The Nature of Soup

Definition of soup:
1: a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food
2: something having or suggesting the consistency or nutrient qualities of soup
3: an unfortunate predicament
– Merriam-Webster online

Soup in bowls

I want to talk to you about the nature of soup. Soup is that noisy mingling of kitchen chat and chop – an emotional pull to the table through time.  Soup is a mighty coalescence of taste, memory, place and people. 

Not too long ago the harvest was done and it was time for a tasty transformation of veg into soup. I looked at the herbs from the garden on our kitchen windowsill and the thick kale leaves drying in the strainer.  But then a redirect, not unusual these days, as thoughts turned to past gatherings and how they’re just not happening anymore, and probably not for awhile.

Soup has always been part of our garden celebrations.  I mean really, what’s easier than heating up some water, throwing in something, or many somethings, and calling it a meal? Maybe you have a recipe, maybe not – but it’ll work and people will connect. It makes you wonder how long as a species we’ve had the need, as essentially insular beings, to convene and just to be in company with others? 

For the past three winters, every Wednesday in February and March, we hosted a mid-week mulling over soup. We limited the gathering to six people to both ensure that all could fit around the wooden table and that everyone could take part in the conversation.  When I think about it, we had actually managed to hold one this year – in February 2020 – you know, before the gathering world was put on hold.

Kale leaves
Kale

To keep it easy, I used a favourite recipe from Moosewood, Portuguese Kale with White Beans, mingled with homemade vegie broth.  Yes, the same recipe every week – think of it as my little tradition.

The pot, gleaming in silver shininess and large in potential, was brought out the night before and placed just so on the front burner. Early morning on the day of the Event, the sun-dried tomatoes would be soaked; onion and garlic would be diced; fennel, carrots, potatoes, and kale chopped; white beans drained; and best of all, the finishing fragrances of fennel seed, thyme and pepper measured out.  It was a satisfying mise-en-place that had us poised for a great, tasty day when our focus could be just on those gathered around the table. We hope it was memorable because at its most basic level, soup is a touchstone for memory.

As a child of the 60’s, soup generally meant it conveniently arrived ready-to-go in a Campbell’s soup can, offered up with sliced, white bread and margarine on the side.  The only exception was in the winter months when homemade pea soup was all the rage at home in Montreal North. How easy to remember the sounds of people and place, easy to pull up the memories of knowing we had food to eat and all was good.

Sorrel in the vegetable garden
Sorrel – Shchavel

For my partner, soup was a cultural tradition – borscht!  Deep, rich, red hues filled bowls along with a dollop of sour-cream and a pinch of fresh dill that began oh-so-many Ukrainian family gatherings.  With an eye to continuity, I would learn to make this over the years from books like Baba’s Kitchen and through innumerable variations found online. 

Soup became personally surprising to this gardener – like realizing the green leaves of sorrel, Rumex acetosa, at the very edge of the vegie garden were nothing less than the very plant – shchavel – that my partner’s grandma used when he was a very young boy.  Shchavel borscht, a tangy green soup, gave reason for us to talk about growing up and the ghosts of childhood that will follow us for a lifetime.

Creating times to be together, to have a conversation with those here or not, all around the simple excuse of a soup. Maybe my thoughts that day wandered towards memory due to the seemingly unending grey skies heavy with the first, early winter snow.  Or maybe the way the damp days worked into my arthritic bones.  Maybe I was lonely and missing all those who once sat at our table in a tangy broth of conversation.  Soup seemed like both a saving grace at the time and a strategy for the future.

So go on. Grab a pot, splash in some water, put things into it – many things – enjoy it now or freeze it for the future. Rest assured, the table will fill again, and that table just might be here online.  For now.

Understory – Late Autumn Daze

Nothing Gold Can Stay – by Robert Frost, 1923

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Tops of trees without leaves against a grey sky.

The sky is grey and rain cascades like a watery veil down from gutters where too many maple leaves have come to roost.  My tendency would be to despondency as the green season is most definitely passing but when my eyes are drawn down, I see a carpet of rich gold across the landscape. If you really try, the colour wraps us in a final shout-out of beauty. Yes, look for the sublime in the everyday. 

