Such a sacred tableau in Pablo Picasso’s 1902 painting La Soupe. There’s a graceful, reverential bow on the part of the mother as she offers a bowl of soup to her daughter, who springs forward, ready to receive sustenance, ready to receive a gift.
I love cooking soup. A small, crafted merging of nature and art. Bones, bay leaves, cloves, celery, carrots, onions, peppercorns, all that floats and sinks simmering in a tall pot of water.
A fluid canvas.
Sometimes with palm oil and coconut milk.
Sometimes with chicken, basil and limes.
And then there are afternoons with oyster shells. Possible variations challenge imagination and memory. Consider Michael Pollan’s observation in Cooked.
If you thumb through cookbooks from every imaginable culinary tradition, the variations seem infinite, and though there are a million different way to make a stew or braise or soup, the underlying structure, or syntax, of all these dishes is very nearly universal. Let me propose a radically simplified version of that structure, something that might serve as a kind of template or Ur-recipe for dishes organized around the element of water:
Dice some aromatic plants
Sauté them in some fat
Brown piece(s) of meat (or other featured ingredients)
Put everything in a pot
Add some water (or stock, wine, milk, etc.)
Simmer, below the boil, for a long time (132-133)
Charles Darwin in a letter to J.D. Hooker on February 1, 1871, considers soup as the beginning of life.
It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.—
Yes, light and electricity, proteins and heat, salt and the transformation of matter–reads much as making a good broth. Darwin the cook. Aristotle in On the Heavens writes of the 6th century Milesian philosopher Thales positing the creation of life in water.
Most of the early students of philosophy thought that first principles in the form of matter, and only these, are the sources of all things; for that of which all things consist, the antecedent from which they have sprung, and into which they are finally resolved (the substance persisting but changing in its attributes), this they say is the element and first principle of things. For there must be one or more than one nature out of which the rest come to be, while it is preserved. As to the quantity and form of this first principle, there is a difference of opinion; but Thales, the founder of this sort of philosophy, says that it is water (accordingly he declares that the earth rests on water), getting the idea, I suppose, because he saw that the nourishment of all beings is moist, and that warmth itself is generated from moisture and persists in it (for that from which all things spring is the first principle of them); and getting the idea also from the fact that the germs of all beings are of a moist nature, while water is the first principle of the nature of what is moist.
The concluding line, all beings are of a moist nature, while water is the first principle of the nature of what is moist. A tree is between sixty and eighty percent water and animals about sixty-eight percent water, so even before the pot and fire, life is stewing within its bark and skin, ready to produce a rich existence from all its ingredients swimming in an indoor pool. Each time we make soup, braise or stew we’re going back to the beginning and cranking up once again the machinery of life. Which means you just might see the face of Jesus in your soup. I leave you with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Bon Appétit!