William Blake prescribed seeing the world in a grain of sand. As I try to take in a fraction of his vision, I must be content with reflections in a bowl of soup.
I love to make soup. It’s one of the truest improvisational arts, fueled by ken and emotion and intuition. Soup is just as much Zen as it is Rococo, flowing like the Tao through a cup of miso and floating among the penne in minestrone. It has a soul of its own, an offspring of the Universal Soul itself.
When I make a good soup, I feel compelled to call a friend to come share it. It’s an intimate thing which requires confidence in the midst of vulnerability.
So, a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing to teach a soup class at CAS, I felt a tinge of trepidation. How do you put all of that in a recipe?
Well, you don’t. You can print “1 heaping cup of love” in the list of ingredients, but that just sounds kitschy and therefore insincere. “Go with the flow” doesn’t translate finitely, nor does “just groove on it.” Standard directions cover only the technical side of soup-making. To really capture the process, I’d have to say things like, “caramelize the onions with great sensuality,” or “use a vegetable stock that has the spirit of black tea.”
For this class more than others, I realized that I needed to listen to my Writer’s Mind: that is, I needed to “show” more than I needed to “tell.”
We spent the first hour talking about food, about common threads that ran through all of our lives. We talked about the journey we were each on. We spoke of space, openness, honesty, and acceptance. We remembered great soups we’d each had, and what made them special. The Community Table—ubiquitous throughout Europe, but sadly missing in most US restaurants—was a touchstone for us. It provided a segue into a discussion of partaking from the same pot, a simple act which tells us much more about soup than any recipe can.
That is the starting point: the realization that soup, in its very essence, binds everyone who partakes. Instantly but securely intimate, as soulful as the primordial soup from which the universe itself formed.
Having established our context, any recipe was merely an application of the concept. “See how it applies itself to Miso with Udon…look at how it fills a pot of Lentils & Vegetables with Filé…watch as it binds Vichysoisse…”
There were some solid technical tips, of course, like adding the filé only after you’ve taken the soup off the fire. I also told them that if you use good homemade stock, take time with your onions, and go easy on the salt, you will have a great soup. Beyond that, use what you have on hand, express yourself, and share it with others. The recipes are only starting points, as always.
Soup adapts to our lives. It winds through our personal progression and species evolution, keeping us rooted in ancient traditions. It helps us maintain a bond with the first human to ever hang a pot over a fire.
While we can make it as mystical as Blake, it is also as everyday as Sandburg:
I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.
When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.