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Soup’s On: Finding Good Health and Community in a Bowl

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Living in Rome, I was richer in love and with friends than money. Our apartment, located in the old part of the city, was in a building dating back several hundred years. Railroad style, all the rooms were off one hallway and there wasn’t a kitchen. Easy to handle in summer, but in winter there was only one way to cook—slowly—on the radiator. Soups and stews became staples in cold weather. It was easy to eat locally in Italy. With fresh in season vegetables, pasta, beans and whatever else caught the eye in the daily neighborhood open-air markets.

One of my favorites was lentil soup. Hearty, high in dietary fiber and protein with low calories these small beans have an earthy, nutty flavor. What’s not to like? In the book of Genesis, Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of crimson lentils and a loaf of bread. During the Depression Era, communal eating sky-rocketed and soup was often on the menu—creating the impression of plenty in a time of little money.

What we do when our backs are against the wall, the creativity that emerges is both entertaining and remarkable. The writer MFK Fisher grew up in the same small Quaker town as I did wrote a delightful book How to Cook a Wolf in which she shares her love of food in severe times when food was rationed and money lacking.

As a single working mother on a budget, soup was a standard at our table. It was the Mother of Invention, when I dug out whatever was left over in the Frig. Prepped on Saturday morning, I kept it in containers in the freezer, along with several jars of fresh vegetable stock which could be added to rice, used when steaming vegetables or preparing any number of soups.

An invent as he goes kind of guy, martial arts expert, and eco-broker, Chad Deal has been urged by friends to open a soup restaurant. “I love soup. When I had the farm and a frequent supply of coconut water I would use that as a base especially when I made fish soup. I always use onions and garlic as a basic ingredient and usually just use what I have available and invent as I go. He adds greens – kale, bok choy, mustard, and arrugala; whatever is available. He seasons with Pepper sauce, fish sauce, black pepper corns, Braggs, Worchestershire, in any combination to taste.”

But getting the best from what you eat, whether it’s soup or stew goes beyond fresh ingredients and seasonings. Eating is a celebration of life, of what we are receiving and how it energizes us. The Navajo healing rituals are meant to bring souls into hozro or harmony with their fate. A ritual of gratitude helps to bring us and the food we eat into harmonious unity of a shared destiny.

The sensual awakening of texture, aroma, taste and the sounds of silver against bowl and tureen can call up satisfying memories of shared meals. Photo- grapher, Pam Barkentin speaks nostalgically of eating soup at her father’s studio.

“A fashion photographer, his name was George. He had an incredible studio space on the top floor of a defunct turn of the century department store at 18 Street and 6th Avenue in NYC. Being a mad Virgo, he wanted to run the most efficient studio in town. To work well, he believed, everyone’s blood sugar should be in the proper place at all times. What emerged from this madness were the most wonderful soup lunches for everyone working on any particular day, gathered around a huge oak table. The lunches were simple, often Campbell’s soup with something added to make it more special, and a good bread and cheese, but I can’t remember any time that soup has tasted so good. In the afternoon a big pot of tea and plate of cookies were set out on the table and teatime was shared. My dad had the best reputation for his good food and community feeling; I think it’s because of the simple ritual of breaking bread together (and sipping soup).”

Eating communally offers even more layers to explore and savor. In community, we come alive to the moment through laughter and stories. And the dipping of the ladle into a communal pot of soup seems to underscore the communal possibilities for joy and laughter; the deep knowledge that with our warts, bruises, scars and foolishness, we are all extended family.

According to my friend Abdi Assadi, teacher and acupuncturist and author of Shadows on the Path, his personal story of meeting his own shadows on the path. The warts are actually what help people most. All other lofty ideals are just that.”

When I first began to recognize my own wounds, the shame I felt at not being more courageous, the pains from the past that ruled so much of my behavior, Abdi was there for me. When I expressed my concern over my lack of formal education and degrees that I believed could negatively impact what I have to say. The lack of formal training as a writer, and the mild dyslexia that makes editing imperative and not always successful, Abdi reminded me “the most wise have always steered clear from labels and institutions. They have been the mothers and fathers, hiding in plain sight of the householder.”

And indeed, it’s often with those people I meet on the street, in a back road gas station; or like the fishermen’s village, where I was offered shelter by people who had the roof over their head and whatever catch the gods and elements allowed them that day that I’ve encountered the wisdom that has its own stunning beauty. The wisdom that comes when hardship meets with a stout and generous heart.

“One puts ones’ self out there knowing that one’s awakening is intertwined, so will all other fellow travelers,” Abdi added. “No higher or lower, we are all on the same level since we are all the same.” As a doctor, healer and counselor, Abdi’s most constant prayer is to “be true to myself and from that place be of assistance to others if they need it.

“You put yourself out there knowing that your awakening is intertwined will all other fellow travelers. No higher or lower, we are all on the same level since we are all the same.”

This joining together, the concept that community equals strength is not new, but it’s being revitalized lately. In part due to the economy, and in part due to the questions we are forced to ask. What will happen with our food and water sources? Will there be a future for our children and if so, what will it be like?

From her death bed, the remarkable author anthropologist, Margaret Mead advised her friend, fellow anthropologist and author, Jean Houston, “Forget everything I’ve been teaching you about working with governments and bureaucracies.

“If we’re going to grow and green our world, it’s a question of people getting together and teaching in our communities.

“No guru, no money, just bring good food.

“Grow together by doing physical, mental, psychological, spiritual processes together. And as together you grow in body, mind and spirit, then go out and make a difference in the world. Continue to empower each other. Hold each other’s dream, because I can’t always hold my dream, but my friends can hold it for me, if I’m on a downer.’

In the end, and since it is winter combined with challenging times, I suggest bringing soup to the table with friends. And while you’re at it, tuck these words from the poet Roy Croft into your pocket…

I love you,

Not only for what you are,

But for what I am

When I am with you …

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