This evening I am alone awake at home, pottering in the kitchen with my girl sleeping straight above my head through the low-raftered ceiling. A pot of homemade chicken stock sits waiting to be used, and this time I plan not to wait too long and waste the nutritional gold dust. Though what I want is just to sit and do nothing, now is the time to pull two onions from the beautiful onion braid my friend Karen grew and wove, and chop them ready to sauté in coconut oil.
Yes. I will make Tatty Bumpkin (aka butternut squash) soup, Amélie’s favourite, and send a steaming thermos bowl with her to school, with buttered wholemeal bread, and some chunks of Cheddar cheese.
As I slide onion into stainless steel and root for the butternut in the basement, I’m remembering the story of this soup, the evolution of a dish through history, both personal and family. And I’m thinking how so many of the dishes I cook – you cook, we cook – have stories. Most often the stories are hidden, implicit, known only to the cook, or the family who sits to share the meal.
But wouldn’t you love to hear the story told by that simmering pot of chilli, or that particular variety of breakfast pancake, or that roast chicken?
If this soup I am making tonight could tell a story, what would it be?
The story would begin in South Africa’s Cape when the cook could barely be called a cook, being scarcely out of university and having rarely lived alone or cooked for herself; and when, though only passing through for a matter of months, she found herself entirely embraced by the church small group she joined. Such magnificent mothers there were in that group – wonderful women with big hearts and rounded bodies and full laughs, who had enough space in arms and heart to welcome me in, hear my story and love me so truly that I felt it. I remember braais, intimate singing, tears as I found courage to read a personal poem out loud for the first time, shoulder massages, and a lot of honesty and love and laughter. But all I remember of the meal we shared one evening are the lights of Cape Town’s incongruent suburbs and townships glittering below us, and the butternut squash soup that Melanie brought. You need to know that Melanie, being Afrikaans, was Mel-AR-nee, and that she was as beautiful and golden as the dish she set before us. It was the best soup I’d ever tasted.
Next chapter: Just over a year later and I had left and then returned to the Cape, bringing with me seven young people eager to see the world and change it, and my co-leader Jeremy – already a close friend and quickly becoming more. If you walked along the seafront where my Granddad and I shared one of our only cherished outings, then turned your back on False Bay’s expanse of surf and white sand, left the colourful beach huts behind you, kept the mountain on your left, and continued walking through the paint-peeling buildings until tarmac turned to grass around the Zandvlei salt lake, and until the bridge had taken you over the stream where budding love was first confessed; well then you would find the two little camping bungalows where the nine of us lived for a couple of months. It was here in a very basic kitchen that I first attempted my own butternut squash soup, inspired both by what I view as its place of genesis, and by maternal instinct awakening in the light of responsibility to care for and nurture this motley crew. I had no recipe, only a vague recollection of Melanie’s reassurance that it was a very simple soup to make, needing only sautéed onions, peeled and chopped butternut, broth and cream. Budget dictated that I augment the one squash we could afford with some potatoes, and circumstances made the process a little arduous as I attempted to peel and chop with a blunt knife, and to create a ‘smooth’ soup by mashing rather than blending. But the finished product, though not refined, was tasty, and a welcome change from bread and cheese for youngsters far from all that was familiar and longing for home comforts.