Forest with leaves on the ground.

My mood though is compounded by the awareness that Phase Two of the pandemic is upon us and the coming winter will be tough in so many ways.  Tough in that we’re still pummeling a virus curve against the dreaded outcomes of COVID; that we’re holding onto hope by not hugging each other; that we’re closing in our social circles because we care so very much. And we do care.

This morning I heard an interview on CBC with Tim Robbins (loved his Shawshank Redemption role!) about a new project where he and his team are exploring how to create a community online to affirm we are sane in interesting and turbulent times – COVID and political. He’s adamant that this time ought to be looked at as an opportunity for creative incubation. “I think it’s important that we create forums of communities where you can listen to something, you can laugh and you can understand you’re not alone,” he said.  Well, I like that! Welcome back to the blog-a-sphere! (OK, he was talking about podcasts but moving along…)

Grey cat on laptop keyboard.

Ahem. A slight narrative deviation – apologies. As much as I’d like to mope and wax poetic about the emotional turmoil of grey daze, my constant feline companion and apparently editor, Furgus, is saying it’s purr-fect.  In fact, he may indeed take over the typing of this very post – with cats, one can never really know.

Onto the green reaping that has led me to think that incubation will indeed develop into taste-filled winter nights where we will relax and enjoy any sublime moment at hand.

Case in point – I’m perfumed! The smell of mint is on my hands and stitched fragrantly throughout my clothing. I’ve pulled out hunks of leaves from three medium-sized pots that had basked all summer against an east facing brick wall. Ok – it’s true – these lovelies were deliberately corralled by me in terracotta pots as they are notorious for spreading their mint-ness throughout the garden if left in the ground. Delicious fiends! Now the peppermint, Mentha x piperita; chocolate, Mentha × piperita “chocolate”; and Mojito mints – Mentha x villosa, have been chopped into small pieces, encased with water in ice cube trays and slipped into the freezer. Phase Two winter months were just made more palatable with green sunshine in a tiny block of ice!  Fun to think about who would enjoy these treasures with us – oh, that will be us. Well then, all good.

You know there’s no story without an understory, right?  That freezer was an adventure – an unanticipated purchase due to a great harvest brought about by an intense COVID homestay. An intense homestay for months where we watched every growth spurt, every fruiting.  We were so glad we had basic arithmetic skills and determined that the cost for the freezer was justified as it cost less than than that terrific road trip we had planned for the eastern coast of Canada this year. As the times had appliances like freezers coming up short on the display floors, we were thrilled to find one – still in its cardboard box – kind of waiting for us at the local hardware emporium.  We quick-stepped gleefully out to the rented van to ensure the freezer was ours and ours alone. Warning. Do not get between a gardener, worried about a most excellent harvest, and her desired storage unit!

The freezer interior has transformed into a treasure chest of green memories…er…anticipation. Must stay future focused! Soon, very soon, it will hold most of the green tomatoes I shook off the desiccating vines of summer.  Leaving them longer on the vine made no sense with frost threatening, flurries foretold, and energies waning.  The squares of cilantro, Coriandrum sativum, are frozen in extra virgin olive oil with garlic and honestly, can you imagine the sizzle from that frying pan as the snow comes down outside? The flattened bags tempt with deep red hues – roasted tomatoes processed with sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, and rosemary, Salvia rosmarinus, while other containers hold whole and cubed red tomatoes. The green icy mounds are peppers chopped and ready for a soup or stir fry. Sage, Salvia officinalis, is now drying on a pantry knob while oregano, Origanum vulgare, will soon join it. What a potential explosion of taste just waiting for creative cookery magic and deep winter nights. Cucina Italiana feasts?  Bring ‘em on!

