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Kitchen Soup

In a tiny makeshift kitchen, a famed cook rediscovers the simple joy of sharing food with friends

By Anna Thomas

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The little kitchen was only meant to work for six months or so. I had sold my longtime home and bought a much smaller house that needed extensive work to make it habitable. While the new place was being worked on, I would live in the converted painter's studio next door, where I had tucked a tiny kitchen under the stairs to the sleeping loft. There was one counter, a 20-inch apartment stove, and a rolling Ikea cart. Obviously, there would be no entertaining until I moved into the new house, I thought. Coffee and takeout would have to be my diet during the remodel. I was in a state of shock, bereft that I was leaving the home where my children had grown up, and exhausted from the spectacular downsizing. I had moved from a rambling country house with eight bedrooms, seven fireplaces, 28 closets, and a huge kitchen to a one-room industrial space with no closets. I got rid of mountains of stuff; other things went into storage. I held back only the few items I could not survive without. Other parts of my life got packed away for later, too, like yoga classes and the hours I devoted to writing—there was no place for them in the upheaval.

I moved in. I built closets, unpacked boxes, wondered where to put things in this new 3-D puzzle of life. I cried. Then I went into the tiny kitchen. I could touch every part of it while standing still. Tiny kitchen, I thought, here we are.

Soon after I moved in, I went to the farmers' market, something that was a regular part of my routine in the bigger-kitchen days. The squashes were piled in abundant glory—smooth butternuts, warty gray-green kabochas, ghostly blue Hubbards; I wanted them all. But where would I put them? I would worry about that later, I decided, as I filled my bags with stippled black kale, green tomatoes, onions, cilantro, chilies.

Back to Basics

Back in the studio I pulled out my favorite stockpot, which just barely fit on the stove. I lost myself in familiar motions: chopping onions, throwing them into the hot olive oil, hearing them sizzle. I pushed the cleaver through the hard squash, revealing its bright golden interior. Had I really thought that I could live on eating takeout? Marbled borlotti beans fell through my fingers, lovely pebbles dropping into the water. As I worked, the static in my head grew quiet and my limbs relaxed. The thousand little frustrations and worries that daily stung me like mosquitoes retreated.

Squash and green tomatoes caramelized in the oven, filling the studio with a heavenly fragrance. I puréed the chilies, adding a sting to the air, then toasted cumin seeds, breathing in their spicy mystery. I stirred the simmering beans and inhaled the perfume of sage and garlic. I called my friends. Soon the soup was ladled into bowls, someone unwrapped goat cheese, and bread was passed. Laughter filled the studio. It felt like home.

In my former house, I had taken pleasure in my dinner parties. They were fun, but I can't deny there had been an element of performance in them. Now, I was improvising rustic soups and inviting my friends on short notice. Come on over, who cares what you're wearing, no—you don't have to bring anything, yes—you can bring the leftovers of that beet salad, just come over. The little kitchen was temporary, so somehow these dinners didn't "count." I let go of all expectations of what a dinner party should be. The limits of the tiny kitchen suddenly felt like freedom.

The batches of soup I made in that tiny kitchen got bigger and bigger. I invited more friends, because soup demands to be shared. As I stirred my soups, I thought about home cooking, and how utterly tied it is with sharing—sharing food is how we celebrate, and how we give solace and comfort.

Soup is the portal to this world of shared food. It's the way anyone at all can step into home cooking, even if the kitchen is tiny, even if there's only one pot. It was on one of these evenings that I decided that my next cookbook would be about soup—these simple, nourishing, one-pot meals that bubbled on my stove, drawing in the life I wanted around me.

As the book took shape, soup nights in the little kitchen turned into tastings of two, three, even four soups in one evening. In the cold months, I made golden butternut squash soup, Moroccan-spiced root-vegetable stew, and humble split pea soup. As the air warmed in the spring, I made soup with asparagus and sweet peas and mint. In the summer, there was tomato soup, sweet corn soup, and peppery basil-spiked zucchini soup. Often we took big pots of soup to a local homeless shelter. The little kitchen hummed.

Meanwhile, the construction next door moved along. Six months turned into a year, then two years, then three. The temporary kitchen became the new normal, and I found I was just fine with much less. When at last it came time to move into the new house, I was pierced with nostalgia for the tiny kitchen! But the new kitchen had white walls, big windows, and a big island floating in the middle of an open, serene living space. This new kitchen seemed to be waiting for something better than just furniture.

Pot Luck

One day I was telling some friends that in the chaos of the move I had lost touch with my yoga practice and wanted to find a yoga group again, but wasn't sure how. I wasn't sure what my level would be, whether I'd be up to this class or that one. I looked at the big new space, the sea of oak floor around my kitchen island, and it struck me that my friends and I could share our yoga practice the same way we shared our soup suppers.

One of our group is a yoga teacher. On a Monday afternoon, a handful of us got together and unrolled our mats on the wooden floor. Some of us were rusty, and one member of our group had never done yoga before at all. No matter. It was a potluck practice, like the impromptu studio dinners: Come as you are, and bring what you have—a practice, the memory of one, or the desire for one. There were no expectations, so nothing could go wrong.

More than a year has gone by since that first yoga class in the new kitchen, and we have become a devoted group. We gaze out the windows as we practice, and use the island as a prop. Sharing our yoga practice, like sharing food, has made it better. Often a big pot of soup waits for us on the new stove, along with a batch of freshly baked savory scones or a loaf of rustic bread. Sometimes a bottle of wine is opened after Savasana. As we lift our glasses, I think, This is temporary, too.

Anna Thomas's latest cookbook is Love Soup.
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Reader Comments

Philippa

Hi, this reminded me of my 3 month stint cooking for 5 of us on a camping stove whilst my husband renovated the kitchen. It was only last year but it seems a life tuime ago. I'm the only veggie in the house so each meal I would have plan carefully how I would cook. Also I had to do the washing up outside in a big bowl and wait for the water out of the kettle.
Its amazing what you can produce when you have so little. I learnt alot.
Thanks
philxxx

StephenMarkTurner

Thanks for reminding me about Anna. I still have the original two 'Vegetarian Epicure' books at home.

Steve

PS The drawings in these books are good for coloring, by kids or adults!

Bonnie

I found this to be an inspiring article. It makes me want to simplify my life & incorporate yoga into my daily routine - soup too!! Thank you

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