Something happens to me at the molecular level whenever the temperature outside falls below fifty degrees. It is irresistible, inexplainable, unfathomable, but there it is, every time. It is the desire to make soup.
It takes over, casually and simply, bringing me to work in the kitchen in a sort of trance without desisting until ingredients for a soup has been placed in the slow cooker, set to cook all day and feed the hungry family at dinner that night.
There is even now, as I write this, a simple vegetable soup simmering in a sesame mushroom broth, to which at precisely 5:00 o’clock I will add rice noodles, and it will be ready for family dinner at 5:30. True, at least one of the kids—possibly two, even—will complain that eating this is an affront to human dignity, and I will microwave some frozen chicken nuggets for the plaintiff(s) instead. Such choosiness is, after all, the American way—the way of abundance for so many of us. But the rest of us will enjoy this soup.
You can make soup out of just about anything, I have heard and, as an adult, experimented. Certain vegetable soups are particularly forgiving. Such fall soups as butternut squash (could be substituted by acorn squash or pumpkin) require just two main ingredients, really: cubed squash of your choice and some broth of your choice—just enough to cover the squash. The broth can be substituted by a can or two of tomatoes, I have learned on one occasion when I had the squash all cubed and ready to go, only to discover that the pantry was broth-less. Sprinkle some seasonings on top—I prefer curry powder—and let it simmer for a while (or all day in the crockpot). Use an immersion blender to blend it to smooth consistency right before serving, and there you are. It seems so awfully much like baby food, my husband once observed. Except you would probably use less curry powder on baby food, perhaps. And maybe you wouldn’t add crushed cashews or pumpkin seeds on top.
When we first moved to America, I remember my mom buying clearance chicken necks and what I can only call entrails for soup—the cheapest meat available. They looked gross, to be honest, and are the main reason for my vegetarian phase in late high school and much of college. At least there were other options always available, and memories of my choosiness make it easier now to tolerate my own kids’ varied tastes. Indeed, at a lovely and over-abundant Thanksgiving dinner with relatives just last week, the kids stuffed themselves with dinner rolls and nothing else. One even turned down pie, although they both accepted the plain vanilla ice cream that was designed to go on top of apple pie.
Sometimes I dream wild dreams about serving dinner that everyone will eat gladly and no one will complain. And then I get realistic and remember how during my Soviet childhood, I never refused to eat anything—except the oat porridge that my brother and I would sometimes sneak into the dog’s bowl. The oats tasted like no oats I’ve ever had since then—and not in a good way.
But a memory of one of my favorite childhood soups comes back as well. It was a milk soup with noodles. And by this, I mean that it had two ingredients: milk and noodles. My brother and I loved it on the rare occasion my mom made it, but now in hindsight I realize that most likely, she made it when there was nothing else to make. The stores in late 1980s USSR were filled with lines of people—what seemed like infinite lines, everywhere. These same stores were not, however, filled with much of anything for these people to purchase. I have repeatedly heard how much better the state of affairs was in Leningrad (where my family lived), and each time I shudder at just how bad things must have been everywhere else.
I think about this sometimes as I decide between several soups that I could make on any given day for that night’s family dinner. The possibilities are just about infinite, since there are so many ingredients on offer at the store and, therefore, in my pantry, freezer, refrigerator.
But so much of it, perhaps, is not just about the taste of soup or even the practicality of cooking so easily in bulk for a busy household (leftovers last for days! Lunch tomorrow!), but about the smells and the memories. Somehow, filtered through soup, childhood seems filled with nothing but joy.
Image: Beef noodle soup, Rostov-on-Don. Vyacheslav Argenberg for Wikimedia Commons.