Posted on February 14th, 2013
I had big soup plans. Feeling very grown up at 19, in my own apartment in the city with a brand new crock pot, I was going to make my mom’s vegetable soup. This was the kind of dish that carried a family legacy. My mom would make it every Monday throughout the long New England winters I grew up in. It would slow cook all day, simmering until the house was a humid bouillon sauna that each family member arrived home to, stomping the snow off our boots and unwrapping scarves to breathe in the moist, salty air. If you weren’t hungry yet – which after school, yearbook, flute lessons, and (in my dad’s case) construction work that was often unheated or simply outside – one inhale of that soup was all it took. We’d load bowls with shredded cheese and slices of hearty bread drowned in tender vegetables and tawny broth. Conversation was generally limited to how delicious it all was. Trying out adulthood years later, after my parents’ divorce, several moves, and both my sister and I leaving home, I was determined to recreate the soup that so encapsulated my memory of being young.
I called my mother. It went something like this:
ME: I want to make the vegetable soup you always made when we were kids. Can you send me the recipe?
MOM: Recipe? I dunno, I just threw the vegetables and some bouillon cubes in and turned it on.
ME: But what vegetables? How much? What did you use for seasoning? I want to make it just like you always did.
You know those women who learn how to make their Italian grandmother’s secret tomato sauce recipe? How it has secret ingredients and tricky steps and when she’s teaching it to you, she leans in and whispers, “this, mi amore, is the most important part: you must always, always…” and then you master the sauce and teach it to your daughter and maybe write a bestselling inter-generational cookbook/memoir that receives critical acclaim? Yeah. That wasn’t going to happen to me.
It was a startling realization that, at 19, I had already surpassed both my mother’s interest and skill in the kitchen. I felt like I had been raised in a family that cooked. Like, cooked. There just had to be a wealth of dishes for me to learn, teach, and go to my grave making; however, the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that my mother had fed us – and fed us well – but was simply not harboring a clandestine culinary heritage. The signs were all there. I remember my father (a self-identified breakfast-only chef) trying to make vegetable soup in his awkward attempts to feed us during the early days of my parents’ separation. He put dill in it under the perfectly reasonable assumption that soup needed seasoning, poor man, and we spooned our bowls that night both acutely aware it was Not Like Mom Makes It.
Now, living alone, my mother rarely cooks just for herself and buys things like diced vegetables and bags of frozen, pre-cooked rice. This baffles both my sister and I, who emerged into maturity with a love of messing around in the kitchen. We email each other recipes, give each other tips, and squeal over the release of our favorite food blogger’s new cookbook. We were raised in the kitchen, after all, helping make dinner, be it pasta, pizza, or salad. My mother may not have had a particular talent or passion for cooking but she was dedicated to raising a family that cooked and ate just like we did everything else: with integrity, humor, and each other. My sister and I were molded in that kitchen, as much as any bear-shaped birthday cake (ages 5-9); and learned the importance of responsibility, teamwork, and measuring. One loaf of banana bread where you’ve put in 2 tablespoons of baking soda instead of 2 teaspoons and you’ll never forget the importance of measuring, I promise. In the end, what I remember most about our family meals was not the perfect airiness of the cakes we made or the delicate spicing of the sauces, it’s the time we spent at the table, eating together.
I made the soup and it was delicious but, if we’re being perfectly honest, I probably won’t make it again. It’s a little boring, you see. These days I go in for things like curry, frittata, and scones. I have a decked out spice shelf and am delighted to try new ingredients. When I make soup, you’ll probably see me scanning the cupboards and muttering, “now, what else can I put in this? Artichoke hearts? Is that weird or delicious?” The illusion may be broken, but it did its job: I cook. My mother loves it. She often asks if I want to have dinner and more times than not she says, “and you’re cooking, right?” These days, I think, my mother is more than happy to sit back and eat the rewards of her labor.