Part of my job everyday is to make soup. For our lunch buffet for the faculty at Duke we always have two soups (one of which is vegetarian) and the selection changes daily. On Fridays,, we always serve New England Clam Chowder, but the rest of the week is wide open. One of the favorites of the past few days was Chickpea, Garlic, and Spinach.
This is an even bigger soup week because the Durham restaurant is taking part in Empty Bowls, a fundraiser for Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD). The idea is cool. Thirty bucks buys you a ticket in and a hand made ceramic bowl. Around the room are several local restaurants serving soup. You can fill your bowl as many times as you like and your money goes to feed others in our city who are hungry. Since the kitchen at the Durham restaurant is about the size of a beverage napkin, I offered to make one of the soups at Duke and she took me up on it and even gave me a choice of the soup I wanted to make. When I read the email message out loud to Ginger she said, “Make the corn chowder.”
I’ve made a lot of corn chowder – even posted a couple of recipes here and here and here – but I’ve rarely made it the same way twice. I know what I want in it, but I’m still tweaking the recipe. What I do know is I need corn, celery, potatoes, red peppers, roasted jalapenos, black beans, vegetable stock, cream, and cumin. I’m making it without onions so Ginger can eat it (she’s allergic to onions).
This afternoon I peeled enough potatoes to fill two five gallon containers, cut a whole case of corn off the cob and soaked the beans. Tonight, I made a vegetable stock including the corn cobs to sweeten it up a bit. Tomorrow I will dice celery, and potatoes, cook the beans, and begin to bring the soup together. I’ll do my best to come up with a recipe. First I have to come up with ten gallons of chowder.
I was telling Abel about the event and the soup last night and he began to wave his hand as if to stop me.
“My sister, she makes this soup. This is a very important soup. It is very hard to make.” He began to describe how her sister created her soup and then he said, “You know not just anyone can make this soup. It is a special soup. My sister, she says if an angry person is around her when she is making this soup, then the soup will break. Sometimes she and my mother say no one can come around while they are making this soup so that no one will ruin it.”
Abel talks a lot about his sister’s cooking. He is from a family of cooks, but it seems when the family wants to feel like family, she’s the one who takes over in the kitchen. He beams when he talks about her.
In the novel (and movie) Like Water for Chocolate, there’s a batch of beans that gets made by an angry cook and pretty soon everyone is throwing up. One of the consistent themes of the story is the emotions of the cook go out through her hands and into her food, making her feelings seem almost contagious.
I think she’s on to something.
You build a soup the way you build a life, I suppose, adding ingredients as you go, changing the recipe, and adding in the flavors around you. What Abel’s sister knows is some of the flavors add themselves. Be careful, then, what or who gets near the soup. As I finish the soup tomorrow, I will be around Billy, the daytime chef, who cracks me up; Mauricio, Abel’s nephew who is equally good at smiling and working hard; Jorge, our unflappable dishwasher; Abel; and Tony, our evening dishwasher, who understands very little English and seems to be soaking up everything around him.
This is going to be a good soup.
I’ve still had Communion on my mind today. As I reflected on Abel’s words, I also thought about Paul’s admonition to make sure your heart was clear before you sat down for the Lord’s Supper. If something is wrong between you and someone else, go fix it and then come back to the Table; don’t let it poison the meal because the Supper is more than a stop along the way or a ritual worth repeating; the meal is the point. If we can’t come to the Table together, then we can’t come together.
One of the soups I made today was chili. We will serve it Thursday or Friday, because a good chili needs to sit for a couple of days. I’m a good chili maker (here’s one of my recipes) and the staff at Duke looks forward to it. As Billy was leaving to go home, he said, “I’m taking home some of that damn good chili, Milt. That’s it: a grilled cheese and this damn chili. And then I’m gonna take a nap.”
As he was ladling it into a container he said, “What’s your wife’s name? Ginger?” answering his own question. “I’ll bet that’s why she married you, Milt. You made chili and she said, ‘Damn, I can’t let this guy go.’” And then he laughed his laugh that must have improved all the soups in a ten-mile radius.
I came home tonight to a request from the one who digs my chili for a tuna sandwich. The Ginger version is a grilled tuna and cheese sandwich. Though I cook for a living and am known professionally as a chef, I remember who I am when I’m cooking for Ginger. Those that walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus sat down with him at supper and recognized him when he broke the bread. Here in our house, it’s a reverse experience: I recognize myself when I cook for the woman I love.
And she says to tell Billy he’s right.