I parse my life in soup.
I was born in 1962, the year Andy Warhol first exhibited his 32 canvases of Campbell's soup, one for each variety the company made back then. The paintings were meant to be ironic, a nod to the blurred line between advertising and art.
But, at my house, we actually ate the stuff: chicken noodle and chicken rice, cream of mushroom and cream of asparagus, even a cheddar cheese soup I thinned with skim milk and pretended was Welsh Rarebit, which I'd tasted on toast points in a Colonial Williamsburg faux pub.
Campbell's soup was one of the first meals I learned to "cook," a culinary feat involving nothing more than a can opener, a saucepan and a spoon. I might have set the table with a Cinderella placemat and used the animal bowl I'd had since infancy, but each rosy spoonful of tomato bisque reminded me that I was (oh, so gradually) becoming a person who could fend for herself.
Back then, my mother dished up a utilitarian menu of chicken parmesan and canned Le Sueur peas; my father had yet to discover "The New York Times Cookbook." We never made soup from scratch; that was so Old World, like the chickeny aroma that wafted from my Bubie's lace-draped dining table every Friday night. There, rough-cut carrot nubs bobbed in shallow bowls of homemade broth. I watched them float past a jetsam of limp parsley and glistening chicken parts, wishing for the uniform dice and salty predictability of the canned stuff.
I was an odd kid: androgynous name, wild hair, thick-lensed glasses and a precocious vocabulary, acquired partly from a habit of reading the World Book Encyclopedia on the toilet. No wonder I was comforted by the most mainstream foods of my era: Pop-Tarts, Cocoa Puffs and those soups, with their red-white-and-bronze labels and reassuring commercial jingle: "Mmm, mmm … good."
It wasn't all good, of course. There were POW bracelets and Watergate and the menacing-looking people who kidnapped Patty Hearst. My father, a sports writer, was covering the 1972 Munich Olympics when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. My mom and I sat at snack tables in the den, pinioned to the news, mechanically eating our "Dad's out of town" dinner of tuna melts and Campbell's minestrone.
In high school, smitten concurrently with my first love and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (the pursuit of Quality, with a capital Q), I rejected all that was canned and contained. I thumbed that New York Times cookbook: cold cucumber soup to impress my sweetheart, and chilled strawberry soup, which included a splash of red wine, for a New Year's Eve dinner with friends.
These were aspirational recipes: not exactly me as I was (curls ever more untameable; eyes still myopic) but as I wished to be: chic, self-possessed, with silky hair I could twist into a bun and anchor with a chopstick while I cooked.
In college, I pored over "Diet for a Small Planet" while eating corn chowder sopped up with miniature loaves of dark brown bread. Campbell's—really, any food in a box or a can, I sneered—was assembly-line soup, poisoned with preservatives and redolent of the factory farm. (Of course, I made stealth exception to this rule by slipping to Wawa at the first tickle of a sore throat for packets of chicken noodle soup that I simmered in my dorm-room hot pot.)
Post-college, soup-making became an act of emphatic self-definition: earthy tureens of parsnips and organic lentils, cabbage and beets, seasoned with whole bay leaves I had to fish from the kettle with a long-handled wooden spoon.
My "Moosewood Cookbook" bears the marks of that era: tamari-stained pages long broken from their binding; corners dog-eared on recipes for a black bean soup with the citrusy bite of oranges, a split pea thick enough to spread on toast, a mushroom-barley that tasted, I imagined, of my Eastern European shtetl roots.
It was Lebanese Vegetable Soup—a staple of my late 20s, when my friends, in a kind of group hysteria, developed simultaneous allergies to wheat, dairy and everything in the nightshade family—that my partner and I served to my parents the first time she met them.
We were both so anxious about the encounter that we feared, if asked about the recipe, we might blurt that it was "lesbian vegetable soup." I imagined my dad spluttering a mouthful of it across the table in dismay.
But the dinner was incident-free. And my soup-making, like my politics, grew less strident over the years. I tossed in salt more liberally; I used canned beans if I was too busy to soak dry ones. I reached for recipes far from my cultural bubble: a hot-and-sour soup with bamboo shoots and oyster mushrooms; a lemony Greek psarosoupa whirred by the hand blender into silky submission.
Our kitchen, once righteously meat-free, adapted to include chicken when Elissa was pregnant and protein-starved. Then we had a daughter who, at six, flirted for two days with vegetarianism before tucking into my mother's Rosh Hashana brisket; these days, we occasionally buy beef (grass-fed, hormone-free) to fill her carnivorous cravings.
Our girl, now 16, claims to hate soup. She doesn't like surprises: bits of kale lurking in the bowl; unidentifiable floaters of turnip or tomato; tongue-teasing hints of chipotle or lemongrass. She does not crave chowder on a frosty winter day or fantasize about late-summer suppers of gazpacho and sourdough toast. For her, soup is the opposite of elegance, the thing we cook in triplicate for the lesbian potluck, eight-quart kettle bubbling in a beany kitchen.
Once, when she stayed home from school with the sniffles, I tried to conjure the healing meal of my youth. I walked to our local Acme for a can of Campbell's tomato soup, simmered it gently and brought it to the table in two blue bowls, with grilled cheese on the side.
Sasha and I lifted our spoons. I waited for my Madeleine moment, for childhood to come sluicing back in a rush of warm contentment, fuzzy afghan tucked around my feverish body as I watched reruns of "I Love Lucy" from the couch.
"Um … it's kind of chemical-ish," she said. "Are there any actual tomatoes in this?" I knew what she meant. Nostalgia, that day, tasted pale and contrived. "I'm sorry, sweetie," I said. "Maybe they've changed the formula."
But I knew better. I was the one who'd changed. And Sasha? She'll need to find her own recipe: a years-long journey of tasting, rejecting, stirring, adjusting. It will never be perfect. It will never be finished.
In the kitchen, while my daughter watched, I emptied what was left of the canned, reddish soup and dumped it down the drain.