Soup’s on

What’s better than an antidepressant? Big Mama, the writer’s Le Creuset cast iron oven.

| 09 Nov 2023 | 10:51

Well, here we are, smack in the middle of yet another dark, depressing New York winter. As usual, I find myself fending off a persistent bout of seasonal affective disorder, which tends to mess with my mojo big time, until the gloom makes way for longer, sunnier days. But I have learned a clever way to banish those dark thoughts, simply by employing my Le Creuset enamel clad cast iron Dutch oven, which has rightfully earned the name Big Mama. It’s a bear to lug, and when full to the brim with simmering stew, it’s a surefire recipe for a hernia. But it is nonetheless a much prized workhorse that serves as my guidepost in the good times and, especially, the bad. As I’ve discovered through the mellowing of time and the waning of overblown ambitions, there are few things in life as valuable as that perfect all-purpose pot and, more importantly, the magical comfort food it yields.

Back in the early days of my cooking career, I had a different view of my time in the kitchen. I cooked simply because I was good at it, and I had the hyperactive personality necessary for the long, grueling hours kitchen work demanded. It was at my first management job in a ramshackle health food dive where I began to understand there might be more to cooking than the technical skillset. The place was bought by a couple of young upstarts who set about redoing the whole joint, tearing out all the old fixtures and sagging wooden grocery shelves, and chucking anything that smacked of the hippie-dippy 70s. My coworker, Serge, a grizzled old Haitian expat, pulled three decrepit cast iron soup taurines out of the discarded rubble. When I asked him what on earth he would use them for, he shrugged and said, “Maybe one day my woman leaves me. Then, I go home and make soup.”

At the time, I found this hilarious, just another arcane Serge-ism. But as my years behind the stove accrued, that phrase popped into my head more and more often, reminding me to embrace the notion that home cooked food is a powerful, healing thing. Even if your woman has left you. Even if the very foundation of your life has begun to crumble. My wise friend Serge got it. Making something nourishing for the sheer joy of it can change your worldview, no matter how dire your circumstances. And though my daily kitchen grind was the same as it ever was, rife with grease burns and the constant threat of heat stroke, I began to see my vocation as something more than just a dirty, exhausting means to a paycheck.

To this day, I ruminate on that phrase every time I tie on the old granny apron. It repeats itself in my mind like a mantra as I hover over Big Mama, where olive oil shimmers, awaiting aromatics. I dump in an enormous bowl of chopped onions and garlic, the beginning of a soup I will share with friends and family, the best part of my labors. As I stir the base with my well-worn olivewood spoon, I recall a story my brother Clint recently shared with me. Clint works in Manhattan, where his job is to maintain city-managed buildings that temporarily house migrant families, until such time as their tenuous circumstances change for better or, far too often, worse. One such family, a mother and father and their three young children, arrived on a bitter winter morning, with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Clint helped them get settled into a clean, warm apartment, and that night the family slept on beds, comfortable and safe for the first time in God knows how long. The following day at work, my brother found an aluminum tray of still warm empanadas with his name on it, prepared for him by the very people who’d been homeless not 24 hours earlier. Their first day with a roof over their heads and a stove to cook on, and they spent it making food for a total stranger who had shown them kindness, treated them like human beings. And while my bachelor brother was certainly grateful for some seriously good eats for a change, those empanadas represented so much more than a simple meal. For that family, whose circumstances were uncertain at best, the real joy was in the preparation and the giving of a home cooked meal. A powerful show of gratitude, and a reminder that food made with love is a universal language.

As Big Mama bubbles and simmers, filling my house with mouth-watering aromas, my thoughts return to Serge and to that migrant family. I am reminded that every day in the kitchen is a day well spent, another opportunity to connect in a real way to the people I know and love, and even to those I only know casually. It all comes from the same place, a cherished and sacred responsibility.

One more taste test, and dinner is ready. I ladle out steaming bowls of hearty, rib-sticking soup, activating happy hormones in my brain. The gloom of the muddy winter sky can’t dampen my spirits, no sir. Soup’s on! I call out to my family. And all’s right with the world.