Souperwomen

When disaster strikes--illness, marital strife, existential angst-- the Designated Soup Carrier grabs her ladle and flies to the rescue

As a child, I often watched my tiny Italian grandmother board a city bus cradling a mason jar of hot minestrone. This meant that someone--Uncle Carmine, Aunt Antoinette--was down. It didn't matter whether they'd been felled by the flu, a feisty gallbladder or the evil eye. Having heard the alarm, Nonnie tied on an apron with all the surgical intensity of her TV heartthrob, Dr. Ben Casey, and started banging soup pots.

For nearly half a century, Nonnie (Italian for grandma) was the Designated Soup Carrier (DSC) for a sprawling Neapolitan network of family and friends in our scrappy Connecticut city. Somewhere between a field medic and a shrink, a DSC is found in many cultures and is usually female. In the midst of a crisis, her prescriptives are basic and sustaining: Stop a minute. Taste this. Life is good.

Nonnie was gleefully mysterious about the formulas for her healing alchemy. With her floral-printed back to us, she coaxed the meanest tubers and desiccated legumes and the bitterest greens into dense soul-soothing infusions. I sat at her kitchen table playing with dried beans and pasta as she ladled her elixirs and straightened her seams before attending to the next wake, sickbed or domestic malefaction.

Though for years she kept a camphor-scented drawer filled with her burial clothes, Nonnie stunned us all by dying suddenly--while working in the kitchen. At her funeral, I got the chills hearing one gnarled old paesan wailing, "Geraldine, Geraldine! Who will take care of us?"

They were calling my name too. I was christened in Nonnie's honor, and I adored her. But it wasn't until my early thirties, when I found myself huffing up four flights with a pot of vegetarian chili, that I realized I'd become her--in the same way my mother had assumed the ladle before me. As I waited for my friend--a curmudgeonly silver-haired bachelor who'd just surrendered his gallbladder--to shuffle to the door I understood: becoming my generation's Designated Soup Carrier was my genetic destiny.

In hindsight, I should have seen this coming. My mother, Rose (Nonnie's daughter), had in turn become the peerless DSC for our teeming tract-house development. She dispatched thick, smoky pea soup, chicken cacciatore--even homemade light-as-a-lotus egg rolls--with the speed and efficiency of a big-city Red Cross. She treated postpartum depres- sion in one pale, trembling young Irishwoman with stoutly sauced macaroni, carried trays of mushroom-topped chicken breasts to the shaky agoraphobic in the pea-green split-level.

For the ambulatory, our kitchen was a coffee-scented confessional. My mom would cook, and they'd talk beneath the whistle of the pressure cooker and the rhythms of the chef's knife: "He gambled away the station wagon..." Whack! "I'm pregnant again and CeeCee's just nine months..." Whack! Whack! There were always murmured sympathies, absolutions, buttery tea squares.

Mom reached peak production with the installation of a singular Seventies gizmo called a Dazey Seal-a-Meal. Extras of whatever we were having--eggplant rollatini, Swiss steak, that heirloom minestrone--were sealed in plastic boilable pouches and delivered to shut-ins, recent widowers and the hugely pregnant. Now in her seventies, my mom still turns out stacks of microwaveable meals for her invalid sister and brother-in-law as well as sacks of frozen "Nonnie meatballs" for my clamoring kids.

Subconsciously, I guess I knew that I could never replicate my mother's suburban bounty or her ethereal spaghetti sauce. So, quite unwittingly, I first assumed the DSC mantle with a post-Sixties twist. I moved to Manhattan at the onset of the Me Decade and ran a high-rise soup kitchen for the young, the restless and the angsty. It just happened. I found myself setting extra places for the emotionally needy: ex-hippies flayed by the brutalities of Real Jobs, singles swinging at the ends of their ropes and garden-variety urban neurotics. If someone sounded lousy on the phone I'd blurt, "So come for dinner."

Manhattan is a city of strays, and for years I gave Thanksgiving dinners for anyone who had nowhere to go. The company was jolly if mismatched; leftovers were packed in aluminum plates for the always-ravenous street kids a friend collected on the Upper West Side. I did birthdays and nonoccasions. Riffling through stacks of old photographs, I found a series that showed the same grinning faces around the table on successive New Year's Eves. They looked like outtakes from Friends, with the accent on roasted salmons instead of cute haircuts.

A true bred-in-the-bone DSC is a natural, unfussy cook--more borscht than Bordelaise. Nonnie picked olives outside Naples before she married a dashing tailor who worked for the Metropolitan Opera on this side of the pond. And before I discovered the joys of M.F.K. Fisher, my first culinary muse was Alice May Brock, the accommodating Sixties DSC of Arlo Guthrie's epic song "Alice's Restaurant." In her singularly casual cookbook, Alice explained that she sometimes fed the unexpected guest out of a spare hubcap lined with foil. That tip stuck with me. If your kitchen fields 911 calls, you'd better know how to improvise.

I realize now that this is missionary work. And it's hardly an orthodox ministry, given its mixture of "L'chaim!" and "There, there." I'd never claim sainthood: the DSC impulse springs from a hungry heart and is quite selfish in its way. As my mom put it recently, "I just like to have people around."

Winning a true convert to the comforts and pleasures of the table is the DSC's earthly reward. My husband and his two brothers grew up with a loving but kitchen-impaired mom who still announces dinner with the shriek of a smoke alarm. When I met her eldest, his single-guy cupboard held a can of Manwich and some spongy white bread. In the decade we've been together, I'd like to think I've rehabbed his palate as well as his perspective. One night, as he pushed back from a pretty fair feed, he was seized by this postprandial aperçu: "You know, good food can make you really happy. Makes you want to talk, be with people." He proposed a plan for our new old house in the Connecticut woods: Sunday suppers! We'll take all comers.

We've bought a second table that can fold out to fit 16 or so. And I've recently found a way to continue deliveries to my favorite city folk. I worked up a pot of that veggie chili and drove it down to my mom's, and with a precision I'd describe as almost ritualistic, she fired up the Seal-a-Meal. We filled, we sealed, we stacked. And via cooler, a half-dozen neat sacks of the stuff were delivered to forlorn West Side freezers.

I handed off a few bags to my Aunt Mary, Nonnie's second daughter, who, at nearly 80, is the family's most formidable baked-goods DSC. She still delivers Italian Easter cakes in her shiny teal Taurus but hates to cook for herself. "This is great, dear," she said, tucking the pouches of chili into her ubiquitous shopping bag. "But you'd better give me the recipe too. I know someone who needs the protein."

GERRI HIRSHEY is currently writing a book about women in rock and roll for Grove Atlantic Press.

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