A late spring frost followed by a heat wave suppressed most of my grandparents’ garden this summer. The weather stunted their otherwise abundant fruits, their berries and apricots and grapes. Some crops made it through, though, a steady supply of carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and lots of squash.
The last few times I’ve visited, I’ve made them food with the same combination of ingredients: roasted squash and carrots in a tomato sauce, ratatouille in a cast iron, pizza with beet greens and thinly sliced yellow squash, and most recently tomato soup, which was probably the best meal I’ve made for my grandparents.
Soup becomes a daily meal for me in winter. Starting in November, I make a pot of soup every Sunday to last through the week: Lentil tomato, cream of mushroom, leek and potato. When there isn’t a readily obvious protein, I throw in beans or lentils, catered to my own vegetarian needs and wants.
M.F.K Fisher writes on the subject, “As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavor of the hot liquid. Soup, in other words, is good” (209).
Soup is intuitive. Soup is ubiquitous. I almost never use a recipe these days, instead relying on basic soup principles (start with onions and garlic in oil, evenly cut vegetables, simmer with broth, salt along the way) and different combinations of the ingredients I have, the nutrients I need, and the flavors of the season. Soup is necessary. Soup is forever.
Goodness aside, Fisher is right that soup connotes simplicity, even meagerness. During the Irish Famine, Irish farmers mockingly referred to famine relief measures as the Soup Kitchen Act (Preet). In western cuisine, soup is a side dish, essential only as a complement to other dishes. Frances Moore Lappé writes in Diet for a Small Planet that her soup recipes are based on ingredients she usually has on hand: “carrots, potatoes, canned tomatoes, and onions” (289). She even titles her soup chapter “A Meal in a Soup Pot.”
However good it might be, to live on soup alone is considered foolhardy martyrdom. Here, I think of the “bread ale soup” in the 1987 film Babette’s Feast. In the film, two sisters named Martine and Philippa keep the modest traditions of their father’s pious Protestant congregation alive on the Danish coast, whose typical meal is a brown viscous soup possibly based on Øllebrød, a Danish porridge of rye bread, dark beer, and honey.
Babette, a friend of a former suitor of one of the sisters, seeks refuge with them after fleeing political violence in France. She, like the audience, is unsettled by the blandness of the sisters’ food. As their new cook, she adds simple ingredients, an onion, sugar. The whole congregation comes to appreciate the small additions. When Babette receives an immense fortune from France, her decision to spend it on a feast for her hosts is an act of grace (for Protestants) or sacrifice (for Catholics).
Culinary traditions are historically and culturally informed. Babette brings to the modest piety of small-town Protestants the traditions of upper-class Catholic French society, two unique styles that come to benefit from one another as the congregants’ modesty playfully competes with the cook’s exuberance. The film is not about a snobby French chef looking down on peasant food, nor is it about salt-of-the-earth farmers turning their noses up at pretentious gluttony, but about characters whose trajectories require them, simply, to try new things.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy cooking with and for my grandparents is that our cultural contexts for food are quite similar: We both learned to cook during financial crises that coincided with national obsessions over health and nutrition.
Nutritional science is a relatively recent field. The first isolation of a vitamin was only in 1926, and post-WWI crises sparked greater interest in food efficiency to combat scarcity. The 1933 Federal Emergency Relief Act, for example, included the distribution of household nutritional guides. One such pamphlet, Food Budgets for Nutrition and Production Programs, detailed nutritional estimates for a “liberal diet,” an “adequate diet,” and an emergency “restricted diet.” However, nutritional standards were still highly experimental at the time. As Ziegelman and Coe put it, “the scientific precision of federal food relief was illusory” (174).
Food pyramids and panics over nutrition shaped my childhood in an inverse way. In middle school, we were required to watch Supersize Me multiple times, were regularly shown “got milk?” corporate ads, and the standard 2,000 calories per day we were told we needed is actually a very rough estimation. Budgeting wasn’t our concern. Instead, as public schools installed soda machines, we were told to take personal responsibility for our own healthy decision-making.
Megan Elias, in an article titled “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” describes the disconnect between nutritionists’ emphasis on budgeting the healthiest ingredients and the recipes different American communities were used to. Nutritionists “saw canned tomatoes as a good source of vitamin C” and so they encouraged Americans to buy tomatoes instead of other vitamin C-rich foods. However, most American households “had no idea what to do with tomatoes aside from making tomato soup, which was one of the few tomato recipes to consistently appear in American cookbooks at the time,” most of which called for butter or milk, both in short supply (Elias 26). Nevertheless, Italian-American families fared well with this suggestion because Italian-American cuisine frequently used tomatoes in many recipes, making them “heroes to the relief agency.”
Elias’s point is that “expectations, tastes, and cultural biases do not disappear when the food does” (26). Food is historically informed and culturally interpreted, and therefore cannot be reduced only to its chemical components in a time of food scarcity. When I make soup, I have a bad habit of overvaluing nutritional efficiency. Like the Protestants in Babette’s Feast, I’m slowly attending to taste.
My grandmother tells me that her father’s garden in Kennewick was a lifesaver. This was and is true for many, many families. In a time of crisis, a modest plot of land to grow fruits and vegetables on produced enough to keep the family afloat. My family cooked with what grew best in the landscape, with what would keep well in winter or was easily canned for the pantry.
This fall, I experimented with what was available in their garden. I tested out different combinations of familiar ingredients in a time of relative scarcity, making use of small abundance. I don’t know what ingredients will be unavailable in coming years, as climate change worsens agriculture, but I do know that culinary adaptation will succeed only through a willingness, above all else, to try new things.
Elias, Megan. “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History.” The Public Historian Vol. 34 no. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 13-29.
Fisher, MFK. The Art of Eating. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
Lappé, Frances Moor. Diet for a Small Planet. Ballantine Books, 1982.
Preet, Edythe. “The History of Irish Soup.” Irish America Vol. 16 no. 6. January 31, 2001.
Ziegelman, Jane, Andrew Coe. A Square Meal. Harper Collins, 2016.