In these quiet days after Christmas and New Year, after the excitement of the holidays has subdued, after the feasts and the family, the chatter and the clinking of chalices, I revert to soup – my safe harbour, my antidote against excess. Soup seems like a good metaphor for these first days of 2017: unshouty, unshowy, soothing. The same could be said for my kitchen windows, which, like my thoughts, have often been fogged, steamy, and heavy with condensation. Perhaps because of this, soup is all I want to eat. And, consequently, it’s all I want to talk about. So there, let’s talk about it.
‘There should be soup all the time, but especially in the winter.’
So writes the wonderful Molly O’Neill in one of her most touching pieces of prose. It’s almost as if she was spying on me; as if she’d drawn a circle on that fogged up window to peek inside my kitchen, and inside my head. Because, you see, I happen to be of Molly’s advice. In January, especially in January, when days are still so dreadfully short, soup should be set on the table often, if not daily, to soothe and comfort. It should preferably be very hot, with vapours coming up in swirls, steaming your face, unplugging your nose and fizzing up your hair. It should, therefore, demand patience. Yes, patience is key: it makes the first spoonful all the more enjoyable.
For years June marked the end of the school year and the beginning of a time that seemed to stretch infinitely. Long, sleepy days were filled with lots of reading and plenty of boredom – I now struggle to remember what that felt like.
June also stated the beginning of the procession to Grandma’s house to pick vegetables from her garden. As soon as the humid heat of the Venitian countryside had settled in for the following three months, the garden started to go bonkers in all possible good ways. Tomatoes and courgettes were popping up by the minute, and required daily watering and harvesting. Green and runner beans could grow too big and stringy in a couple of hours, and the lettuce would turn tough and inedible if not cut promptly.
The cucumbers, as long as my arm and almost as large, were also pretty needy, and the aubergines and peppers would become all wrinkly under the burning midday sun in a matter of minutes. In a mad rush against time, I was there almost every day, right before sunset or as soon as the temperature of the soil had decreased to a simmer rather than a boil. Each time, I was getting enough produce to make a side dish or salad for our family’s evening meal, as well as for lunch the following day. Usually more. We certainly ate way beyond the five-a-day.
Unsurprisingly, most of my family tales have food at their core. No matter if it’s about my dad’s tribulations as a high school student, with only enough lire in his pocket to buy a dramatically small bread roll and three slices of salami for lunch. Or about grandma going to the communal mill/oven to make bread, on a bike loaded with branches and bags of flour; or about grandpa, who spent years as a captive in Germany during World War II, and had been dreaming of polenta e baccalà for months even after he made it home. Food permeates all our personal stories and intersects with our collective memories.
From all these stories, though, one truth emerges clear and sharp: the women in my family were and are some really good cooks, able to put on the table meals for dozens after spending long days in the fields, and taking care of the house. Strong women who could prepare nutritious, filling, if only a tad repetitive food out of humble ingredients. Women whom, in part, I didn’t get to meet, and whose cooking I heard so many times about but sadly didn’t get to experience.