The winner of The Joyce Parkes Writers Prize for 2008.
By Barbara Ascoli
My parents, Bridget and Albert, both cooked soup.
In the early 1900s Bridget, as one of the oldest children in a family of ten, cooked soup for dairy farmers in Northern New South Wales. Her family was a mixture of Irish and English ancestors, combining different classes and belief systems into their Australian pioneer family. As a young woman she worked in a convent and there she learnt more about soup, such as how to use what was given to you or what you had to the best of your ability, and the mystery of combining ingredients. She made good soup from full or bare cupboards.
As a young man Albert cooked soup for cane cutters but Bridget kept Albert out of her kitchen for over 57 years, only letting him in to wash up. This action on her part resulted in a happy marriage. He was a meticulous and precise man in his work and home life but he also liked unexpected challenges. His character could have been a result of his mixed ancestors--Scottish, Italian, Irish, German and Australian.
Bridget's soup in the 1940s and 1950s was thick and full of meat and vegetable chunks. This soup filled a great hunger. Many family and friends were hungry for a home after another war; hungry for adventure, love or wealth; and many more were hungry for a changing Australian culture.
As a skilled slaughter-man Albert provided the bones for Bridget's soup. Late in life, discussing his six years of slaughter-yard work he said, 'it was the hardest job I ever had.'
He added as an after-thought,
'It was probably because I was a small man and there were no machines to lift the animals, only the large hooks to hang the beasts on after they were shot.'
After Bridget and Albert moved from the country to the city, Bridget learnt to make soup without the bones. Her specialty soup in the 1960s was pea and bacon: yellow dried split peas were washed and soaked overnight; onion, carrot and bacon diced; peas washed again and simmered for hours along with the diced ingredients and the long strips of rind and fat cut from the bacon. Final stages included seasoning the soup with tomato and Worcestershire sauces, a small amount of cream and a dab of butter. Thickening only occurred with cornflour if the soup had no time to reduce and thicken itself in time for dinner. Time and people were both expected to play a part in the creation of Bridget's soup.
When visitors smelt or saw the golden peas they would sigh, 'Oh, you've made that soup.' They knew the work and the love that went into it. They also knew they could not mix the same simple ingredients and acquire that taste and texture. Still Bridget taught a lot to her friends and Albert and she kept on making many soups well into her 80s.
After she died Albert came into Bridget's kitchen to cook again. A new challenge. A daughter said,
'Hey Dad, you don't have to make chicken stock all the time, just throw your vegetables in with a packet of Chicken Noodle or French Onion.'
Albert thought this was a good hint and became a master at it but of course he never threw things in, as every item was cut to perfection with his home-made large steel butcher's knife. Repetitive tasks often help grief so the family let him get on with it.
He shared and enjoyed a lot of soups but never cold. 'Soup has to be hot to warm you,' he'd say. 'I just can't stand those chilled soups in those cold bowls.'
But life, like soup, has many surprises. After a ruptured oeseophagus (a cruel event for a non-smoker and non-drinker), Albert survived the operations that cut and hung high the stomach between the lungs, the months of tracheotomy and the longer months of gastric tube feeds. Although he was only able to eat small quantities of soup after the rupture, Albert still wanted to talk about food and watch others cook. 'Why?' asked some.
Later his son-in-law said, 'It is a new century and this home is the soup capital of the world with so many colours, tastes and textures.'
One day Albert observed his grand-daughter roasting capsicums, preparing Thai soup and baking vegetarian lasagna, and he was intrigued by her choice of ingredients and cooking techniques. He questioned the entire process and compared it with his own earlier cooking methods. 'Thanks for the experience,' he said with a big smile. This observation of soup and people was his last labouring job; his thin, invisible, nutritional, life thread.
After what seemed a lifetime of soups and medical treatments Albert eventually said, 'no more.' As the days passed the soups became thinner, weaker, of paler hue and more finely blended. He slowly left the family table for his hospice bed, and the mix of people gathering around the soup became stronger and more together than they had ever been before.
Only those who knew the man within could stay close with Albert; could look past the bones wrapped in the thin rice paper skin; see again the strong arms and legs that had lifted those shot beasts in the butcher yards; see the builder, the gardener, the father, the friend, the roughened hands that had cooked those soups, and the rich, rich ingredients within.
No soup but ingredients for eternity.