March has been a brutal month, long in days and spare in spirit. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to a standstill. Heeding urgent warnings from medical experts who understand this deadly pathogen and how it spreads, Kit and I are staying at home for as long as it takes to slow the coronavirus down and allow hospitals to cope with the crisis. In this time of global and national uncertainty, I find solace in creating a daily pot of soup from basic ingredients and spices in our larder. Universally, soup is a balm wherever you are sheltering in place these difficult days.
One old favorite is Martha Stewart’s roasted red pepper soup. Sweet red peppers are sautéed in olive oil and simmered to tenderness with shallots, carrots, pears, chicken broth, paprika and a few pepper flakes. Once puréed and returned to the pot, they make a soup that is both easy and mysterious. Piquant with the sweet hint of pear, red pepper soup is a warm-the-spirit and feed-the-soul meal—heavenly when served with a loaf of crusty bread, butter and the simplest of green salads.
Others are from “The Soup Bible” cookbook. An onion sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, paprika, chicken broth, parsley and cannellini beans becomes a satisfying soup in no time. Whether preparing the most basic garlic and potato peasant soup or a mulligatawny soup flavored with exotic Indian spices made popular during the time of the British Empire, the possibilities are Epicurious, nutritious and rewarding.
Last week, I re-discovered M.F.K. Fisher’s early gastronomical classic, “How to Cook a Wolf.” Mrs. Fisher spent a good part of her fascinating life as a housewife, mother and amateur chef. She also wrote novels, poetry, memoirs, a screenplay, and owned a vineyard in Switzerland before finally settling in Sonoma Valley, California. She also understood first-hand the value of soup in dark times.
Mrs. Fisher’s recipe-rich classic was published in 1942 during a time of war and sacrifice—a time, Fisher noted, when for the majority, the wolf was at the door and the pantry bare. What was needed, she wrote, was “a practical guide to the art of living happily and well—even though close to starvation.” Simply stated, “How to Cook a Wolf” is a how-to book on keeping the wolf at bay.
Written at a time of wartime rationing when “countless humans are herded together, as in military camps or schools or prisons,” Mrs. Fisher’s practical suggestions offered a happy medium between a diet that is balanced nutritionally and living on a steady diet of plain boiled water. In her chapter, “How to Boil Water,” she writes that “a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone added to boiling water combine to make something quite good.”
That something was soup. Fisher believed soup to be “probably the oldest cooked food on the earth after roasted meat.” In her book, she described basic recipes for Parisian Onion Soup, Chowder, Cream of Potato Soup, Gazpacho, and Chinese consommé. But one simple soup in particular rose about all others in times of stress.
In her mind, “Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry… tired or worried, or cross, or in debt, or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.” A thick, unsophisticated soup, she found it “heart-warming and soul-staying” as well as economical. She quotes an Italian friend’s praise for minestrone soup, “Topped with grated Romano, served with crisp garlicked sour-dough bread, a salad and a glass of wine, and I have dined.”
Today, people around the world are coping with a new and frightening reality. As the spread of Covid-19 continues to rise, nations from India (where one-fifth of the world’s people live) to Spain and Britain are on virtual lockdown. Closer to home, “State by state, America is locking down its residents, as more and more officials urge people to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus by limiting their interactions with the world outside of their homes.” (WSJ, March 24, 2020). Around the globe, people are struggling with how to keep the wolf from their door.
With no end to the coronavirus pandemic as yet in sight, M.F.K. Fisher’s practical approach to healthy, economical, heart-warming and soul-staying meals built around pots of homemade soup continues to offer hope to us all, just as it did almost eighty years ago. State a casa (Stay at home).
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.