Those nights when the fire is on, the ice lining the edge of the window and the hooks near the back door holding damp toques, mitts, scarves and, well you know, masks. Those nights are when I’ll close my eyes and taste the green season again and maybe, just maybe, wax poetic about gardening daze and marvel at the ability of memory to ignore the twinge in the knee and the ache in the back.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll celebrate the surrounding community and those away at two-arms length or more. We know we’re not alone in this time, we’re just developing a new way of being for all of us. For now.

Mirrored hat rack with COVID masks hanging in centre.

Thanks-be-given

The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude. How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

Here in eastern Ontario, Thanksgiving Day opened onto a cool, bright morning. The farmer across the road was bringing in the soy crop and we were treated to the dust of a good harvest wafting over the hedge, the sun dancing gleefully through the haze.  There is no Hallmark card for the moment. 

Pumpkins and gourds on table

Thanksgiving is my favourite celebration. No festooning of trees, no retail mayhem, no incessant saccharine music in every store.  There are no pressures of gifting except the most essential gift of time and companionship – easily shared. The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude.  How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

The shadows of this pandemic and political time were swept aside by the chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays on the feeders, by the perfection of a morning, by the choice we made to focus this day on the greater garden around us. 

The ways of sharing felt different this year – electronic pulses more than elbows nudging over a good joke. Early morning there was a crop of well-wishers on social media – the newer, electronic garden where words replace touch and proximity.  Only a brief sadness settled in when the distance between sender and sendee was thought about, even as we smiled at the 10 – 100 joyful words on laptop and phone screens. To be read and re-read again.

Sunny day with families safely distanced
Wood piles with hay and pumpkins

Next was a road trip to a local tree farm.  There pancakes were expertly flipped to order on the outside porch and maple syrup from this year’s arboreal haul was poured liberally – much to the delight of the small swarm of wasps entranced by the sweet temptation.  But no garden is without bugs, birds and blooms – they are all intimately interconnected. Children played on hay bales, flew through the air suspended on a line from one pillar to another to the delight of a puppy who stared and stared, parents stood by masked and sharing plans for the dinners they would have later.  We watched it all and warmed to the companionship of others – a garden of fellows on this holiday in isolated times.

We left with treasure stuffed deep into a paper bag – homemade jams and a huge bottle of local maple syrup, ‘cause knowing the maker just means a sweeter experience all around.  Three would be for friends – strawberry jam to a senior neighbour on the street who has treated me to tea and stories of a life well lived; Toe Jam to a friend who shares humour, politics and furry companions; and Middle Age Spread (lemon and orange) that waits on a sideboard for another who shares many adventures with us. Sweet delights to cultivate the garden of friendship.

Crystal vase filled with maple leaf branches

The dinner table – set for we two – was festooned with maple leaves on their woody stems placed just so in a crystal vase from my mum, now gone, while the meal was an amalgam of delights from local entrepreneurs.  It was a decision to fill the table with all that was tasty from those local business owners who have had to navigate this unique year in new and different ways. Roasted veg, garlic mashed potatoes, lentil loaf, hand pies baked resplendent with mushroom filling and turkey with stuffing. All this nudging up against red and green lettuce from our garden that keeps on giving even in the cooling air, whose leaves mark the plenty that was grown. And to end it all, a perfectly seasoned pumpkin pie from our local baker, complete with a pastry pumpkin placed precisely in the very centre allowing thick whipped cream to encircle it in a caloric hug. This meal was not the first where we celebrated the gifts of others, nor would it be the last. We raised a toast and gave thanks for living in a vibrant, creative community which will make it through whatever times are ahead.  

Throughout it all, each hour of this day, we thought of times shared with friends and family, so glad for those moments stored deep inside to be looked at and relived, whenever needed.  Our personal garden of memory and an appetite for more!

Painted signpost against a tree saying: Enjoy a season of change!

And as it must, so the day ended and the sun began to sink behind the cedar hedge in the west. 

The silver and red maples in front of our dining room seemed to stretch out each leaf before they tumbled to the ground in a glowing curtain.  A fitting moment, nature saying time is right to face a change in season and to be grateful for this day – this thanks-be-given day.

