This morning I made Siege Soup. It was not what I had planned. I made it out of what was in the house. But it was more delicious than anything I could have found in a recipe.
This is how you make Siege Soup.
— I put the remainder of the olive oil I’d bought at the Arab grocery store into my pot.
— A splash of the olive oil I bought at the department store because it called itself “pepper” oil and swore on the bottle that it was spicy, but then it totally was not, it turned out to be a bland tomatoey situation designed for delicate German taste-buds.
— Everything almost came to a grinding halt right there. I had no onion! No garlic! No carrots! And I couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy them!
I wasn’t allowed to make soup! ….Also I assumed it couldn’t taste good without them. But mostly, wouldn’t the collective Shade of Everyone’s Grandmothers rise up and condemn me for crimes against soup-making?
I stared into the pot, paralysed with guilt for considering such sacrilege.
And then the collective Shade of Everybody’s Grandmothers did rise up! I was surrounded by centuries’ worth of peasant grandmothers, just looking at me, like, “get that pretentious Ruth Reichl shit out of your head, woman, and welcome to the club! This is cooking. Do you think we had all the ingredients? Chile, we almost never had all the ingredients. For the majority of human history, this was the norm. Plague, war, famine, pestilence, poverty, storms, corruption, disability, failed crops, depressions, genocide, and most definitely not having onions to put in your soup.”
“We made do with what we had. That’s where that expression came from. We were far more used to having to get by without stuff than we were to having it! Yours has been an unprecedented time of peace and unparallelled prosperity for the fortunate few, that 99% of us from the past can’t begin to dream of.
Make the soup with what you have and welcome to life on Earth.”
— So instead of a mirepoix, I shamelessly sautéed the remainder of a bunch of celery. Without its friends.
— Two bay leaves from my friend who moved to Russia. I thought that the gift was so typically her: simultaneously practical and artistic. Down-to-earth and elegant.
— Three sprigs of rosemary because they were in the fridge.
— Salt. Some of the last, from the box I bought when I moved into this beautiful flat. I thought of myself from two years ago, so happy, so hopeful, so nesting.
— Two handfuls of (chopped) baby potatoes that I bought when laying in provisions for the Long Siege. This is what the Germans call “hamster-buying.”
I was never a fan of potatoes until I left their native New World and moved to this country that had so enthusiastically adopted them. But as I put the potatoes in the pot, I understood why they were beloved by German peasant housewives. They’re cheap, they’re hardy, they last a long time, you don’t have to refrigerate them, they’re nutritious, and you can sneak them into a lot of stuff.
Sehr practische! Sehr deutsch!
— I realised I should have browned the chicken first. But then I thought of my Hungarian-Israeli mother-out-law, who never browned the chicken, she just tossed it wholesale into the pot and didn’t fuss about the horrifying spectre of being held responsible later for pale flabby chicken skin. Because, good enough!
If she could do it, so could I.
— I semi-browned the 2 chicken quarters although the other stuff was still in the pot. I felt exultantly slap-dash and devil-may-care, cocking a snook at proper cooking technique.
As I scraped the browning stuff off the bottom of the pot, I thought of my mother-out-law, who had made the exact opposite life-choices as I had made at nearly every turn, and who consequently had nearly an exactly opposite life. I thought of her as a little brown-haired bumpy-nosed Hungarian girl living in a German-speaking neighbourhood in a country that didn’t exist yet in the Middle East, then as a teenager going to the beach with her boyfriend and an Uzi, then marrying that boyfriend, moving to Germany with their kid, moving to the United States and having another kid, somewhere along the line becoming a blonde with a button nose, devoting her entire life to housework and emotional labour and nurturing others, now a grandmother…. Probably had had sex with very few men other than her husband after getting married, potentially not even any other men…and they had been married a long time….
I thought of her love of beauty, her spriteliness, and of all the things I didn’t like about her. I scraped the bottom of the pot and thought about how she lavished every form of love on my son that anyone could lavish on anyone…and how glad I was that she could be there for him sometimes when I…wasn’t.
— A can of diced tomatoes that was originally intended for Jollof pilaf and plantains (as was the chicken). A nod to the African woman who sells this pilaf at the Turkish market by my house, always in her bright batiks and turban, greeting customers with a soft “hallochen,” making me proud to be an immigrant woman just like her.
