I recently made soup, and got to thinking….
What is it about soup?
I mean, how does soup satisfy the entire range of human need, from basic sustenance to emotional comfort to medical wonder to artistic creation? How has it become so embedded in every aspect of our culture? You may be skeptical, but think about it. In literature, there’s the children’s book in the George and Martha series–you know, the one where Martha makes endless amounts of pea soup because she thinks George likes it, when really he’s just pouring it into his shoes? There’s also Oliver Twist, who holds up his soup/porridge bowl and utters the most famous and pitiful orphan line in human history: “Please, sir, can I have some more?” Indeed, in stories of orphanages, concentration camps, and refugees, there’s usually soup involved — a thin one, invariably involving cabbage.
One of my most vivid memories of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC was not the art itself, but the story my mother told about struggling actors and artists, in a down-and-out state, making tomato soup with ketchup and water that were available free in the museum cafeteria. (At first, I recalled this story as one of my ancestors when they first came to America. It seemed a little dubious that ketchup packets existed in the Ellis Island days, but I chose not to burst that romantic bubble. I recently got the correct story– it was starving artists, not relatives–but the fact remains that soup was a mainstay for the poverty-stricken). On the other hand, no prix fixe menu at a fancy pants restaurant would be caught dead without a bisque-y or consume-y affair.
Then there’s the whole Chicken Soup for the [insert marketable group here] Soul series (in college, I recall serious conversations about what the version for the vegetarian soul would be called). The reason the title worked so well, even if it did exclude us veggies, was the old soothing reputation of chicken soup. Jewish grandmothers (and grandfathers) really do make that stuff, and for generations, Jews and gentiles have been eating it when they caught a bit of a cold. The book series is where soup meets medical miracle meets pop culture. How do you do?
So where do all these thoughts get me? Hm. I don’t actually make or buy soup that often. But I do know that soup is inspiring and necessary at once. And that I must occasionally invoke it by simmering a few ingredients in lots of seasoned water. Let us not try to understand it. Soup just is.
When I was growing up we had a Russian neighbor named Sophie who was really really old and kinda scary for the likes of scrubbed suburbia. She was a crusty Russian peasant who had survived the Russian revolution and then 50 years of living on the Lower East Side of NYC. After her huband died, Sophie’s son Frank made her move into his house in Northern Virginia because he didn’t think she would be safe by herself in the city. I don’t think she liked the ‘burbs much.
But she loved my mom. She would come to our backyard to forage for dandelion greens (all the other neighbors knocked ’em out with herbicide). She would walk into our house without knocking and taught my mom a ton about cooking and gardening. Eventually my mom got her into a senior center day program with a bus that picked her up and dropped her off in front of her house. And then a few years later she got kicked out of the center for having a fistfight with another Russian lady.
Anyway, she used to tell us about a soup that kept her alive for a whole Russian winter with no food. During the war when she was a young teenager the army came to their village and stole/ate all of their food including the animals. Her aunt had the foresight to bury a 50-pound sack of flour in the barnyard and the family lived off of flour soup for many subsequent months.
That was a great story and I have a feeling it was true. And I love your ketchup story too, even–especially!–if it is apocryphal.
Thanks for sharing, Rob. I’m always amazed by all fascinating people you’ve met in your few short years on this planet.