Thursday, December 02, 2004

Soup's On!

I love homemade soup - even when I have to make it myself. It’s not nearly as pleasureable as homemade soup made in someone else’s home, but enormously gratifying nonetheless. My daughter, Kristiana, and I have a pot of Italian Wedding/Orzo soup on the stove right now. A bottle of Orvieto Clasico wine was the only white I had in the house, so two cups of that went into the soup pot and the final cup went down my parched throat. Yum! In a very short while, we will enjoy the warmth, the rich flavor, and the hearty nutrition of one of our favorite soups. There’s something so special about making the tiny meatballs, adding the seasonings and spices, and chopping the garlic and onions; I feel like I’m doing something much more old-fashioned and authentic than just opening a can of soup and heating its contents for three to five minutes. Plus there is the secret pleasure of crying real tears while chopping the onions. I think about my friend, Daniel, who is in prison two and a half hours away. I think about eight-month-old Caroline who is sick with cancer out in San Francisco and 11-year-old Alyssa here in Charlotte whose leukemia is currently in remission but who must undergo months of chemo to keep it in check. I think about Fernando who is recovering from complicated nasal surgery here in Charlotte. I think about my oldest brother whose diabetes doesn’t seem to want to be brought under reasonable control. And I cry - the onions are merely an excuse to let the tears flow. Then as I smell the garlic sizzling in the olive oil, I am reminded of my three trips to Italy. I remember the walks up la Via Tomacelli in Roma, stopping in for cappuccino and nutty bread at a favorite café. I think about sitting in favorite churches for quiet times of writing and thinking and marveling at the magnificent art all around. I laugh when I recall the oddity of sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Roma, listening to Chinese people speaking Italian. And I remember sitting around a table there with ten newfound friends and trying to decipher their splendid melodic Italian intonations. I didn’t even mind that I understood precious little of what they said; I was in Rome. Que bella! Back in my kitchen here at home, after adding the final ingredients, I left the soup to simmer, but I didn't go far. I stood nearby tantalizing my olfactory glands with whiffs of the culinary magic taking place literally and figuratively under my nose. My daughter had made the meatballs. Watching her long fingers mix the meat, the bread crumbs, the egg, the salt, and the pepper distracted me for a few moments. She’s only eleven years old, but most of the time she is much more of a friend to me than a daughter. We journal and make collages together. We groom each other like marmoset monkeys and paint each others finger and toe nails. She reads voraciously just like I do. Currently, we are reading a book entitled, Plain and Simple, together. It tells the story of a woman who left her life of luxury and modern conveniences in California to spend a summer with an Amish family in Iowa. The simplicity of the quilts and the faceless dolls she had seen in her many weekend antiquing trips intrigued her more than she could easily explain away. So she took the plunge and found a family that welcomed her and showed her their way of life. I enjoy the discussions I have had with Kristiana about how radical such a lifestyle choice would be. And even though I know we are many light years away from an Amish existence, there was something plain and simple about being together at the kitchen counter this afternoon making soup. Mostly we worked in silence, but we shared the unspoken goal of feeding ourselves and the rest of our family simply and plainly. It was a moment I won’t soon forget. My soup, this Italian wedding/orzo soup is a personally inspired combination of two different recipes. I once made the wedding soup but found it too thin. On another occasion I made the orzo soup but wanted some meat. So I put the two together and ever since then, I’ve only made the two in combination. In so many ways, that is a perfect metaphor for my life. I grew up in the chaos of Brooklyn, New York; then I cocooned myself in serene and pastoral Williamstown, Massachusetts for four years of college and two years of work after graduation. I found great joy in both places, but realized that I needed some combination of the two. So I moved to Connecticut where I lived for 12 years before heading to Charlotte - which has turned out to be the perfect combination of city life, suburban life, racial, cultural, and socio-economic for me. I grew up in a 98% black neighborhood in Brooklyn, spent six years in predominantly white Williamstown where I met my 100% white husband (who grew up in a small town in central Massachusetts that was 98% white), and we moved our interracial family to various mixed communities, culminating here in Charlotte. New York City once called itself “the melting pot;” I’m not sure, but it may still go by that name. I remember reading once that that phrase – melting pot – is not as complimentary as many thought. In a fondue pot, where everything melts together, the uniqueness of each kind of cheese is lost to the combined flavor into which one dips a piece of bread and comes away with one single gooey glob of cheese. Tasty, but messy. Perhaps “mosaic” is a more useful, more relevant term. Each tile in a mosaic retains its own distinct color, shape, and properties. But when they are joined together by way of some fixative, a dazzling effect is attained. One can step back and see a larger picture; the influence of the artist’s hand is evident from a distance. Or one can stand closer and examine each separate contributing fragment. So it is with our soup. The orzo, the meatballs, the spinach, even the bay leaf retain their individual characteristics in our soup pot, but together the savory opera that comes to its exuberant crescendo on the tongue is resoundingly harmonious and demands encore spoonful after encore spoonful. So it is with our family; each of us brings a unique shade of skin, nuance of spirit, and uniqueness of perspective that together have formed an irreplaceable and unrepeatable quartet. And so I hope it will someday be in our world. Each nation, people group, language group, and family contributing a colorful, dynamic, valued, and flavorful presence that is enjoyed by all. Is this dream of mine "pie in the sky," hopelessly naïve, and by all reasonable measures, impossible? I sure hope so. But what an awesome recipe to attempt to bring to the boil! Buon appetito!

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