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Tomato Soup for the Soul

(by Ilene S. Goldman)

I stopped the spoon halfway to my mouth and stared.

“What’s wrong?” Philippe asked. After the good news we’d finally received, he was shocked that there might be a problem in our world.


“Nothing. It’s just…it’s just this is the best tomato soup I’ve ever had. I mean, really the best.”

I held the bowl to my nose and breathed in the sharp, sweet steam. The soup was pale red with hints of orange. It had a sweet bouquet in the attack, and was herbier on the second nose. Clean tomato flavors sang on my palate, accompanied by fruitier notes and a hint of salt. It was creamy with a little texture, like there was cream in it, but no need to puree it to silk. Nicely balanced, with a long fruity finish and just a hint of a vinegary acid. This soup was made to be a standout side dish. Perfect with gooey grilled cheese, but complex enough to hold up as a main course.

“I wonder how they made it,” I said.

Our server happened by just then and smiled. “Carrots,” she said. “Grated carrots. And, yes, it’s housemade.”

Allison Fallon, author of The Power of Writing It Down, writes that if you ask someone in crisis what they had for dinner last night, they won’t remember. “Like a laser, drama points towards what needs our attention,” pushing out unneeded details, like dinner menus, she explains.

Fallon doesn’t define drama or crisis. In her silence, crisis is a slice of time, like a slice of cake made bitter from baking soda that didn’t get properly sifted.

Our crisis began in January when we learned that our pregnancy wasn’t going exactly as planned. It continued through fetal monitoring, an emergency C-section, open-heart surgery on a tiny seven-day-old baby, and 49 days in the PICU, during which there were moments we weren’t sure our daughter would ever come home with us.

In fact, for us, crisis had turned into routine: I slept in a little as I recovered from my surgery. Philippe met the doctors for morning rounds as early as 6 a.m. I found my way to the hospital by 10 a.m. and stayed until he came from work. Sometimes we went for a quick dinner nearby, stopping back to kiss Charlotte good night.

At night I sat in the living room and pumped breast milk. A phantom ringing kept me awake. I feared the wee-hours phone call from the PICU, the call that woke me even when the phone didn’t ring. The call that could thrust us into ultimate darkness at any moment.

We ate because we needed sustenance, not for pleasure. We often ordered soup at restaurants near the hospital because it came out of the kitchen quickly, allowing us to get back to Charlotte’s bedside.

Most of those soup runs were unremarkable. This one is seared into my memory, perhaps because it was the night the crisis began to end.


Clarke’s Creamy Tomato Soup (for that is its official name) was our fifth wedding anniversary dinner, at the eponymous diner on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. We’d forgotten about the anniversary until my brother texted us that morning. We were so focused on what needed our attention. The date became significant only when the surgeon told us that our seven-week-old daughter would be released after the weekend.


We talked about Charlotte’s birth and heroic transfer from a maternity ward to Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital PICU.


We marveled at how perfect she was in those first seven days, no scars or tubes, wearing the world’s smallest preemie diapers, her eyes following nurses around the room.


I felt again the weight I’d carried, literally, remembering how Philippe had collapsed in my arms as she was rolled to surgery.


We shivered recalling our first post-surgery view of our tiny baby on the warming tray, obscured by tubes and wires, bloated from surgery, and surrounded by what seemed like dozens of poles with machines pumping medicines into her.


We were like the snowman in Campbell’s soup commercials. You know, the one who sits down for lunch and melts into a little boy as he eats tomato soup? Seven weeks of machines, tubes, medical terminology, fear, and dread melted away. For a moment, I was a child again, at home on a rainy day, warmed by Campbell’s soup and Mommy’s buttery grilled cheese sandwiches. Then I was jolted back to the hospital cafeteria, choking down soup and grilled cheese so I could get back to Charlotte.


That June night, the soup’s steam hid what the coming months would bring.


We didn’t know that she’d come home with a nasogastric (NG) tube for feeding.


That we’d never be more than three days from a doctor’s office—to reinsert the NG tube, have a test done, get weighed, go to another procedure, find out that something else, other than her heart, needed urgent attention.


That I’d have to figure out how to administer 11 medications eight times a day.


That we’d be told no breastfeeding, and I’d pump milk for six months.


That Philippe would insert the NG-tube dozens of times when Charlotte pulled it out.


That we’d be back in the hospital in four months for surgery to place a gastronomy tube (G-tube).


Six months for a diagnostic catheter.


Eight months for a balloon procedure.


Twenty months for another heart surgery.


Or that in between those appointments, we’d have “early intervention” therapists at our house several days a week.


All that mattered was that Charlotte was coming home at last. We had to get the crib delivered!


Most nights, I’d hook up Charlotte’s feeding pump while she slept. As a machine fed her, I’d creep downstairs to empty my aching breasts.


My aching heart I kept to myself, brightly blogging the day’s triumphs while tears of exhausted truth rolled down my face. Unable to feed my child, I felt the ultimate failure of my mothering.


Staring out the window into the inky street, I’d watch the occasional headlights drive by. My only company those nights were the anonymous parents on a tube-feeding support site. I sought advice from strangers, most of whose children were far sicker than mine.


