By: John Carlson—
Along with sipping bourbon, playing cutthroat card games of Go Fish, and continuing my quest to find the world’s greatest coleslaw, I have taken on a new hobby.
Making soup is not an endeavor a man enters into lightly, it turns out. There are a zillion soups out there on grocery store shelves, and I could buy any of them without trouble. But with a couple possible exceptions, none of them would rock my world.
I’m craving soups that, forgive the fancy French culinary term, kick le’ butt.
This hasn’t been lingering in the back of my mind for years and years. In fact, it’s only been within the past 18 months that I have given the tireless pursuit of excellent soup any thought at all.
Like an entire nation of typical American kids, I grew up on bland Campbell’s – chicken noodle and tomato, mostly – and never thought much about it. But then one rather chilly night, Nancy and I wandered into our favorite restaurant, Vera Mae’s Bistro. Usually when the waiter asked me if I wanted soup or salad, I acceded to the aging geezer’s never-ending quest for roughage and answered, “Salad.” But this time, for some reason, I answered, “Soup.”
I’d tasted Vera Mae’s fantastic onion soup a time or two. Served with about ten bursting cow udders worth of melted cheese on top, it’s a wonderful onion soup. It didn’t give me uncontrollable hot flashes, though. But this night, I went for the other soup on the day’s menu, innocently slurped a spoonful and was suddenly thrashing around moaning in spasms of ecstasy.
Nancy, meanwhile, smiled grimly at the folks occupying nearby tables while kicking my shins under ours and hissed, “You’re acting like a pervert again!!!”
Yeah, the soup was that good.
I couldn’t tell you the name of it, nor any of the other soups I’ve slurped there since, but all of them have been fabulous. Somebody employed back in Vera Mae’s kitchen is a virtual Svengali of Soup, what you might even call a Princely Potager, as I’ll explain later. Anyway, I’ll never eat another salad there.
I’ll never eat another cup of soup there, either.
From here on out, I’m strictly a full-bowl-of-soup man.
In pursuit of my new calling, the first thing I had to do was find a soup recipe. Googling “soup recipes for the naturally incompetent” didn’t help much, but “easy soup recipes” did. There were loads of great-sounding soups. Unfortunately, many of them required ingredients such as green peppers, corn, zucchini, chicken broth, bow-tie pasta, basil, diced tomatoes and even tofu
Where was I going to find that?
“Lemme go out on a limb here,” Nancy suggested. “How about a grocery store?”
As usual, it turned out she was right. In nearly seven decades of visiting grocery stores, I had never bought anything but donuts, Twizzlers, beer, Spam, ice cream bars, frozen pizzas and those chunky little pretzel nuggets with the peanut butter squirted inside.
Now on my soup quest, I could see there was all sorts of other stuff for sale. In no time, I was back home and messing with ingredients.
I fried some hamburger. I cut up an onion. I chopped six freaking cups of cabbage. Six cups, it turned out, was a lot of cabbage. After a while, it almost seemed like the cabbage was screwing with me, so I began furiously hacking at it like some kind of Jack the Produce Ripper, and finally got it chopped. This leads to my first ever soup-making tip for my fellow amateurs out there. When hacking at cabbage, always keep a plastic baggie nearby, so you’ll have something to carry your finger to the emergency room in, should you lop one off.
Then I mixed it all up with three little cans of chopped green chilies, some salt, some garlic powder (which costs out the wazoo) and some minced fresh cilantro, whatever that is. Then in went the water and 14-ounces of yummy beef broth.
What came out was my first homemade soup – Mexican Cabbage Roll Soup. And you know, all things considered, it wasn’t half bad.
That’s because it was all bad. It beats me exactly how I messed up, but you’d have had a hard time giving this stuff away to starving unemployed guys waiting in soup lines back during the Great Depression.
And yet, it was edible enough to make me more determined than ever to hone my culinary craft until I am a potager. (Pronounced “puht-AH-ger” if you are from anywhere else on the planet, and “pote-AY-ger,” rhyming with “coat-hanger,” if you are a Hoosier.) A potager, as I promised to explain, is the guy in the kitchen who makes soups. Vera Mae’s has a fine potager. So if you want to sound all classy and hifalutin next time you’re there, speaking ostentatiously so nearby diners can overhear you, tell Kent and Steve, “My compliments to your pote-AY-ger!”
People will think you’re French, maybe.
Anyway, I figure if I cook one soup a week between now and the arrival of fall, I should attain at least “half-assed potager” status by the time cooler weather sets in.
You know. Soup weather.
I’m kind of looking forward to it.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three. John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.