Fast forward a few years and my maternal instincts were blossoming and being challenged to the core by care of my own child. Pride in the very varied and balanced diet I managed to feed her in her first year of eating solid food, and absolute confidence that my nutritional knowledge and culinary skill would help me avoid the problems of fussy eating and repetitive meals that I’d observed and pitied in other families, had given way before long to other emotions: frustration at the foods that were rejected and the foods that weren’t as she and her independence grew, and a healthy humility about the limitations of my parenting ability, along with a modicum of despair and some unhealthy resignation. Yet in among the many foods that didn’t pass my rigorous dietary standards but that I acquiesced to serving nonetheless, a few stood out as beacons of moderate success and even future hope. Although she insisted on picking apart homemade pizza and eating each element separately, her favourite lunch consisted of wheat-free Scottish oatcakes with smoked mackerel and pickled beetroot. Surely this pointed to sophisticated tastes that would in time mature to include such things as water, carrots, egg, foods that touched, and – dare I even hope for it – quinoa?! Another dish that thankfully passed muster was butternut squash soup. I partially credit its acceptance to my clever ploy in naming it Tatty Bumpkin soup (after the lovable ragdoll character in a yoga and story-telling class we were attending together) and in making it for lunch straight after one of the classes. Ah, the lengths to which a desperate mother will go! Of course, if Tatty Bumpkin had been a soup containing ‘bits’ (Ew!), visible vegetables or, perish the thought, quinoa, then no name under the sun would have made it pass her lips. But I still like to give myself some recognition for my ingenuity, not least in evolving the word butternut into pumpkin and from there to Bumpkin!
Once it was established as a staple in our home, Tatty Bumpkin soup kept evolving as I continued to learn to cook, and discover more about the health-giving properties of various foods. Various fads have come and largely gone, such as always stirring in sour cream for the enzymes or sprinkling with toasted seeds for the crunch, protein and good fats. Yet after many experiments of mixed success, I have settled on a common variant that uses curry powder and sometimes garlic, sautéed along with onions, in coconut oil for its nutritional robustness and subtle taste complementary to the curry. With the butternut squash I sometimes add sweet potato and/or apple for a touch more sweetness, and often red lentils, which, if used in the right proportion, thicken and add protein without changing the flavour. Perhaps the most significant and successful evolution of this soup has been the use of coconut milk instead of cream, which not only avoids an over-reliance on dairy (though I love to add cream to other dishes!) but also once again pairs perfectly with the lightly curried seasoning. And, last but not least, although I sometimes use a concentrated bouillon paste when I need to, I came to understand the incredible health-giving nature of bone broths and make the soup with homemade chicken stock whenever possible. I used to marvel as my mother, no cookbook in sight, threw seemingly random ingredients into a stock pot containing the remains of our weekly Sunday roast chicken and produced a rich broth to fuel the week’s soups. But now, after years of consulting with my Delia Smith Bible, I too reach naturally for onion, carrot, celery, bay and peppercorns (sometimes leek, thyme, apple cider vinegar) to add to the chicken carcass and water, satisfied to create another nutritious meal from the leftovers of the last (by boiling it to death). My evolved soup is a little different from Melanie’s, but it is still smooth, nutty, golden, creamy and comforting. Try it! Since there’s no real ‘recipe’, you should be able to read between the lines above and create your own fragrant and unique potful.
That, then, is the story of the soup that’s simmering on my stove-top tonight, and as I write it I become aware that, among other things, it is a story of mothers – both biological and spiritual – and of mothering. Perhaps this should not be a great surprise, since soups have for centuries been mainstays of the meals created by mothers to nourish and comfort. This particular soup is a product of my own mothering, my urge to nurture my family with good food. But it is also a story that stretches back to my mother and to hers, and reconnects me with the beautiful band of South-African mothers who nurtured me so well, as well as with my own first faltering steps to nurture others through food and friendship. Mothering – whether of a ‘child’ of body or spirit – is an evolution in and of itself. I simultaneously love and hate who I have become by living in this daily crucible; the growth and challenge are staggering.
But the story isn’t over yet. The soup and I are still changing alongside each other. For one thing, the toddler days are nearly a decade behind us and Tatty Bumpkin is now mostly called plain old butternut squash soup, and for another I’m growing more particular about the spices I use and so the flavour is subtly shifting as well. As for me, I will inevitably continue to evolve as a mother and as a human, for good or ill. But since my soup, through all the “experiments of mixed success”, only gets better, I’m hoping the same will be true for me too!