(As often, a string of loosely connected, incomplete thoughts follows.)
It has a strange, impossible name. And it would be delicious, as the folktale goes, if only for a few carrots — a bit of garnish, which a passerby is happy to offer in exchange for an invitation to return later, when the soup is ready to share.
Indeed, the improbable-sounding soup is almost perfect, the story continues, but lacks a hint of onion, which another passerby is, likewise, happy to provide, also in exchange for the promise of future nourishment.
By any of its various titles (“stone soup,” “button soup,” “axe soup,” “nail soup”) this centuries-old tale is a parable either of sharing and community or of swindle and deceit: Strangers traveling through a foreign land have only an empty pot, which they use to their advantage, filling the pot with water and an inedible object, setting the pot over a cooking fire, and pretending to cook a masterpiece that comes together only after a parade of villagers (or travelers, or soldiers) have, one by one, donated the necessary ingredients to create a finished product that is better than the sum of its parts.
It is a few days after Valentine’s Day and I am cooking dinner (lentil soup, by request) and listening to “The Case for Parenting in Community.”
Produced by Ten Percent Happier and part of the Childproof podcast series, this particular story explores the intersection of class and community, looking specifically at why middle and upper-middle class parents don’t ask for or willingly accept help when it comes to raising children. The host describes having a kind of epiphany after hearing from a colleague who grew up in a low-income community that embraced the notion of communal parenting.
As I listen, stirring, I wonder, absently, what has happened to the Midtown Babysitting Co-Op, which either is, or isn’t, the longest-running group of its kind in the city. I stir and think back to the families we met, the diapers I changed, the stories I heard about my own children (“I go nite-nite now,” my daughter had said to one of the mothers, “and I sleep in your bed.”).
How else would I have gone to Costco or had adults-only time if not for the miracle of the babysitting co-op?
But my children, along with the others their age, outgrew the co-op, and I hadn’t kept up with its evolving story.
Did families still connect in this way? Surely so. But the podcast tells a very different story, and I wonder about all the things that are and aren’t different now, for everyone, but particularly across lines that too often separate us.
Speaking on an education-focused panel 15 years ago, a friend who worked in volunteer recruitment was asked to sum up the problems public schools were facing with regard to delinquency, violence, and low graduation rates. “We’re building too many houses with little tiny front stoops and huge, fenced-in back yards,” he said, “where we used to build houses with big, welcoming front porches and little tiny back yards. We’ve abandoned our sense of community in favor of privacy and isolation.”
I’ve quoted my friend’s statements many times over the years, surprised and yet not surprised by how true they remain.
I am thinking of these same statements while I listen to the news: It is the 10th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Ukrainian women are giving birth in bomb shelters instead of homes or hospitals.
I am stirring celery, onions, and potatoes, making soup to take to two adult children I’ve only just met. It is the same soup, generally speaking, that I took to their father 10 days earlier.
Only now he is dead, and Russia has started a war, and even though there is a daffodil in bloom behind my house, the forecast calls for sleet.
So I am making soup, again.
What I started writing, a week ago was this:
Easily consumed, with or without sturdy teeth, and easily digested if not overburdened with rich ingredients, soup has been nurturing and nourishing humans for 20,000 years. Food historians, pointing to bowl-shaped vessels unearthed around the world, suggest that the story of soup is as old as the story of cooking itself, even if the term “soup,” which traces to the Latin “suppa” (broth-soaked bread) and Germanic “sup” (to make liquid), is a bit newer.
Soup as a Western food, “eaten” as part of a meal, owes perhaps to Renaissance fashion, when ruffled collars made lifting bowl to mouth difficult and messy, and spoons came to the rescue. In 18th century France, sale of restorative broth (“restoratif“) helped pave the path to our modern restaurants.
During the Great Depression in the U.S., churches and charities across the country used water and cooking time to stretch a combination of leftovers and inexpensive ingredients into nourishment for the long and growing lines of hungry and unemployed people who otherwise wouldn’t eat. Though the term “soup kitchen” is now used more broadly to denote offering free or inexpensive meals, it originally meant literally an offering of soup and bread.