— Fill the remainder of the pot with water. (This is a roughly 4-servings pot.)
— Quite a bit of chili flakes
— Quite a bit of harissa
— I picked up a bottle of wine that was on the table. Soup with tomato in it is better with a splash of wine. I paused, again paralysed with guilt. This should have been a splash of Chianti, Bordeaux, or Cabernet Sauvignon. What I had in my hand was a dainty, flowery, aromatic Côtes de Gascogne that spoke of grapefruit-avocado salads on white verandahs in June.
I checked in with the Shades of Grandmothers Past.
They all nodded their heads.
To compensate for the wine’s delicacy, I put in three times as much as I should have done. “Eeek! That’s too much!” I chastised myself.
“Too much…or just right?” I cackled.
I liked this new me!
— Soups with tomato in them like a spoonful of tomato paste and a pinch of sugar to intensify the tomato. Of course I didn’t have these things.
But my eyes slid to a bottle on top of the fridge that would be a great understudy…. “Oh, gasp, not that!” I breathed, pale at my own audacity. “That would be just…too ghetto!”
I pleaded with myself to respect the rules of cooking.
I ignored myself.
And threw a hearty slug of German ketchup into the soup.
“This is what life is all about!” I realised. “It’s not about what we do when everything is perfect and we have everything we think we need. It’s about what we do when things are not perfect and there’s a Plague going on outside and millions of otherwise healthy innocent people are sick and dying and there’s no work and no money and the grocery stores are empty and everything is closed and, far from having everything we think we need, we feel like we hardly have anything! It’s about what we make out of what we’ve got!”
The Grandmothers Past looked down at me. They had known this in their bones for so many centuries that it would never have occurred to them to spell it out. This funny modern generation, so advanced in some ways, and yet…like babies in other ways….
— Boil for a couple of hours.
In these couple of hours I reflected that if I had lived at any point before quite recently, I would already be a grandmother myself. That is if I were still alive, and hadn’t been killed by my fifteenth pregnancy, by illness, by disastrous medical “care,” by hardship, by someone else, or by exhaustion. And if I were still alive, I would look nothing like I do today. I would look damned old. Like a grandmother. Because of my ninety-seven children, and the drudgery of hauling water, and scranleting fields, or all the other toil that used to be an irrevocable part of everyday life.
But on the other hand, I would have quite different values, and I wouldn’t have some of the stresses that the iAge has brought upon us. I would be more connected to the land, better supported by my community, and I would have a different relationship with seasons, cycles, nature, what constitutes a good time, what constitutes goals, and what constitutes happiness.
I looked at the soup boiling and decided that instead of judging the Grandmothers Past, maybe I needed to accept that they and I may have had equally wonderful lives, albeit in different and non-comparable ways.
—In the last 20 minutes, add some French green lentils de Puy that the Germans, even in their darkest hour of need, fastidiously refused to touch at the grocery store.
— Let sit.
I went for a long walk in the park. It was wet and bitingly cold and the wind was howling and then it hailed. I thought of my warm snug flat and felt rich.
—Ladle into handmade Tunisian bowl from the Serbian lady whose shop got kicked out in February after 22 years of business, due to skyrocketing rent.
— Sprinkle with chives because although they don’t quite go, they needed to get used up.
— Serve with an inappropriately dainty white wine because that’s what we’ve got, in an antique Bohemian cut-glass champagne flute because the one wine glass broke.
And chewy crusty hearty German sourdough-whole-wheat bread just bought from the bakery this morning.
This is my one big dangerous thing these days. The only kind of shopping, the only kind of going out other than my walk, the only kind of in-person human contact. Once a week I go to the bakery and I buy a loaf of bread and a croissant and I eat the croissant for breakfast by the Kanal and give my swans a bit of the bread. And every week that they are still open, and I see the sign out, and people patiently queuing down the sidewalk 2m apart, I get a bigger thrill. (Especially now that flour is not available.) And every week that they actually still have bread, I get literal shivers of excitement. And when I march out of the bakery clutching my bag of warm, freshly-baked bread (in gloved hands of course), I can’t hide my huge grin.
I hope I keep feeling this rich after the Plague goes away!