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.
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.
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.