The modern convenience of portable, economical dehydrated and canned soups changed everything from warfare to family life. And, not to let it go unmentioned: Remember the Progresso soup diet?
(Curious to know more about the history of soup? Among the multitude of websites dedicated to the topic, I found this one, from Campbell Soup UK, to be the most fun reading, its focus on brand marketing notwithstanding.)
The pandemic brought, in its early months, a bumped-up demand for and subsequent shortage of canned soup. At the same time, being home-bound and/or resource strapped led also to an uptick in making soups from scratch, often with limited ingredients on hand. (See: Samin Nosrat’s Instant Green Soup on Food 52, from June 2020, as a great example.)
But my heart just wasn’t in it, no matter how many words I tapped out, erased, and re-wrote, trying to make sense of nonsensical things.
I have a friend who makes, in spring, a simple soup of fresh peas, water and salt. I’ve not tasted the soup for myself (this friend lives far away), but I’ve seen photos of the vibrant green freshness. I can imagine the taste, light and unencumbered, a lone vegetable showing off at the peak of its season, a soloist singing a capella.
This friend, a trained chef, makes other, similar, single-focus soups, all of which are prepared very simply and with fresh, in-season produce.
Could I replicate these fresh, simple soups? Probably. Have I? No, and for no reason other than that the preparation isn’t my usual style of cooking. Come spring, though, I plan to test the waters, to branch out and try something fresh and new, even just as an experiment. Life, like the peak of spring, is short.
I have, or had, another friend who made a magnificent oyster stew and equally magnificent fish chowder — the antithesis of that fresh spring purée. The key to both the oyster stew and the fish chowder, my friend said, was the stock, which required long, careful cooking and just the right mix of seasoning and cream. The stock had to mature, to be right and ready, on its own, when the fish (or oysters) got added, right before serving. That was the key to the soup.
I wish now that I’d asked for the recipe, or at least for the mental notes he used as a guide. Had I done so, I would offer those notes here, in his memory; but I missed the opportunity both to ask and, then, to share.
On that note, with that string of incomplete thoughts, back to the beginning:
It goes by more names, in more languages, than anyone could enumerate.
Its ingredients? Good intentions, of course, even when the end result struggles to live up to them.
It’s the wilted celery, bought fresh at the farmers market on a sunny morning that was full of possibilities, only to land in the crisper drawer, left to languish while other players took their turns.
It’s the leftover potatoes, from when the neighbors and their children came to dinner, or the stewed tomatoes from the freezer, when the power went out.
It’s the group text: “Anyone have an extra lemon?” at 5:30 on a cold, rainy Tuesday.
It’s equally the first burst of spring, virgin and unsullied, and the hearty stock from a chicken carcass.
Sometimes it’s the full day of chopping, simmering, and tasting, with nothing better, or more important, to do.
Often, especially in recent years, it’s a kind of meditation while listening to the news, wondering how the words can possibly be true.
It’s call and response: For comfort, for consolation, for condolence.
It’s trust, and healing, for the days ahead.
The Practical Notes: How to Make Soup
For NYT Cooking subscribers, there’s Samin Nosrat’s wonderfully comprehensive guide, “How to Make Soup.”
Littered with pop-up ads, but not behind a paywall, is “13 Ways to Make Better Soup,” from bon appétit.
Food 52 doesn’t have a one-link compilation of soup recipes (that I could find, anyway), but the site is easily searchable and offers, among other suggestions, the ever-popular and always delicious Jane Grigson’s Celery Soup. I’ve made that particular soup so many times, and in so many variations, that I no longer use a recipe. It’s celery (rather a lot of it, including the leaves) and onion (yellow or white) sautéed in a gob of butter and then cooked, with some potatoes added to the mix, in simmering stock until everything is tender enough to purée with an immersion blender.