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The Moments Between

Helen Zelon

My Life in Soup:
A Kitchen Manifesto

I believe in soup.

I believe in eating soup, sharing soup, and especially, in making soup.

I’m not alone, but part of a global soup ‘sorority’ that ignores geography, class, and culture: Women in Baghdad and Kabul, in Lisbon and London, all struggle to do their best. We fall down from time to time, and lose patience, but more often we muddle through; we crave a kind of safety and strive to make it, bowl by bowl. We fill our kettles with whatever’s on hand in the morning and in the evening, eat our supper. Soup.

In the face of mayhem, I make soup. It’s a tiny gesture – private, utterly mundane, timeless. Vegetables, maybe meat, fire. And wait.

I make all kinds of soup, from traditional, golden chicken to spiced Yemenite bowls and cold fruit soups, good for a porch supper in high summer. But mostly, I create order with my soups; I start with a lot of raw things, move them around, change them, and in my sharp and tender manipulations, create something satisfying and concrete and occasionally delectable. Some of me is in every spoon, and I like it.

Soup is my meditation. When things aren’t going so well – when I’m stuck on a story, when I’m thinking too much – I chop an onion or two, sauté some celery, add carrots and parsnip, and wait. I stir, I season, and wait some more. The waiting is important, and hard for me. Living in limbo takes time and trust. Eventually, there’s soup. Edible pleasure.

Soup makes sense. It has a reason and a logic, a rhythm and a flow. Everything is tactile; I sweat the onions until they’re glistening soft, add garlic and leek, and up rises a steam that smells like centuries of familiar history, deep-wired in my genes.

Soup is self-expression when language fails, or when words are too puny to express what can only be said with hands and heart. Invited into the body’s secret darkness, soup speaks to the senses: smell, taste, pure feeling. I can teach you how to make soup, but I can’t tell you. (Soup’s for doing, not for speaking.) We can stand together in the kitchen, chop a little, talk a little, wait a while, everything on the simmer. Like the fit between lovers, you’ll feel it when it’s right.

When the towers fell and ash snowed on our block, during the weeks of pack or stay, war or peace, chaos or discipline, I made soup. Cauldrons of soup. Carrot soup, potato soup, split yellow pea. Chicken; chowder; minestrone. Every day for about a month, I chopped and stirred and talked with people who wandered into my kitchen. We ate together; we washed up. The next day, again, soup.

I didn’t realize it then, but the soup saved me, gave me something concrete to do and produce in a time when nothing seemed fixed or tangible. I felt I could hold nothing in my hand – nothing was secure – but I knew my way around an onion and a pot; knew to stud the onion with cloves for the red-lentil soup; knew that we would eat together that evening – whoever was there, cousins children friends neighbors – and share something real.

Soup is concrete, life’s unpredictable. When someone dies, soup salves the survivors – lentil’s traditional, but butternut squash soothes, tomato-rice comforts. When someone’s sick, chicken soup, of course. Special soups for birthdays, two soups on Shabbos, because my husband hit his lifetime quota of chicken soup before his bar mitzvah, and it’s one way, in this thicket of life, that he can know he’s seen and understood: Vegetable soup, cabbage soup, mushroom-barley, leek. All, for love.

First food of babies, last sustenance of invalids, steaming evidence of the work of one’s hands, of time taken simply to create, with no marker or memory beyond a full belly (with luck) or a lip-smack that tastes of home. It’s all in that humble bowl: love and work and patience and belief that, after all, that with enough of the simple, basic stuff, something good will result. Making soup is like raising kids, or giving one’s life to a long-term marriage: You put everything in, then hope for the very best.

A part of me craves the great journalistic adventure, a burka and a backpack, the open frontier – the big story, the wild place. But my feet are here, on the Brooklyn ground, held fast in a human matrix built brick by loving, breathing brick. Meals, work, conversation; walking, washing, love; cooking; work, rest, work. It’s not a bad life.

So, I make soup. Pressed for time, a quick curried pumpkin; in deep winter, a beefy goulash, needing only good bread and many hours digestion.

Soup says things I can’t; it satisfies me, body, soul, and creative itch. Even as I strive to tell stories that stick, like burrs buried brain-deep, I like making something that pleases and disappears.

Hungry yet?