There’s that saying: “Soup’s On!” It sounds so simple, yet means so much. It can mean dinner is ready, or that a home is indeed a hearth–a place where a bubbling pot welcomes all who enter. Teachers around the globe return to the story Stone Soup each back-to-school season as a soup-centric reminder that sharing is THE essential ingredient for living in community. And Carole King’s song version of Maurice Sendak’s timeless Chicken Soup with Rice tale celebrates October’s soup by exclaiming in refrain: “Whoopy once! Whoopy twice! Whoopy Chicken Soup with Rice.” October, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, means soup season is open.
I’ve been stirring a pot of chicken soup with kale, white beans, and bow-tie pasta off and on this morning, so it’s no wonder my thoughts are a simmering broth of ideas about this much-loved liquid meal. I looked back and discovered I first wrote about soup for a newspaper article in 1997. The piece appeared 3 months before my first child was born, and it outlined some interesting historical tidbits about soup’s place in culinary history: I wrote that pottery vessels revealing traces of boiled liquid enhanced with grains provided proof that soup fed prehistoric peoples as long ago as 7,000 to 8,000 BC. I noted that the Old Testament’s Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, in exchange for a pottage of red lentils, saying that the piping hot preparation was valued for its comforting properties long before we adopted chicken soup as a universal cure-all. And I mentioned that fruit soup was a favored post-natal gift in Scandinavia, where it’s apparently believed to provide extra strength needed for nursing. (Obviously, I had birth on the brain back then!)
Then that early soup essay took readers on a spin around the globe, commenting on traditions from ancient Greece to China to France and Japan. Apicius, Rome’s first-century gastronome, shared recipes for grain-and-legume-based soups in his landmark cookbook, I noted, and 15th century Venetians were cautioned against over-indulging in nausea-inducing hemp pottage, in their early cookbook De Honest Vouptate.
Generally though, soup gets celebrated for its restorative properties. A Yiddish proverb says that worries go down better with soup than without, and I remarked back then that “what exits most kitchens during the chilling months has a mission beyond mere nourishment: Cold weather food soothes the soul and warms the body.” Today, no matter the season, I’ve learned that soup is “good for what ails you!”
Of course thinking all of this, while happily swirling tonight’s healing dinner into a gentle whirlpool, took me back to my days as “the soup girl,” those two crazy years spent preparing and serving soup to Santa Fe’s parade of beautiful souls from inside Slurp, the 1967 Airstream eatery I used to call my work home. Those two years were the hardest of my life in many ways, fraught with pain and struggle. But making soup–as simple a task as it may seem–I can now claim as some of the most meaningful work I’ve ever done.
This blog was begun because of soup. And I’ve written lots about soup’s preparation. One early post finds me talking about soup as cure-all. You can find it in the archives under “Good For What Ails Ya’,” but what I love when I look back at it, is that even back then, back when my soup making days had barely begun, I insisted that creating something as simple as soup was healing for me, so maybe it also offered good “medicine” to others?
I joked that at least once a day a customer would share a health concern. As the “soup girl,” I explained, I heard about irritable bowels and allergies, cancers and constipation, colds and gastrointestinal dilemmas. I learned that dental problems—tooth extractions, root canals, and gum disease–were more prolific than I’d ever imagined, and I got lots of unsolicited details about what prevented customers from having rice or gluten, salt or spice. Psychological conditions were easily shared too, I noted. And then I wondered: Was it because I was selling soup–the traditional cure-all–that I received these surprisingly intimate stories of others’ lives?
Today, as I stir my soup pot in my home kitchen, anticipating tonight’s dinner with the kids, I think there’s something about soup and its “all-mixed-up, warm, jumble-of-ingredients-nature” that is an apt metaphor for life. And soul-soothing soup probably leads us to more comfortably share our stories with others. But really, any food prepared with love and care, made in anticipation of the pleasure derived in sharing it, transforms the simple act of cooking into an art. Soup soothes not only because it’s warm, but because usually it’s made thoughtfully, and requires time to prepare. (Think about why the Slow Food movement has flourished.) Plus, soup is generally made to be shared.
As is often the case for me, I think M.F.K. Fisher, my favorite food writer, said it best when she said that “one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
I’ve made many soups and I’ve certainly concocted new chapters in my life story, and both kinds of concoctions have sustained against hungers real and metaphorical. Fisher also once famously said that dinner partners should be chosen for their balance of abandon and restraint. They should, she insisted, “…enjoy food, and look upon its preparation and its degustation as one of the human arts.” Creating is what makes cooking meaningful. Fisher nails it again for me. Food is my medium, and there’s soul-soothing art in stirring a simple pot of soup soon to be shared.