Soup’s On!

I make a mean soup. The whole process of making soup, even making the stock if that’s what I’m going to do, fills me with a sense of care. Care because making soup says to me “I like myself enough to create something really comforting and delicious for me to eat.” And because soup is best made in big over-brimming steamy batches, that care gets extended to my family and friends.

The story of how I became a soup maker goes back to Block Island, Rhode Island, and my first waitress job. I was nearing the end of my second year of college, in that transition from “aspiring actor” to “aspiring writer,” when my friend Mary came to me and said “I know this great place where we could go work all summer and have lots and lots of fun, too.”

Turned out she was talking about Block Island, a gourd-shaped mass of land 14 miles off the southern Rhode Island coast, dotted with freshwater ponds and rimmed with a combination of majestic cliffs, beautiful sandy beaches and tumbled rock-covered beaches.

So we loaded up her Renault Le Car (oh yes, you heard that right) and traveled through the middle of the night in order to make the first ferry at the break of dawn. The only plan we had was that Mary had arranged a room for herself in a rooming house. Neither she nor I had a job and I didn’t even have a place to stay.

But Block Island was an easy mistress; she lay wide open that late May and showed us how to work her. We were quickly able to secure housing for myself and jobs for both.

I soon tired of the first job I found working as a chambermaid for the biggest bitch hotel owner on the island, so I lied through my teeth in order to be a waitress at the airport diner. It was nothing but a little hole-in-the-wall with 14 seats at a counter, but I was ecstatic about slinging hash instead of making beds and cleaning toilets. The shift was 6 a.m. To 2 p.m., leaving me some afternoon time on the beach and some early-evening partying. Perfect!

My boss at the diner was a man who claimed to have been an executive chef at the Black Pearl in Newport, a fine-dining 5-star, yada yada yada. His long-haired, blonde, chiseled, 16-year-old son . . . oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog. Okay, scrap that.

The morning cook at the diner was Laurie, a sweet, incredibly competent short-order cook who worked with unbelievable efficiency and ease. The afternoon cook was Robin, a bright, quirky west coaster with dark shiny hair down past her ass, wire-rimmed glasses, and a kind laugh–even when she was cackling. We hit it off immediately. Our birthdays are 1 day and 5 years apart.

Robin’s style of cooking was much different than Laurie’s. She was all over the place, experimenting with different specials, putting chili in omelets, scattering greasy burgers all over the grill. And always with incredible energy, distraction, and sometimes consternation.

And it is Robin who taught me how incredible soup-making can be.

Where Laurie was a model of efficiency and economy, Robin’s cooking was about creativity, expression, caring, and fun. She’d make a minestrone soup as if she made up the word “minestrone” all by herself. My mother never made soup from scratch, so watching Robin make soup was like a whole new world to me. Each ingredient was like a discovery she’d made all on her own. For all I knew about making soup, which at that time was nothing, I learned mountains from Robin, watching her combine onion, carrots, and celery, then add tomatoes, green beans, corn, whatever she could get her hands on. Some days she’d take her time, slowly adding things in between cups of coffee and cigarettes. Other days she would frantically jump around the kitchen, adding this and that, digging through the coolers to find what she needed.

The soup I remember her most for is a beef barley soup. “I love barley,” she would say to me, her eyes bright and wild, “I think I’ll add barley to that.” Barley was this great comforter that could wrap up a simple stock and a few vegetables into a warm and hearty bowl of love.

It was a few years after college before I started to approach the soup-making realm. But once I did, I found it to be one of the most rewarding cooking experiences ever. Particularly when I’m making stock from scratch and then making the soup. The time involved, the care put in to making a flavorful stock, whether with chicken, or vegetables, or whatever. And then the decision-making, deciding upon what spices to rely on, whether they’ll be dry or fresh this time, what vegetables to add, whether it will be cream-based, whether to go vegan. Sometimes I think of my audience, who among my friends or family needs the warmth and care of a homemade soup today? Sometimes I think only of myself. Today, I’m thinking of Robin, the dear friend who inspired me to become a soup-maker. Maybe I’ll add barley to this one.