"When I make soup, I feel like I've really done something good in the world."
-- Mary Gordon
I love discovering that a writer I admire -- or really, anyone I admire -- is a cook, a reader of food/cooking literature, or simply a passionate eater. It confirms something for me -- it makes me feel that I'm not alone, that I'm not foolish to care so much about my food, about G's food, and about feeding people. Perhaps it's not wrong that one of my greatest pleasures is watching the faces of others as they eat something I've made (when it's one of my successes, anyway. We won't discuss what the faces look like under other circumstances).
I've long admired the novels and the writing of Mary Gordon. Her first book, Final Payments, is the story of a woman who has spent her youth caring for her aging and ill father. When he dies, she begins the work of constructing a life with herself at the center -- a difficult task particularly for women of certain generations, for whom self-sacrifice is a basic tenet of their way of life. Many of her subsequent novels and other books have as a theme the struggle between values that people may have been taught are good or right or necessary, and the development of an identity or the preservation of a sense of self. The desire for a moderately sane yet moral and ethical life amidst the cacophony of religious and cultural impositions is often what drives her characters.
I believe that those of us who think a great deal about our food may often have a little Calvinist voice in the back of our heads that asks us why we would spend time and energy on something so frivolous -- something that doesn't last, doesn't build up either spiritual or material treasure in the world, but is merely consumed. When I came across this interview with Ms. Gordon while making a version of Patricia Wells' soupe au pistou, I felt that the quote above was certainly worth pondering.
Perhaps I eat too much pastry and indulge in expensive chocolate too often. Maybe we could lower our grocery bills by cutting back on the more costly items, or I could try to use up some of the esoteric ingredients in the cupboard, instead of constantly buying new ones (Elderflower cordial? Tamarind paste, anyone?) But ever since I read what Mary Gordon has to say, it comforts me to think that for all my foodie flaws and extravagances, I do make soup. Quite often, in fact.
A pot (more like a vat, really) of Soupe au Pistou fed G and myself healthily and well for quite a number of meals. In addition, I brought soup to our friends whose apartment is up for sale, and who are loathe to use their kitchen since they never know when prospective buyers are going to appear for a viewing. My soup and I were greeted with such enthusiasm that you would have thought I was the realtor, appearing with news of a sale. After weeks of take-out and restaurant meals, our friends' gratitude for this simple yet restorative vegetable soup was enormous. Then I found out that a dear cousin of mine had been ill, and so arranged to visit her -- with soup containers in hand. I'll give you the recipe on Martha's website, since she has permission to reprint it.
And that's one of the lovely and difficult things about this soup. It makes an absolutely huge quantity. So be sure before embarking on this that you have either lots of friends and relatives that need soup, or lots of freezer space, or both. And even if you don't give any away, you will have had the all the pleasures of handling fresh vegetables and herbs: shelling cranberry beans, cleaning leeks, washing and chopped everything, looking at the play of colors and textures in your pot, watching and stirring and tasting all the changes. You'll make the glorious pistou, and grate some good Parmigiano or Gruyere or both, to stir into your hot bowl of soup. Your kitchen will be filled with the scent of basil and garlic, and all that those smells recall for you -- faraway villages dappled in sunlight, a favorite restaurant, your grandmother's kitchen. You'll be nourishing yourself and perhaps those you love. You'll be doing something good in the world.