Sunday, October 5, 2014

Essay a Day #4: Gretchen, Magic, Soup

I'm not a day late--it's really more like 12 hours. If I can get in another post this afternoon, we're all caught up. (Let's not investigate the size of that "if.")

The type-perfect words on the page are so few that, upon opening the book you remember again that you shouldn't even bother opening the book.

Gretchen's Potato Soup

4 potatoes, peeled & chunked
1 onion

Just cover the potatoes with water. Add salt and pepper. Mash slightly once cooked. Add milk, cream, or half & half. Add dumplings and bring to boil.
(Dumplings: 2 eggs, 5 T. flour. Mix well, then drizzle slowly into simmering soup.)

Reading it, a stranger would page past. It's too simple, nearly unappetizing. There's no glossy picture to snag the attention. And there are those home-kitchen-recipe mysteries that make my heart rate rise: where do the onions go? Why isn't the half & half listed in the ingredients? What, exactly, is "chunked"?

In my cookbook, though, it's one of the most worn pages, watermarked with oil and spattered like a just-begun Jackson Pollack. But a stranger would page on, because they wouldn't smell the steel pot, full, resting on the back burner, kept warm until we arrived. The wouldn't feel the steam piling off the earthenware bowl onto your face like a hot towel. They wouldn't see the thick, creamy soup clinging to the spoon, too thick to drip. And the taste--I don't have metaphors for that. It was home, and history, and simplicity, and much. As a child, I hated soup, but I would scrape clean bowl after bowl of Gretchen's.

I am not a stranger. I know intimately the soup and its maker. She would make me lemon milk and honey (how did she keep it from curdling?) when I was sick, and gasp with delight when she saw me, and tell me stories and slice an impossibly indulgent wedge of torte onto a gleaming orange plate (I can still smell it, cold and sweet and perfect). As a teenager, I would hover next to her at the stove, taking meticulous notes: the lengths of time, the size of the "chunked," the method for dumplings. But returning home, replicating with precision, my soup was nowhere close to hers. Edible--good, even--but not Gretchen's.

Because hers was more than potatoes. Her heritage was one of barely getting by, of making a meal from old potatoes and water, and she had long-since internalized that stone-soup magic of making such starkness into something generous. I, a child who knew only a pale want, had never known real hunger, could not recognize the spells and potions of a wartime German immigrant raising other people's children, cooking other people's meals.

I still can't make her soup. I follow the recipe religiously, or I add browned onions and rosemary and bacon, and it tastes good, and friends savor and sigh, but it is not hers. I serve cake generously--the orange plate now lives in my cabinet, and that is its primary purpose: to give, to extend, to share. But no written recipes can tell you how to mash the potatoes just so they cream into the soup, or how to lace the layers of torte with just enough brandy to make the flavor linger in the sinuses. How to make someone feel loved and contented before they've finished the first bite.

So why keep the recipe? Why turn the page to the back and white outline when I know the real secret doesn't live there? Maybe to remind myself that this is how things are passed down--food, stories, identity--with some words, yes, but also white space. Good magic. Love.


  1. Love Grandma Gretchen!! Is she still with us?
    And I love this essay. LOVE.

    1. She is--or at least she was as of last summer. Mom and I stopped by to see her for a few hours when we were going through Connecticut last July. :) No change, other than she's slowed down a little (physically--mentally she's still all there). Love.