Sunday, November 22, 2009

Soup's On: Finding Good Health and Community in a Bowl

     Living in Rome, I was richer in love and friends than money.  Our apartment, located in the old part of the city, was in a building several centuries old.  Railroad style, all the rooms were off one hallway and it had no kitchen.  Easy to handle in summer, but in winter there was only one way to cook - slowly - on the radiator.  Soups and stews became staples in cold weather.  It was easy to eat locally in Italy with fresh in season vegetables, pasta, beans and whatever else caught my eye in the daily neighborhood open-air markets.  
     One of my favorite meals was lentil soup.  Hearty, high in dietary fiber and protein, low in calories these small beans have an earthy, nutty flavor.  In the book of Genesis, Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of crimson lentils and a loaf of bread.  
     During the Depression Era, communal eating sky rocketed, and soup was often the only dish on the menu - creating the impression of plenty in a time of little money.  What we do, the creativity that emerges when our backs are to the wall can be entertaining and remarkable.  MFK Fisher, in her delightful book How to Cook a Wolf shares her love of food during WWII when food was rationed in Europe.
     As a single working mother on a budget, soup was a standard at our table.  It became the mother of invention, as I scoured the Frig for left overs to add.  Prepped on Saturday mornings, I kept it in containers in the freezer, along with several jars of homemade vegetable stock which I used for cooking rice, steaming vegetables or preparing soups of all kinds.
     A martial arts expert, Eco Broker and an 'invent as he goes' kind of guy, Chad Deal's friends have urged him to open a soup restaurant.  "I always use onions and garlic as a basic ingredients.  Then add what I have available, mixing in various greens - kale, bok choy, mustard and arrugala.  I season with pepper sauce, fish sauce, black pepper corns, Braggs, Worchestershire, in any combination to taste."
     But getting the best from what eat, whether it's soup of stew, goes beyond fresh ingredients and seasonings.  Eating is a celebration of life, of what we are taking into our bodies and how it energizes us.  The Navajo healing rituals are meant to bring souls into horzo or harmony with fate.  A ritual of gratitude before eating brings us and the food we eat into a harmonious unity - a shared destiny.
     The sensual awakening of texture, aroma, taste and the sounds of silver against a bowl or tureen can call up satisfying memories of shared meals.  Photographer Pamela Barkentin speaks nostalgically of eating soup at her father's studio.
     "A fashion photographer, his name was George.  He had an incredible space on the top floor of a defunct turn of the century department store at 18th Street and 6th Avenue in NYC.  Being a mad Virgo, he wanted to run the most efficient studio in town.  To work well, he believed everyone's blood sugar should be in the proper place at all times.  What emerged from this madness were the most wonderful soup lunches for everyone working on any particular day.  Gathered around a huge oak table, the soups were often simple - Campbell's with something added to make it special, along with a good bread and cheese.  My dad had the best reputation for his food and community feeling.  I think it was because of the simple ritual of breaking bread (and sipping soup) together."
     Eating communally offers even more layers to explore and savor.  In community, we come alive to the moment through shared laughter and stories.  Dipping the ladle into a communal pot of soup seems to underscore the deep knowledge that, warts, bruises, scars, foolishness and pride aside, we are all extended family.


  1. Thanks, Sam...this is a great blog entry as usual. Thanks giving is a good time to launch into this idea since most of us will be experiencing communal sharing of food. I hope to have many Thanks Giving dinners with friends this coming year.

  2. Thank you, Pamela. Your encouragement helps me to keep going, and your wisdom inspires me!