soup imageA recipe in Jane Brody’s Good Food Book inspired me to make soup from scratch, and for years I followed the instructions for Molly Katzen’s “Gypsy Soup” as if the IRS or Social Security Administration had sent them by certified mail. One teaspoon of turmeric meant no more, no less than a level teaspoon. Err a pinch one way or the other and expect fines up to $500 or imprisonment or both. Do not, under any circumstances, proceed to Part B. Assembly unless you can check off every box in Part A. Ingredients.

The first time I made Gypsy Soup, I had invited a work colleague for dinner. She was unattractive and notoriously blasé about her job responsibilities, but she was smart and interesting, and my husband tolerated her. He was the chef in our household, but insisted that I prepare dinner that night since she was my friend. So I settled on soup and salad, perfect for a cold winter night in the Shenandoah Valley.

After that, I made the soup a few times a year when some of my friends came for dinner, and my husband ate it, complaining all the while that it wasn’t enough for an entire meal. It did take several bowls, half a baguette and a hunk of cheese to satisfy six feet and four inches.

Now I make Gypsy Soup and one hundred and one variations as often as I want, and with reckless abandon. A pinch of this, a pinch of that—maybe a lot of that if I’m listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela burn up their guitars. I toss my pretend hair (I’ve had a short cut for years). I peel, slice, dice, dance. And if I’m missing an ingredient and don’t want to make do, I’m off to Safeway and back before Rod and Gab have segued into Andreas Scholl’s luscious countertenor. Now I run the kitchen. I choose the music, the volume, and the menu.

As my house begins to smell like an honest-to-gosh cook lives here, I listen to music and nibble on memories, savory and sweet. The friend who came to dinner the first time I made Gypsy Soup later became my boss, albeit for a brief time, thank goodness. The cast iron Dutch oven, color soleil that handles both cooking and serving, was a gift to my departed husband a few birthdays before the leather chair and ottoman. I can’t afford pots like that now—or leather furniture—so I’m thankful he didn’t like any of it enough to take with him.

Beans, a basic ingredient in nearly all my soups, send me back to my hometown, Kingsport, Tennessee. On days when the cafeteria of Andrew Johnson Elementary School served brown beans with onions, I didn’t walk home for lunch. I loved that meal, and we didn’t have it at home because my mother was more Southern than that.

My mother-in-law, however, was the champion brown bean cook of all time. Born and raised in Saltville, Virginia, she called them October beans and cooked them with salt and fat back. I tried to master the art of October beans—stirring them just enough to create a creamy broth. But mine were never better than OK, and occasionally a disaster. Something would divert my attention—a baby crawling out of his crib, toddlers who never took naps, a girlfriend calling to gossip—and the next thing I knew the beans were a smoldering mess. A few times I just threw the pot away with the beans.

When I add cumin or any kind of hot peppers to a soup, I think of the first real Mexican food I tasted. That was with an adventurous, world-traveling friend at a restaurant inside Super Mercado Carillos #2 on Atlanta Road, in Gainesville, Georgia. Cayenne pepper stirs the same memory, and I’m convinced stimulates brilliantly colorful dreams about fabulous houses. Chinese food, by the way, seems to cause a recurring nightmare: the brakes fail on the blue Volvo station wagon I drove for years, and I end up on the precipice of a cliff at the edge of a big lake.

If I purée part of the soup to create a bisque, I’m with my sister, an artist who creates energetic, gorgeous abstract paintings and, out of everything but the kitchen sink, makes tasty cold soups. With her red-haired head inside the refrigerator, she says, “This needs to be eaten,” and into the blender go kale that’s just this side of compost, green pepper, apple, lemon wedges, garlic, ginger. Whatever goes in comes out delicious, and a beautiful color. Then she tops it with a dollop of yogurt or goat cheese crumbles, and we take it to the screened porch.

On Friday, I pulled a small container of soup from the freezer. I made it more than a month ago with a bag of Safeway house-brand dried beans. I ended up with enough beans to buy Jack Beanstalk’s mother a herd of cows and a couple of bulls. So I kept adding more ingredients—more tomatoes, carrots, celery. I tossed in more turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper, tabasco sauce, black pepper, even salt. I splashed in lemon juice, guaranteed to punch up the flavor of a dish by a friend who was anything but bland.

Still, that soup was no fun to eat, and completely unsatisfying for lunch after an hour of water aerobics with the Silver Waves. So I added the last bit of a tomato bisque soup I made for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Lots of fresh basil in it.

Pouring the tomato soup into the other, I thought about the night I made it. A first night, again. New friends in a new place. New memories.
Happy New Year!
Copyright 2013-2014 Genie Hambrick