Like Making Soup

Lyn Thurman’s “Writing the Wisdom of Your Soul” – Day 15: Temperance

When I first started making my own soup from scratch, I would test it, batch after pitiful batch, on my beautiful (and apparently iron-stomached) friends who gathered at my home on Wednesday evenings so we could allow our kids to run roughshod over the house and nobody cared (too much) how much noise they made as long as no one was bleeding. Kids get tired of being hushed and parents, if they’re honest with themselves, get tired of hushing, so it’s a win-win to establish safe spaces for chaos.

Back to my soup, which was not so much chaos as too controlled and boring. It was often flat, often watery, and often just a collection of different ingredients that just happened to occupy the same pot space rather than a cohesive thing you could call “soup.” Also of note, what starts out as an intention of soup often morphs in my kitchen into stew or an in-between thing Rachel Ray calls “stoup.” Nothing wrong with that if it’s what you’re aiming for but when you’re NOT… Well, you have to start making some adjustments.

Over the months, it became a running joke that my soup (and the other dishes I taste-tested on my captive and capitulating audience) “needs more salt.” My friends-cum-test-subjects would barely try any before immediately declaring it in need of some form of sel de mer. On the whole they were right but the problem was that I was so inoculated in the belief that “salt is bad, m’kay?” that I couldn’t get around it for a while. So I began collecting a variety from which they could choose: pink Himalayan, black volcanic, Greek, French, kosher, coarse grind, finely ground, seasoned – anything but standard table salt replete with iodine and flow agents. Then I began to understand that there are salts that are healthy for your body, that our bodies need salts. I also learned how much more complete soup becomes when you add the salt earlier in the process. Another nifty surprise? You don’t have to add as much if you add it early on though you do need to add more than you think is necessary when you first start. Salt, like the ground from which it is mined, is a constant, stable, reliable and almost universally necessary component of a good soup.

Soup-making from scratch offers me opportunities that other kinds of cooking do not. How much can you learn from tearing open a blue box, boiling some noodles, then desperately mixing in some orange powder while trying not to get too much <POOFED> over the rest of the stove or ending up with those grainy lumps that, when you bite into them, make your every sensory receptor revolt violently? How much from a plastic dish that you liberate from a cardboard box then throw in the microwave for an obscene amount of time? Making a pot of soup gives you time to consider: Can you add those last couple potatoes to it before they go off? Can you do without the slimy parsley you discovered in the bottom of the veggie bin? What about those mushrooms – do you add them near the beginning or near the end? In my book, there’s almost always room to add at least an eighth of a cup red quinoa, no matter how crowded the pot is getting.

After the foundation of salt and water, soup-making becomes a balancing act, a form of temperance, yes, but ultimately a very forgiving one. If you add too much spicy cayenne, you can add some sweet potato to soften the punch. If unexpected guests arrive, you can throw in another carrot, top up the water, and maybe add a little sprinkle of corn starch. If you end up with too much, you can freeze the leftovers for another day. Soup is demanding but it is also mercifully amenable. A pot of soup is one of those magical things that could literally mean the difference between life and death but mostly the distinction is finer, more layered and nuanced, consisting of preferences and traditions and a million different possible variants that would all yield a result perfectly passable to most palates.

A well-lived life is exactly like soup-making – it makes the most of the ingredients available in the time allotted for its manifestation. It can be delightful whether dressed up or paired down. You can make homemade sourdough bread from a starter or grab a box of salted crackers out of the pantry to eat alongside it. Soup can be the height of sophistication in a five-star restaurant or dug out of the freezer to accompany the week’s leftovers and it will nourish either way. Hot, warm or cold. Thick or thin. That’s the kind of flexibility I want for my life, where there’s a kind of baseline that has upper and lower boundaries which provide a fair amount of margin for error. Just like soup.