We glided up beside the gas pumps each topped with a glass crown. The filling station was across the street from my Grandfather’s office, a cube-like space where he, 2 draftsmen (my father one of them), a blue print machine and a receptionist reigned as North Mississippi’s architectural firm.
The filling station operator leapt from his tidy desk inside the station donning a white military-like uniform and cap. He rushed to serve my Mother. Their exchange was familiar and comforting. I hoped my tiny brother who fretted beside me would be soothed.
My Mother was in a hurry to gather for weekday lunch at her in-laws’ house. She was a lady of the manor type, youngest of three and surprised to discover that there were no attendants in this young-motherhood-life she chose. An unexpected blessing was my Father’s mother Edwina who adored her, was ever cheerful and loved to cook.
Our haste would not be lost on the filling station operator and in a fluster my Mother pulled away before he could withdraw the nozzle. The big green dinosaur of a car was jerked in violent tension that caused shrieks all around. With a cigarette ash flick out the window, we carried on.
It was wintertime in the North. I know this because we were fussily overdressed in knitted goods from our other Grandmother who lived in the Mississippi Delta and my Mother had on a stylish swing coat.
After hustling inside, we took our seats around the dining room table which was consecrated with an elaborate soup tureen. Dressed to the nines, my Grandmother Wee called out the soup ingredients and placed a Lazy Susan of condiments before my Grandfather Pappy, ruler of his universe.
It was in this moment, as an adult wielded a giant monogrammed silver ladle over my soup bowl and the steamy goodness drifted to my nose, that I fell for the entire situation…soup love.
I took a spoon of brothy mix into my mouth and felt it ease down my throat as a reward for living. Leaning into the adults’ conversation, I was also satisfied with the bonding that only such a concoction could inspire.
Since then our soup-loving family has experienced a soup evolution. Perhaps it is just a reflection of cultural change.
It was during the 1950s, that Wee delighted with the advent of convenience foods both frozen and canned so different from her childhood. She was a devotee of bold new time-saving ingredients which made their way into her favorite soups changing the process.
My Mother’s interest in homemade soups came later in her life after she became weary of Campbell’s Bean and Bacon. Cookbook research availed her to more exotic combinations that only a seeker could relish.
By the time I was responsible for mealtime, a soup of the week was guaranteed. The do-ahead feature suited our brisk lifestyle. And it always delivered.
My personality is challenged to do anything twice in which case I’ve only ever had a few soups on repeat, but there is one mix that is specifically guaranteed each week. It is reminiscent of both Wee’s and my Mother’s soups in that you never know what you are going to get, but its inventiveness is anchored in my childhood story-favorite Stone Soup.
The ancient European folktale tells of hungry strangers entering a town locked up in fear. The strangers place a pot of water onto a fire and toss in a few stones. The townspeople come toward them in curiosity and are invited to add a necessary ingredient. Feasting together, they all realize that sharing makes for magic. WE know this, but find it difficult to make real.
It occurred to me that the missing element for reality here is actually learning to make a good soup. Something about the making lightens the heart. The prepping, the stirring, the long gaze out a nearby window, perhaps a dog at your feet and the urge to really feed those nearby, all ring a bell of satisfaction unlike anything else.
This rendition of Stone Soup began with table talk that my depression-era grandparents would float as an ever present reminder of those who are not yet fed. Though I am never by any stretch a frugal human, an awareness of lack was sparked at that table.
Since that time we have all awakened to the fact that we must safeguard the environment. In Waste Not, Tom Colicchio says that future generations will understand that not dealing with “food scraps will feel the way that tossing a tin can into anything but the recycling bin feels to ours; an act from the dark ages, like smoking on airplanes, or hurling your picnic trash.”
In keeping then, my modern(yet curiously ancient) version for Stone Soup evolves with each pot swirling with the elements of abundance. As an example, I took notes of last week’s potion which are the bits and pieces of every meal prepared (or taken out) in recent days.
The first step is to open the fridge door and announce to the world: “What do we have here?” And then the leftover fun begins.
Saute a chopped yellow onion in butter and/or olive oil. Add salt and thyme.
Add 2 cups of chopped roasted sweet potatoes (see Enchantment Number 40)
Add1/2 cup tomato puree
Add 1/4 cup sprouts and chopped baby turnips (from CSA salad)
Add filtered water (or better yet broth) mixed with a tad of pickle juice to cover
Add 1/2 cup sautéed cauliflower and sliced red onion
Add 1/2 cup cooked rice
Add 1/4 cup fried tofu cubes
Add another cup of filtered water or broth
Add 1 cup frozen limas and corn kernels
Add 1 cup of a pasta dish with chopped bell peppers and sliced sun-dried tomatoes
Simmer for quite a while tasting all along while adding for salt, pepper, herbs (fresh or dried), additional olive oil
While cooling, puree half of the mixture with an immersion blender or food processor
Toast bread for bottom of soup bowl
Ladle soup on top
Grate cheese to garnish if you wanna
You see how it goes. Unlike other dishes, this soup demonstrates a treasured truism by Tamar Adler. In my favorite cooking text she says, “Soups mustn’t be fresh, but mature.” Ain’t it the truth?
The beauty of this soup situation is that the flavors vary as doth life. James Beard once said, “It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available, to waste nothing.” February of 2021 is a most poetic setting to learn anew how to fill the tank.