Bill of Fare, from soup to nuts and fruit, ab ovo usque ad malum 1, [from the egg even to the apple,] with the intermediate services of fish, flesh and fowl, entrées and vegetables, followed by delicious pudding, pies, cakes, and ice cream, was tempting to appetite and regaling to the palate.
1 The Latin phrase ab ovo usque ad mala (literally, from the egg to the apples) alludes to the Roman custom of beginning a meal with eggs and ending it with fruits. The Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus – 65-8 BC) used the phrase in Satira III:
Si collibuisset, ab ovo
usque ad mala citaret Io Bacche!
If he himself felt in the humour, he would sing Io Bacche! over and over, from the beginning to the end of the entertainment.
Another variant of the phrase occurs in an article about the opening of Congress in Washington, D.C., published in The Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Friday 11th December 1874:
The Arlington Dining Room shows various constellations of distinguished people. At the corner table sits Secretary Bristow and his charming wife, while Judge and Mrs. Stoughton make up the pleasant party who seem to be having such a good time all the way from soup to nuts and raisins.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase from soup to nuts, used in its literal sense, is from A Flying Shot at the United States, by ‘Fitzgunne’, published in The Dublin University Magazine, a Literary and Political Journal (Dublin: James McGlashan) of October 1852—the author describes a dinner at the Irving House, a hotel in New York City:
A most excellent table is kept in this hotel, and the residents always do justice to the good cheer. Indeed, it occurred to me that Americans at dinner go to work with the same despatch and persevering industry which distinguishes them in all their avocations.
[…] The dangerous rapidity with which everything is demolished renders it necessary, I suppose, for those who are of a fastidious taste, or have partialities for different dishes, to be frequently on the alert to seize on those within reach, and to divide the plate into compartments for receiving various supplies: I reason thus from having observed that many people appeared to be eating meat, vegetables, preserves, and pastry simultaneously. The prudent foresight of some is wonderful. An anecdote was told me by a lady, who in passing through the States to Canada had dined at a hotel in New York: seeing some peas at a very short distance from where she was sitting, she requested the waiter to hand them; he was in the act of doing so, when a person sitting near, who had heard the application, suddenly seized the dish as it passed him, swept the whole of its contents briskly into his own plate, and addressing the disappointed lady, said, with a facetious grin, “I guess I’m a whale at peas!”
The same forms having been gone through in “fixing” the dessert, the tables are quickly deserted—each person seizes his hat and takes himself off; but not all at the same time, however, for some can dine with much greater dexterity than others. I have heard of a boast being made by a veteran in the art “that he could get from soup to nuts in ten minutes.”
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase, used in its literal sense, is from The New-York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Tuesday 6th March 1860:
YE MODERN REBELLION
Trouble in the Camp—Scenes Among the Leaders at Lynn—Strike, Striker, Strikest.
From Our Own Correspondent.
Sagamore House, Lynn, Saturday, March 3, 1860.
Well, I’ve been and “done it again.” Having received friendly notice from the courteous correspondents of the Boston papers, that trouble was anticipated at a meeting to be held by the female operatives, on Friday evening, I again posted down to this already famous place. The proprietors of the “Sagamore,” Messrs. Burdett & Green, have placed at one end of their spacious dining-room a large table, called by them the “Reporters’ Retreat,” and around that hospitable board I counted fourteen representatives of the all-powerful Press, coming from Boston, Worcester, Salem, Philadelphia, and Gotham. That we had a good time who can doubt, when he hears that, from soup to nuts, the entertainment was copied after the celebrated dinner given by Abdul-Medjid to Haroun-Arschid?
It was General John McDonald, collector of internal revenue in the Midwest, who uttered the first two figurative uses of the phrase that I have found—albeit in the extended form the whole bill of fare, from soup to nuts:
1-: On Monday 17th April 1876, the St. Louis Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) gave an account of the visit that Colonel Dyer, United States District Attorney, paid to McDonald, who had been jailed for diversion of tax revenues:
Col. Dyer and party […] paid a visit to General John M’Donald. The late crooked supervisor of internal revenue answered cheerfully “come in” to the summons for admission, and shook hands cordially with his visitors.
In reply to a question of Colonel Dyer if he had any requests to make, said: “No, I have no favors to ask other than any society opposed to cruelty to animals might justly claim. I am confident my life will be sacrificed if this prison sentence is enforced, and I trust when the Government thinks the law sufficiently vindicated, I will be set free in a short time, if not I assure you I shall be carried out feet first on a board like a man, with my secrets in my breast.
“I expect, Colonel, to see the whole bill of fare, from soup to nuts, including the zebra suit, and if required I will put horns in my frontpiece and a buck’s tail to my coat, and will then make the gayest wild animal within the State institution.”
2-: On Wednesday 12th May 1880, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) reported what McDonald (who had been pardoned by Ulysses S. Grant 2 after eighteen months of imprisonment) said to a journalist about the prison sentence he had been given:
“Judge Treat gave me the whole bill of fare, from soup to nuts.”
2 Ulysses Simpson Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant – 1822-1885) was the 18th President of the USA from 1869 to 1877.
A figurative use of the phrase occurs in A Boy’s Essay on Julius Cæsar, published in the Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) of Thursday 19th July 1888:
Nineteen hundred and eighty-eight years ago Julius Cæsar, the greatest of all Roman emperors in point of achievements and real ability, was born. Besides furnishing material for Mr. Shakespeare to write a play about, Cæsar went into the conquering business and got away with everything in sight, from soup to nuts. It got so that all he had to do was to whistle and crook his finger and far-off nations would come in and lie right down. Cæsar wrote a book of his travels and conquests. He was a little rocky on geography in those days, but there wasn’t a critic on the whole Roman press that dared to say so. He was the author of the saying “Venue, vice, versa,” which being translated means “I came, I saw, and I got there, Eli.” Cæsar came to an untimely end in the prime of his career, through the jealousy of P. J. Cassius, J. R. Brutus, and other ward strikers. They seized him just as he was opening the senate with a crowbar one day and stabbed him full of holes.