While she was hospitalized, we’d asked for no visitors so that people wouldn’t remember the tubes and wires, the beeping and nurses. But in doing so, maybe we’d made her seem more fragile than we’d intended.


And in doing that, I’d hidden how fragile I’d become. I’d shattered myself to protect my baby, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was so exhausted that I didn’t quite see how alone I was.


We’d thought her heart defect would absorb our lives, but most of our energy went into getting her to suck. Hours with the feeding therapist, devastating battles at meals. Daily and then weekly weight checks at the pediatrician, never seeing her dot on the growth chart. Finally, we heard the words “failure to thrive” and learned that the G-tube would be with us for some time.


“Failure to thrive,” as any parent who has heard it can tell you, enters your consciousness as “failure to nourish.”


There is no more devastating phrase. Your baby may look just fine to you, but you’ve been told you are not nourishing her. That is your primary responsibility, and you are failing.


Maybe this was the true crisis. I don’t remember a single thing Philippe and I ate during those first few months. There was a lot of takeout, I know. And wine, a lot of wine.


If there was soup, it was Trader Joe’s tomato basil, with hastily burnt grilled cheese sandwiches sometimes.


In early September, we went on a road trip to see the family. At some point, her NG-tube slid out, and I was terrified to accidentally snake it into her lungs. It was the one part of her care that I just couldn’t handle. Philippe was an hour away, so my mom and I took her to an ER.


I’m sure my mom was scared her granddaughter would starve. But she made sure we did not.


For the week we were in New Jersey, my mother cooked for us while I tried to feed Charlotte. Mom never told me she was sorry for what we were going through, never pitied us. Instead, she made me feel seen when she filled the house with fragrant white rice steamed with tomatoes, yellow squash, and zucchini, one of her simple 1970s staples. Made with plenty of butter, it’s rich and indulgent.


She kept the freezer stocked with our favorite ice cream flavors. She scrambled eggs and made bacon while I fiddled with a feeding pump.


She sautéed littleneck clams with patty pan squash after picking Philippe up from the train. We still talk about that pan-ful of heaven. We don’t talk about the trip to the ER.


Eventually, Charlotte had the energy to eat. She learned to love bold flavors. Once the battle was over, she became a joy to feed. As a young adult, she is learning to cook. I’m prouder, however, of her empathy and kindness. She’s the friend who’ll offer a cup of tea for a difficult conversation. I have no doubt that one day, it will be a bowl of homemade soup.

I tried for years to recreate that perfect tomato soup from Clarke’s, doctoring recipe after recipe. A Country Tomato and Carrot Soup came closest. I made that for years, on a rainy day with a grilled cheese sandwich, mimicking my mother’s Campbell’s soup menu. By the time I found that recipe, Charlotte was eating from a spoon, and soup of any flavor had become a favorite food group. It still is.


It's been a while since I made my approximation of Clarke’s Creamy Tomato Soup. We can’t hide behind its steam anymore, but that’s okay. Charlotte has come through the worst of it, scarred but stronger, and wiser than any teen I know. My brother still beats us to anniversary wishes every year.


Charlotte now prefers a tomato soup made creamy with rice pureed in it or a refreshing gazpacho on a hot day, so the recipe has begun to yellow in my notebook. More than tomato soup, she likes Mommy’s chicken soup or slow-cooker split pea. She’s a big fan of Parmesan white bean soup or any black bean soup I concoct. I stir all kinds of soup in my pots, still alone and shattered, laser-focused on feeding my child so she can thrive.


It never occurred to me to ask Clarke’s for the recipe or search for it online. Only now, nearly 19 years later, have I discovered that Clarke’s Creamy Tomato Soup has a near-cult-like following. I get it.


Ilene S. Goldman writes, gardens, and edits in Evanston, Illinois.

Clarke’s Creamy Tomato Soup


5 carrots, shredded

5 stalks celery, shredded

1 medium white onion, sliced

1/2 lb. salted butter *

1 c. flour (less is better; I’ve made it without any)

3 (14 1/2-oz.) cans chicken broth (or 5 c. chicken stock) **

1 c. tomato puree

1 c. crushed tomatoes

1 c. tomato juice

1 bay leaf

1 garlic, minced

white and black pepper, to taste

1/4 t. seasoned salt or Diamond kosher salt

1/2 c. half-and-half

1 c. milk (optional, add more chicken stock; you can add a leftover cooked potato for creaminess)


Combine carrots, celery, and onion, and set aside.

Melt 4 T. butter in large sauté pan over medium heat.

Add carrots, celery, and onion, and sauté 7 - 10 minutes or until tender. Set aside.

Melt remaining butter in large stockpot over low heat.

Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, 4 - 5 minutes, making a roux.

Slowly stir chicken stock into roux.

Increase heat to medium and continue stirring 5 - 7 minutes or until mixture thickens.

Add tomato puree, crushed tomatoes, tomato juice, bay leaf, garlic, white pepper, black pepper, and seasoned salt, stirring well.

Reduce heat to low and simmer 12 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add carrot mixture and simmer 15 - 30 minutes.

Add half-and-half and milk, stirring until well blended.

Makes about 3 quarts.

*Substitute all olive oil to keep it kosher or vegetarian. Or sauté the veggies in oil and use butter for the roux.

**Veggie stock works, too, especially homemade.


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