Soup of the evening, beautiful soup

My granny had a saying. “When purses are empty, make soup.” As a kid I used to laugh at it. I was a Heinz cream of tomato kid and so homemade tended to taste thin and weak by comparison. Besides there was something wonderful about the tinned stuff. It was probably the E numbers which in the seventies were used with liberal abandon. So for my palette soup became limited and always a second choice. Over time though I learned the value of Granny’s words. Lean times didn’t lend themselves to anything more than a packet of Ramen noodles at night and after a while the body tends to get bloated from all the salt. So one day I couldn’t bear it any more. A raid of the cupboard gave me some slightly stale herbs and a couple of stock cubes. Another cupboard offered half a box of elderly pasta which had been left alone for want of pasta sauce. With the few dollars in my pocket I bought an onion, a couple of carrots, and very, very small pack of beef. Back at the house a packet of Ramen was sacrificed for the seasoning packet and I tried to make soup. A large pan was filled with water, vegetables chopped roughly, cubed beef cut infinitesimally smaller and pitched in. The seasoning packet went in, the pasta too, everything got lobbed in and brought to a boil.

It was disappointing? No, it was actually pretty disgusting. To my shame I had made extremely salty, flavoured water with bits in it. The trouble was I couldn’t afford to throw it away so I ate what I could stomach and put the rest in the fridge for the next day. That night I had the most intense gut ache I think I ever experienced but the night cramps gave me time to think. The next day and a few dollars later I tweaked the dishwater like soup. A couple of potatoes to thicken, more onions, a small tin of mushrooms, a bay leaf nicked from someone’s front garden, and the contents of a mustard packet from a deli went in. Then as I simmered rather than boiled it I stirred and smelt the resultant mass. It was better. Not perfect but the chemical smell from the noodle powder had disappeared. A taste then, not perfect, more like liquid mashed potato so another raid of the fridge offered up some cream cheese and a slightly dried out cooked sausage. In they went and I waited. Everything edible in the house was now in the pot and so it was going to be make or break. After about half an hour I plucked up the courage to try it again and to be fair it was ok. The mouth feel was definitely better and there was some flavour. The flavour was limited but it was more balanced so I sat and ate a bowl before returning the pot to the fridge. That night I slept much better and so the following day I finished the rest. That early experiment showed me the valued of soup and I have returned again and again to the soup pot with new recipes and ideas.

These days Zah and I both look to the same stock pot that early experiment was conducted in whenever we are cold or need something comforting. It has produced expensively elegant soups for dinner parties and homely soups for family gatherings. One of the handles wobbles, it is definitely wearing a little thin, but it has seen us through colds, and on one occasion Chase having pneumonia. There have been times when we know a neighbour or family member is struggling or sick and so a large pot of soup is left at the door before sunrise. No note just some soup and a couple of loaves of bread. It’s a small way that we can show our gratitude for our own lives and perhaps make a difference. The ritual is repeated until we’re sure that things are easier and we make sure to change the recipe so that no one has to experience the same thing again and again. It’s custom for people round here not to say thank you,  but the container is always left by the kitchen door nicely cleaned when it’s empty. Then when times are better a piece of smoked salmon or some venison might find itself sitting on the kitchen windowsill and it’s always welcome. It is a cycle of care and it’s never failed yet. People eat and people show their gratitude. No fuss or words needed, just love for and from our fellow humans.

Zah and I got married at mushroom time. In the grass large puffballs appear and they can be sliced, fried, and have a texture that almost rivals good steak. It might seem almost heathen to use these beauties for soup but there is a recipe which we have fiddled with over the years and have turned into something of a tradition.It’s a delicate broth rather than a cream of mushroom soup. With garlic, shallots and leeks from the garden, a little homemade chicken stock, and our beautiful puffball mushrooms we set about recreating memories. Zah is much better at mornings than I am and so he tends to be the one to go hunting.  As I wipe the sleep from my eyes and make coffee I’ll see him returning triumphant with his prizes.  These football sized beauties are chopped and standing together in the kitchen garlic is slowly roasted and mushrooms sauted. We work silently. I catch his delicate fingers chopping vegetables and my breath is taken away. It’s a ritual that needs no words. It signifies we have made it through another year. We are together, stronger and more deeply connected. Then as ingredient are mixed into the pot and the process ends we allow the miracle to slowly unfold. Every year on that day of days when we are most grateful you’ll find us sitting outside on the bench at the kitchen door. We will be watching the sunset with bowls in hand. A little bread fresh from the oven completes the meal. But to sit there beside my beautiful husband, in our garden, and by our ocean is a feeling that is more warming and more comforting any soup could ever bring. I had longed for a home and a person to share it with all my life. In finding Zah and being able to eat soup I have become the most grateful man alive.

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