Lessons from the Soup Queen of Seattle
After recovering from treatment for brain cancer, cookbook author Caroline Wright was on a mission to deliver soup to the community that nourished her.
Last year, I made 2,730 quarts of soup (or the equivalent of 44 kegs of soup for all of you class acts out there). In fact, as you are reading this, I am probably making soup right now. I run a weekly vegan soup club in my neighborhood of Seattle, which has earned me the nickname of soup lady, or, sometimes, flatteringly, the soup queen, among many of my friends.
Oh, and last year while I was making those splashy kiddie pools’ worth of soup? I was writing a cookbook about it, too, as if I needed to prove how soup-crazy I am. Believe me when I say that soup is a way of life in my house.
I caught this soup bug when I was sick, approaching four years ago now. Really sick, actually: I was diagnosed with brain cancer and told I had a year to live. (I’m writing this now, so you know the story turns out okay.) As a cookbook author and person who loves to cook and eat, cooking is not only a function to live, but a deep connection to something likely resembling a religion in others. So not being able to cook for myself and my family meant my identity had fallen suddenly and gravely ill, too.
My abrupt diagnosis—I went from complaining of headaches to surgery in two weeks flat—seemed to inspire anyone who heard about my story to want to help. Since I couldn’t cook, my creativity spilled into writing furiously online about my experience, and more people than I knew were reading my words. A call for homemade soup in my online journal manifested a sea of jars left daily on our front porch: by neighbors I didn’t yet know, parents at our son’s preschool, and local friends of my friends from elsewhere. We were new to town and knew very few people, so the support was especially shocking and deeply transformative. I was being fed by strangers, living proof of the connection between food and community that I wrote about in my work.
Soup materialized three times a day on our doorstep for three months, until I was recovered enough from my surgery that I decided I wanted to cook my own food again. I honestly believe that this soup miracle was the first in a string that would follow that led me to heal, to survive. It gave me a debt of both community (and of soup, really) that I wanted to repay in the only ways I knew how, to cook and gather people around good food; and now, by making a cookbook.
A Soup Lady's Secret to Great Vegan Soup
My evolution from cancer patient to soup lady in my community was fairly easy; it was making the soups in the volume I wanted to that challenged my skill as a cook and my creativity. I had previously decided all the soups would be vegan, celebrating dietary restriction as a form to be played within rather than a confinement. The soups I was making began to take on a kind of common personality: classic, comforting, but each somehow unexpected. They certainly were different than any soups I’d ever had before—and I’d eaten what felt to be the repertoire of every cook in Seattle.
After my diagnosis, I worried that my kitchen skills had departed along with the ingredients I had given up after my diagnosis. But my confidence in cooking returned with each excited text I received from my friends. They were taking my soup with them everywhere, seemingly as obsessed with it as I was. That was when I knew I had to write a cookbook, that only I could fully communicate this current of soup-crazy that was swirling around me.
I wanted to explode the association of what the words “vegan” and “soup” placed next to each other could imply to a skeptic: lightweight, unsatisfying, meek. Opposing these associations was my point of entry for every soup idea I came up with. Then, I did what I usually do before I cook something new and think seriously about the season, about where I am, and infuse my ideas with those influences. Some recipes came together as a study in a particular vegetable—my favorites were ones centered around the redemption of produce with bad reputations, like cabbage or beets—or a vegan rendition of a classic soup or stew.
Lesson #1: Never, Ever Call for Broth
Season liberally and only add water once: These qualities are the underpinnings for what amounts to the advice I have to lend, my soup lady wisdom: salt and water are the key ingredients in all soups, but especially in vegan ones that don’t contain broth; season liberally at each stage while tasting it along the way; and only add water once. (The water that simmers with the aromatics, seasonings and vegetables becomes broth during cooking; adding any afterwards thins the flavor that mounted during its simmer.)
Lesson #2: Concentrate Flavor with Heat
One of my favorite ways to wring the flavor out of vegetables – especially common ones that everyone thinks they already know—is to roast them. Roasting allows the vegetables to soften and their flavor to deepen through caramelization that can’t be reached at the bottom of a soup pot. That is, unless you’re speaking of tomato paste, which I love to cook in hot oil until it sticks a little, which is the very same idea. Both steps add depth to the soup, making it just that touch different than other tomato soups.
Lesson #3: Keep Texture in Mind
Texture is the primary offense against soup boredom: my goal is to have a range of textures in every bite so my friends are scraping their bowls for more. That’s why my version of a classic tomato soup contains puréed aromatics for a rich broth, combined with both diced and crushed tomatoes. Quinoa is cooked directly in the soup, offering a quick source of protein as well as a nicely nubby texture.
Lesson #4: Finish with an Acid
Other than salt, acid is an important tool to bring out the best flavor of the soup and generally is added to taste at the end of cooking.
And the secret to the very best soup? Share it. Leave it as a surprise on a friend’s doorstep, then text them it’s out there, like I do. Then you’ll finally understand the secret of the club.
Advance copies of Caroline Wright’s newest cookbook, Soup Club, are available for purchase on the book's Kickstarter campaign, which went live on September 21, 2020.