(by Katherine B. Weissman)
“Beautiful soup, so rich and green, Waiting in a hot tureen!” —Lewis Carroll
I was a chubby pre-teen with nocturnal snacking habits. When my mother found me sleepwalking with a pint of Häagen-Dazs or discovered a plate strewn with chocolate cake crumbs shoved under my bed, she never got angry. But her own angst about her body, its weight and its shape, came through loud and clear. She seemed oddly saddened by my plumpness, as if grieving in advance for a future me on a perpetual diet.
So I guess I got the message, early on, that food was dangerous.
And also, that cooking was neither important nor fun.
A pianist and music teacher, my mother never regarded the kitchen as her natural habitat, nor did her mother, a writer. The wider culture, of course, pushed homemaking to the max. This was the Fifties.
So they tried. My grandmother, bored, served dutiful meals to my grandfather on weekends in the country but clearly preferred her city life, which involved being cooked for—lamb chops, mint jelly, coffee éclairs from the French bakery around the corner—and going to concerts in a fur-trimmed coat. My mother, without a comparable escape valve, churned out meals with considerable bitterness. I imagine she’d pretty much always rather have been reading/teaching/practicing/smoking/having a scotch.
My female forebears, in short, were caught in a face-off between their souls and their roles. Two of women’s prime (and intrinsically contradictory) obligations—making food and losing weight—were set up, in me, for an almighty clash, producing:
A reluctant and nervous cook.
A body-anxious adult.
A greedy-yet-guilty eater.
The sensuousness of food has always both seduced and dismayed me. After all these years, why can’t I just get over it?
Well, this sort of stuff runs deep. I can never eat anything without a mental calorie check. I can never cook anything without worrying about how it will “come out.” And while I like my body better now than I did when it was, objectively speaking, a lot firmer, it is still a fraught relationship.
But I do make soup.
I grew up with Campbell’s. I remember rows and rows of cans on my grandfather’s shelf; he had to eat something while my grandmother was off larking. In the present day, I have been known to resort to Pacific and Imagine. But homemade is so much better.
What I love about soup is that it’s forgiving. Imprecise. I can put whatever the hell I want into it, and somehow it all melds into okayness, particularly if I smooth out any too-large chunks with an immersion blender. Soup isn’t that caloric, unless it’s loaded with cream. Soup lasts. It even gets better after a day or two or three. Making it can take a while, but I actually like watching the accumulation of those little piles of colorful diced vegetables and minced herbs, flanked by bottles of oil, Worcestershire, and wine.
After it’s done, no sweat. Just reheat. Serves one or ten. Partial to garnishes. Goes well with winter.
Katherine B. Weissman was formerly copy chief at Cosmopolitan, executive editor of Mademoiselle, and contributing editor at O the Oprah Magazine. She has contributed to the collection In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50 and is working on a novel. Her website is https://katherineweissman.com.
Vague, Untidy Black Bean Soup
(Quantities are very approximate. Soup is forgiving.)
Better Than Bouillon vegetarian broth base
herbes de Provence
optional: white wine
dollop of olive oil
smidgen of butter
2 - 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
big knob of ginger, chopped
2 c. red onion, chopped
about 1 c. each carrots, celery root, and red pepper, chopped
1 c. canned corn
fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, minced
3 c.+ black coco beans, soaked overnight
optional: sour cream, bacon or ham, feta cheese
Make about 6 c. broth with Better Than Boullion; season with bay leaf, rum, and Worcestershire, or wine if you have leftovers.
Taste for salt; usually there’s enough in the broth already.
In a large pot, heat oil and butter, and sauté garlic and ginger until slightly browned.
Add vegetables one kind at a time (I once read this in a Marcella Hazan cookbook, something about keeping flavors distinct, and I’ve done it ever since), starting with onions, then carrots, celery root, pepper, and corn.
Add dried and fresh herbs.
Add beans and broth, and bring to boil.
Lower heat and simmer until beans are tender, approximately 3 hours, adding water if necessary to keep vegetables moist.
Cool, then partially puree with an immersion stick, leaving some chunky bits.
Serve garnished with sour cream and/or cut-up and frizzled Canadian bacon or ham (the latter for my husband; otherwise, the soup is vegetarian). Crumbled feta also might be good.
(No idea how many servings this makes. A lot.)