Father was a physician, but reluctant to prescribe medicine if not absolutely necessary. We were a tough bunch of kids and did not succumb too often to the common cold. On the rare occasions that a viral or bacterial infection got the best of us, we surrendered unwillingly, fighting every step, unless of course, it meant skipping school, in which case we were more than willing to exaggerate the conditions of our unfortunate state. Not that it worked. These were the times we cursed the fact that our Father was a doctor, and therefore completely capable of seeing through our childish ruses, easily diagnosing our seemingly fatal conditions as taurus poopicus (in layman’s terms: BS).
But if I make myself delve a bit deeper, I realize that it was always Mother who figured out our master plans for avoiding school. Had she never tried gorging herself on raw potatoes on math test days? To this day I hate the kid in fifth grade who swore that eating raw potatoes would give you a fever. Not true.
About once a year, nature won and we got sick. We pulled the blankets and feather-stuffed duvets over our heads, shivering from high fever one moment and breaking into clammy sweats the next, miserable and whiney, feeling a temporary relief only when Mother’s warm hands cradled our cheeks, and her loving blue eyes convinced us that that we would soon be outside, running around Njanja’s hydrangea bushes and swinging on the branches of the old mulberry tree. A bad flu could almost seem permanent until Mother, with her ultimate power, pronounced it otherwise.
In the morning we would eat small bowls of milky, sweet cream of wheat, steaming hot and comforting. Mother would close the shutters, draw the curtains, and tuck the fuzzy blankets underneath our feet and around our shoulders. She would kiss our foreheads and close the door behind her to protect us from the frequent ringing of the phone and buzzing of the bell that came with living in a doctor’s house.
Around eleven o’clock she would push the door knob open with her elbow and bring in a tray holding a steaming cup of tea, several lemon wedges, and a couple of crunchy Petit Beurre cookies. She would fluff up our pillows, prop us up against them, and sit on the edge of the bed, holding the tray. We had to drink the tea as hot as we could handle it, with steam bringing tears to our red-rimmed eyes. She would hold the cup to our lips, allowing us to sip the smallest amounts, breaking the arduous process with buttery cookies. Warmed up by the tea, we would slip into the downy comfort of our covers and surrender to slumber, while she quietly left the room.
Even asleep, we caught a whiff of her chicken soup simmering slowly on the stove. In the pot there was a roasted onion half, a parsley root cut into chunks, a carrot or two, pieces of a gnarly celeriac, a parsnip, and a chicken that had still been clucking and pecking worms the previous night.
Father would arrive from the hospital, put away his worn, black leather doctor’s satchel, hang up his coat in the closet, and change his clothes. Only when his feet were breathing freely in his house slippers would he approach our beds, touch our foreheads with his all-knowing diagnostic hand and prescribe more tea, more lemon, and more soup as a remedy for our miserable state.
To this day, an onion cut in half and roasted on the stove burner until charred is a time capsule; the smell of it brings back the fuzzy, warm memories of days when I knew that the world was going to turn around all right, no matter how weak I felt. I knew Mother was there, a mere step away, concocting a witches’ brew that would make me feel better.
Mother’s chicken soup is not just any soup. It is an anchor of stability and security. It is a staple of comfort food. It is the seductive opening to almost every meal. In the spring, it may be laced with asparagus or spinach. It is lighter in summer, enhanced by egg drops or semolina dumplings. In the fall, it is creamier, bursting with the healthy orange of a butternut squash, or the pale cream of a cauliflower. In the winter, the base of Mother’s chicken soup rolls up its sleeves for heavy lifting and becomes a hearty seafood bisque or potato-cheese soup, topped with crispy bacon, sour cream, and shredded cheddar cheese.
I love them all. When I met Husband, the only soup he knew was Campbell’s. Oh, how easily we get used to finer things! I skipped soup one day and had a mutiny on my hands. Raised eyebrow, quizzical glance, question in his eye, his wounded little-boy voice querying, “Where, pray tell, is the soup?” He thought there was certainly some mistake, perhaps a technical error. For a moment I felt consternation, but in a minute I realized that I had elevated his appreciation beyond the “soup is good food” motto printed on the cans he now shunned as if they contained bees or worse. I taught him that soup made by loving hands warms not just our bellies, but our souls as well.
Nobody is sick in our household, but I made a soup that would have exorcised the most stubborn cold: Dorie Greenspan’s Leek and Potato Soup. It was a joint effort and all those hands chopping, peeling, mixing, and stirring brought to the table a pot of pale green soup that soothed away burden and care as its comforting, love-laden steam relaxed our minds and muscles and the universe was benevolent. While the Beasties were spooning the thick potage, smiles beaming, I crossed the ocean for a second and thanked Mother for being there for me when the germs invaded and turned my stomach and head to misery and the winds were shrieking their scariest melodies. It is cold there today. I hope she has made soup for herself.