October Rising

Anne reveled in the world of colour about her. “Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908

Do you feel it? The change is here – a frisson at the edge of the breeze, a turning of the leaf from green to red to gold, from lush to dry. Pumpkins running amok in fields and offered up on trailers at the side of a rural road.  Woodsmoke. A seasonal move from cotton to wool. Knitting needles. Socks. Autumn. Really big birds.

Honestly, this is one of my favourite seasons – ok, there are three more and that about covers them all. Autumn in eastern Ontario (let’s not call it The Fall – not this year of all years!) is when no permission is needed to be in awe of the beauty of plants, of pending change, of story. 

We begin to bundle up in familar ways to face the cooling days. This year however, COVID has added another layer to the ones we put on and it’s a difficult fit.  It feels like the freedom some of us had in working in a garden, spending time in the fresh air, will be severely limited with the swing of the weather vane and the north wind. 

North wind, eh?  Moving along, I’ll focus on the time being right for splitting plants and spinning tales. I like the botanical conversations that will continue from our space to another. The trail of a story about what the thing is, where it came from, how it got there, where it might go.

Dwarf irises, Iris pumila, came to us from a small acreage on a nearby rural route ten years ago.  A very full garden tempted us to walk in when we saw a sign, Perennials for sale – well! Pots were filled and instructions told – this is what worked here, it will work there and how.  Much appreciated.  Recently I divided the rhizomes as they had spread nicely on the edge of a bed and needed to find new homes.  They became part of a boxful of splits that ended up on a table at the local horticultural society plant sale recently – an exchange of plants in the company of others. A gleeful moment when my broad smile hid behind yet another new mask donned for the occasion.

Last week as the peonies went dormant, the garden fork came out again and after a quick split of tangled Peony rhizomes, Paeonia, voila – five potted plants for sharing with friends. A little bit of Mrs. B. went with them. Now, now, nothing suspect here, I meant her spirit. Mrs. B. was the head gardener in the family who lived here before we moved in and must have planted the peony at least five years before – now a mature plant about 25 years old!  I love the flamboyant blooms in late Spring and the dramatic drop of flowers and petals with the first rain – appeals to my romantic inclination. And so the new progeny travelled to the big city, to a local shop owner, to friends – a story continues. I’m eyeing the line of browning foliage now of peonies that need their annual haircut – a pruning back before the, gulp, snow.

Visitors always know they just may leave with something green when they come by for a conversation on the deck or a dinner in the garden (yes, yes, even now at an appropriate distance and peeking over a mask edge.)  Native Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum pubescens, were started here 15 years ago – a mere three wild plants had been removed from a roadside that was slated for development.  Now they gracefully circle two maple trees and in the spring a riot of white pendules bob from each plant – over a hundred of them.  An impressive growth habit for this beautiful structural, arching plant. Always fun to see them nodding through a back window of a car as it heads home from our driveway.  Note to self: always ask if the plants being so willingly given away, do they spread well?  Bugleweed, Ajuga, anyone? Here, this particular chapter of a story is always shared from gifter to giftee.

But today I stare at the fading beauties of this season through my east-facing window.  Down a stone path, far from the vegie beds, the last Oscar Peterson roses play a jazzy tune against Japanese Anemones, Anemone hupehensis, that stand tall on the breeze.  The purple and yellow audacity of a much-too-tropical Coleus brushes against the green boxwood, Buxus, as if to say “good-bye” after sharing space all season.  Annuals can make you downright emotional at the beginning of autumn don’t you think? Say no more.

I take the time to look up. High above this place, I see the great birds, Canada Geese in a distinct V formation – they rise with feathers beating against the chilling air.  They wheel and honk, lifted and drawn southwards by some ancient rite acting along their nerve endings.  Some may fall with a well placed shot.  But in the greatest triumph those flying highest and determined, divide the clouds and continue.

The overpowering feeling is farewell and fare well.

I split the plants, plant the bulbs and wonder.  Green will come again in its time and the feathers beating against the warming air will welcome in spring. I hope there are no more threats, I hope we all rise high and find a place to soar. Fare well.

Photo by TheOther Kev on Pexels.com