I am a spiritual seeker. My mother always called me her “otherworldly child.” My favourite movie, for a while, was “The Song of Bernadette.” I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as a teenager. The interfaith nature of Merton’s spirituality has shaped my own spiritual journey to this day. In the spring of 1977, Dr. John Granrose took our Honors Ethics class on a field trip to visit the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a Trappist monastery near Conyers, Georgia. That day has stayed with me all these years. Ever since, I’ve felt drawn to a quiet life of contemplation. That appeal of that lifestyle was, I remember, exemplified in the meal the brothers served us at their guest house — vegetable potage, monastery cheese, and rustic bread. While my faith in organised religion has evaporated over the decades, my yearning for the quiet contemplative life has not. Many years later, now that I’ve stepped away from the noise of my career as a defense analyst, I am beginning to live a quiet life of contemplation. Thinking and writing about food is bringing me the peace and happiness that organised religion or proximity to power never did.
In cooking, as in life, sometimes the greatest beauty is found in simplicity. For me, the simple meal of soup, cheese, and bread is restorative in a way that no other meal can be. When loved ones are sick, or sad, we make them soup. When I’m sick and sad, I want someone to make me soup. Before she died, my mother was sick and sad — for too long — and our friends Kline and Carolyn brought her matzo ball soup. I will never forget that soup. It might not have cured all that ailed Mom, but it restored me and my Dad and was, quite simply, my most unforgettable soup. It tasted like love. Thank you, Kline and Carolyn.
A few years later my Goddaughter Alex borrowed a book from the library called How Many Matzos Make a Soup? She loved it. I haven’t been able to track it down, but I remember the punch line was that what makes a good soup isn’t the number or size of the matzos, but the love that goes into making them. Inspired by the story, and my duties as fairy godmother, Alex and I made our own matzo soup. It was delicious.
As a child, I loved Marcia Brown’s classic children’s book Stone Soup. I was captivated by the notion that with an onion here, a carrot there, it was possible to create food for a village. It’s not that different from my frequent Saturday morning ritual combining trimmings from this week’s purchases (leek and green inion tops, celery leaves, a carrot or two) with the things that didn’t make into last week’s dinners (slightly past their prime mushrooms, the other halves of onions, pea pods, a lonely potato) in the stock pot to simmer away. In its way, soup is the secular equivalent to the feeding of the five thousand. With a handful of beans, a potato, and onion, a carrot, and some garlic, I can make a warm, tasty, satisfying meal.
As I’ve traveled over the years, my most memorable meals have involved simple soups: Portugal’s Caldo Verde (just potatoes, kale, and linguica), Thailand’s gorgeous Tom Yom soups, Pho from Vietnam, miso soup from Japan, and the hearty bean and vegetable soups of Italy. Singapore’s Night Market offers too many options to name, as do the Bistros of Paris and the Pubs of England. I’ve loved nettle soup in Scotland and seafood chowder on Stewart Island. I can’t say I loved the goat neck soup in Ghana, but I certainly loved the generous spirit in which it was offered. And the simple bean and vegetable soups prepared by out Masai cook at Freeman’s Safaris in Kenya were the perfect end to hard day on the Mara.
The Kale Whisperer’s Sixth Cookbook of Christmas, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette’s Twelve Months of Monastery Soups (Triumph Books, 1996), encompasses both my fascination with the contemplative life and my love for soup in a unique and tasty way. This is not strictly vegetarian, there are a few recipes that include a bit of meat or seafood, but most of those can be easily adapted to vegetarian versions. Obviously, you probably won’t want to make the Shrimp Soup de Luxe without shrimp. On the other hand, one of my favourite recipes here is the French Cream of Lentil Soup, calls for two strips of bacon, but it is just as delicious without the pig. I’ve cooked it both ways, I can personally vouch for that. The book is peppered with notes and quotes about soup, things that go into soup, people who make soup, and people who eat soup. If you aren’t Catholic, you will still love this book. If you aren’t Christian, you’ll love this book. If you love soup, you’ll love this book. This is another cookbook you’ll want to read, cover to cover.
Monastery Soups consists of twelve chapters: one for each month of the year. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you could probably cook right through the book chronologically. Down here in the antipodes, you’ll have to work inside out. Brother Antoine took care to match ingredients to availability. And as the gardener at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery in upstate New York, he understands locavore cooking. Ever wondered what you could do with those gorgeous greens attached to your bright red radishes you couldn’t resist at the market? Brother Antoine has a soup for that: Soupe Pelou. It’s delicious. Is your garden overrun by sorrel? He has five soups for that. The recipes are simple and come from all around the world. Adapted from the monastery kitchen, they don’t require fancy equipment or exotic ingredients. These are weekday soups, not simmer on the back of the stove all day soups. Some vegetables, some herbs, broth, wine, garlic and a pinch of salt. And love; lots of love.
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve soup: chicken noodle with oyster crackers, cream of tomato with cheese toast, potato soup with lots of celery from the German restaurant I only remember as “the potato soup place.” I’m sure the very last meals I’ll enjoy will also be soups. And so many soups — humble and glorious — along the way. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, I will measure out my life in soup spoons.