Brow Beat

Soup Saved My Life. Twice.

A bowl of soup with chunks of red, white, and green in a red broth.
Caroline Wright

The part about surviving a terminal illness that no one talks about is that it’s almost as scary as being diagnosed in the first place. I survived the year I was given, only to encounter medical bills and a chorus of voices that seemed to question if I could meet a deadline, which is a grim fate for a cookbook author. A mist of pity hung in the air, its storm vanished but evident still. And I was the same through it all, having done nothing but breathed in and out every day, just in different rooms and being told different things about my body.

There is no such thing as “back to normal,” which is a phrase that I heard a lot then. I had bartered all of my favorite foods—my career, even—for more time with my two young sons. I became resolved about eating healthfully and listening to my body. I was the only cancer patient my doctors and nurses had seen who actually grew healthier and stronger during treatment. It was a miracle year, as many outsiders told me.

I arrived at the end of this miracle year, however, as a cookbook author without the promise of another project, perhaps like a singer who lost her voice. My lack of a creative outlet as a fundamentally creative person combined with the pressure to support my family was an unknown as unbearable as the one I’d faced the previous year. Only with this unknown, there wasn’t a treatment for it. The only thing I knew I was supposed to feel was gratitude for being alive. I had no bearings for this new life whatsoever; all of the structures I had to rebuild looked so foreign.

Then one day I realized surviving was just living, breathing in and out every day in different rooms and ignoring what people tell me about my body. So I very literally woke up one morning with an idea ringing in my head, inspiration as the kind of signature of my life as I’d always known it: to make soup.

See, I had developed a strong connection to soup when I was first diagnosed. I had been writing a blog about my health updates at that point and mentioned to the void that I didn’t want to eat takeout anymore. I’d mentioned that the kind of help I wanted from someone, anyone, was to be brought homemade soup: a food that seemed perfect for a sick person, I thought, and a food for which everyone has at least one from-scratch recipe. It was a safe choice to ask of an anonymous community, I determined, so I went forward: I asked people to bring me soup.

My husband pulled our camping cooler from the attic and set it out on our lawn. For the next three months, that cooler filled up three times a day with jars and containers of all sorts, all brimming with soup. (Mostly lentil.) In those three months, as I grew strong enough to get back in the kitchen, I experienced the romantic idea I had always written about: that food is love, that food can heal. Soup had become my elixir of life.

So, this is why in the barren landscape post-survival, having only arrived there through trusting hope and instinct, all I knew was that I wanted to make soup. (And my beloved cookies.) For people who made soup for me, my community. A pile of loose thoughts heaped to form the closest thing I had to a plan.

I had the pots already, two twenty-gallon behemoths my dad had gifted me from the shelves of his garage in Florida, ones I never understood why he had them in the first place; they had been an irresistible deal, I think. He gave them to me after he suddenly uprooted his and my mom’s imminent retirement plans the very moment I told him about my cancer. He sold their house over the phone, gave away their dogs, moved to a tiny rental apartment in Seattle and gave me most of their belongings that didn’t fit in it, including those clownish pots. I pulled them from the top of my kitchen cabinets and sent a few emails to friends.

It was natural, starting what developed into my soup club. It was the only thing that had been easy or clear in a long time. I decided I was going to make vegan soup because I wanted to celebrate and explore the possibilities behind restriction, mostly for myself but for friends, too. I wanted to play, and so built my playground. Every week, I challenged myself to create a new vegan soup recipe—about 60 quarts of it!—and ladled it into jars, climbed into the car with my family, and left it on friends’ porches around town. I didn’t write them into recipes at the time.

Word spread and more friends joined. Before I knew it, my pots were overflowing and my members were sending me enthusiastic texts about soup, selfies with their soup bowls, paintings of bowls of soup. A growing community of soup enthusiasts had gathered loyally around me, hungry for the recipes I made for them.

I had spent the formative years of my career as a food editor, then cookbook author, making food for a reader that I rarely heard from. With my soup club, I was making food for people whose enthusiasm was immediate and felt deeply. Through the love I was giving them and returned in abundance, through those soups, I was fully restored. And I wanted to write another cookbook.

I met with a few of my editor friends while visiting New York; they politely asked how I was doing with a hint of deference that perhaps I wasn’t well enough to do anything at all. I attempted to explain my club, how exciting it all was to me, and how I thought I should write a cookbook about it. The former food editor in me sensed what they heard: a cookbook of vegan soup, photos of bowls filled with a substance desperately trying not to look like vomit, and a napkin and spoon so obsessed over that they would have their own team of stylists. As I talked about the book, I knew I didn’t want that. I wanted the energy of my club, the energy of my members, in its pages.

So, when it was soup season again, I began to actually develop the recipes from the loose notes I took from the previous year. I took on interns. I asked my friends who had flirted with doodles of soup and beautiful phrases if they would trade soup for their art—paintings and haiku, respectively. I asked a new friend, a photographer neighbor, if he would be willing to shoot the book in exchange for soup. He hesitated, he told me he wasn’t a food photographer. “Good!” I said, “there won’t be a picture of a bowl of soup in the whole thing.” With the help from a few trusted friends, I spent the following year figuring out how to put this cookbook together.

My kitchen churned out soup daily: I made recipes on some days, then my interns tested them, then I made soup again. Eventually, between bowls of soup, together we made what I consider in many ways to be my dream project: a book that blends good food and art unapologetically, and focuses on the food itself as being a narrative for the lives that surround it.

My favorite part of making the cookbook, one I may have never otherwise seen as the book’s author, was planning and attending the photo shoots. The photographs in the book are black and white portraits of my members, the medium itself chosen to highlight the emotions of the people and disregard the food almost entirely. (The soups, instead, are represented in colorful paintings which, to me, convey the feeling of eating the soups; that’s traditionally what the “hero” photo in an article or cookbook is supposed to do, anyway.)

The photos are of real people, my people, bringing soup into their homes and the unique ways that soup affects their lives. Each of their relationships to soup inevitably looked different than mine did when it was dropped off in the cooler on my front lawn years ago, but it still seemed to bring each of my members to life in different ways.

Soup was my elixir of life, but it turned out to be theirs too.

Summer Succotash Soup

Makes 8 bowls

• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 large sweet onion, chopped
• 1 large green bell pepper, seeds and membrane removed, chopped
• 3 large red, yellow or orange bell peppers, seeds and membrane removed, chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, chopped
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
• 2 tablespoons yellow or brown mustard seeds
• 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
• 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme
• 1 pound dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
• 1 1/2 pounds unripe, green tomatoes or tomatillos, husk removed, roughly chopped
• 1/2 cup basil leaves (from 1 bunch), roughly torn
• 1 1/2 cups corn kernels (from approximately two cobs), (optional)
• Cornbread, for serving

See the full recipe on Food52.

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