The Solace of Soup

by Lauren Kessler

When my husband died, I made soup.

Oh, I did other things, too:

I cried.

I wore his gray flannel shirt for five days (and nights).

I read the tabbed pages of the last book he read.

I showered using that Icelandic moss soap he smelled of every morning.

I stood in front of the door to his writing room staring at the Nazar Boncugu that hung from the lintel. It is a bright blue and white glass disk we bought in Istanbul, a Turkish good luck symbol thought to protect us from illness. I shook my fist at it and cursed.

I went to a restaurant we liked where I sat outside at a little table and ordered a Negroni, our favorite drink, and felt very very sorry for myself.

I found the cat and took him outside to see the full moon because I had to share it with someone.

But also, I made soup.

It’s not true that you can fix everything with Duct tape or WD-40. Some things require soup. And then, of course, there are some things that cannot ever be “fixed.” Like when, in the middle of October, on a brilliantly sunny day with the oaks blazing orange, he dies, this person with whom you’ve spent the last thirty years, the father of your three children, co-adventurer, co-conspirator, the one who still thought you were funny, the one who got excited about compost, the one who bicycled with you on the shores of the Baltic even though he hated bicycling, the one who played the monster in many a Z-grade middle school movie shot in the woods behind the house, the one who calmed the waters. He who saw the vulnerability you so effectively hid from all others. And never outed you. That one.

But there is solace in soup, truly there is.

There is the Zen of chopping vegetables. There is the all-day simmering of broth, the rich chickeny, garlicky aroma filling a house that is no longer filled with his whistling or his piano-playing. There is the domestic routine, the calming familiarity of it all in a world, in a house suddenly made unfamiliar. There is the grace of knowing what you’re doing when really, you don’t know what you’re doing, the way, for a minute, skimming the broth or roasting the vegetables, or pulling meat from bone, you forget. And all is good.

The truth is, the world opens up once you have a good broth, and it is hard, at that moment, to feel anything but optimism. The (soup) future is wide open. Mulligatawny or spinach tortellini? Butternut squash apple or wild rice chicken? Lentil apricot? Black bean? Or just roast all the roastable vegetables in the bin: the last of the cauliflower from the late fall garden, those gnarly carrots, that Walla Walla sweet you were saving for something, those golden beets that were waiting for just the right moment that never came. That there is an easily imaginable future, that this future includes only good choices. This is the solace of soup.

And then, of course, there is the spooning of it, the sipping of it, the slurping of it. A slow, repetitive action–hypnotic, even. Some would say soup is calming because it triggers childhood memories, the mother’s cure-all on those wintry days when you were sick in bed, sniffling, coughing, those days when a cold was just a cold. My mother was an inventive and superb cook, but she never made soup. She heated soup. From a can. If soup is a soul-saver, it is because of memories I have made through the years.

One more thing about soup and sadness before you get to the good part (i.e. the recipes): It prevents what the Germans call Kummerspeck., literally “grief bacon.” This is the weight you put on after a bout of emotional eating. Note that the constructed word is not Kummersuppe because it is almost impossible to overeat soup. You can’t chug soup. You can’t gobble soup from a bag wedged between your legs while driving. You can’t stand in front of the freezer and gorge on soup. You make it. You simmer it. You ladle it. You sip it.

And in that slowness of time, you can breathe into the sadness. And exhale it too.


My Broth

Add the bones and/or carcasses from past roast chickens (you have saved and frozen them for just this purpose)* to a large stockpot filled with water. I fill the pot with carcasses and add enough water to cover. Add a carrot or two (chunked), an onion (quartered), a few ribs of celery, three or four whole cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, kosher salt, several good grindings of pepper, and (if you are so inclined, and I am) a quarter cup or so of dry sherry.

Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer. Hours if you got ‘em. Cool slightly and pour through a strainer into a container you can put in the refrigerator. Overnight the fat will congeal in a layer you can just skim off with a spoon. If your chicken pieces had skin, there will be a good amount of fat to skim. (You can correct seasonings when you make the soup. Don’t worry about salting or peppering the broth anymore.) Assuming a normal-sized stockpot, you should get 10-12 cups of broth.

* Those of us who are backyard chicken farmers know that, after a while, we are operating an old-age home for non-layers. Perhaps, they can now be stockpot chickens?

The Easiest, Most Impressive Soup

This recipe serves 4.

Basically, except for sauteing garlic, you just dump in these store-bought (or garden-grown) ingredients:

  • a package of fresh or frozen cheese tortellinis (12 oz)
  • a 28-oz. can of diced tomatoes (with its juice)
  • several cups of fresh spinach
  • 10-12 basil leaves

Also: buy a small wedge of very good Parmesan

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a soup pot. Add 8-10 (yes, you read that right) cloves of chopped garlic and sauté until fragrant. Add 8 cups of your amazing broth and bring to a boil. Toss in the tortellini and cook until half-done (maybe 5 minutes if you use frozen as I do). Now add the canned tomatoes and their juice. Cook until pasta is tender. Toss in spinach—lots!) and basil leaves. Stir until wilted (a minute). Serve sprinkled with grated Parmesan.

It’s beautiful soup.

World’s Best Soup Recipe (aka Potato Leek Soup)

Tonight, because I was zombie-ing from room to room imagining this headline–“Grief-stricken Recent Widow Found Drowned in her own Tears in Empty House”—I made potato leek soup. The hard part is cleaning the leeks. The satisfying part is peeling the potatoes. It is a simple soup that never fails. Make A LOT. It freezes beautifully.

Clean (Google this if you don’t know how. Dirt and silt cleverly hide in leeks.) and chop 4 nice-sized leeks. You want mostly the whitish part, but I like some green too. It makes the soup prettier. Sauté the leeks in butter until softened and fragrant. Because I believe everything is better with garlic, I mince several cloves and add to the sauté. Peel and chop the potatoes. Smaller chunks (obviously) cook faster. The more potatoes you use, the thicker the soup. Russets and yellow fin are the best. Stay away from the little red ones or the purple beauties.

Now just add the sautéed leeks and potato chunks to the broth, bring to a boil, and simmer until the potatoes are fully cooked. You can enjoy this way, or you can put in a blender to make a silky, smooth soup. I suggest homemade croutons on top.

This was my husband’s favorite soup. He liked it so much that, years ago, he dubbed it “World’s Best Soup,” and that’s what the kids always called it. I don’t think they know, to this day, that it is just potato leek soup.

I set the table with a cloth napkin, ladle out the soup into one of the good bowls, sit at the kitchen table, and eat, waiting for the soup to perform its magic. I am not disappointed.

photo credit: Gaelle Marcell, Unsplash