Monday, November 22, 2010

La Soupe de Tomate

In 1981, my mom’s best friend was Daphne. Daphne came from the pages of a Victor Hugo novel. Her grandfather was a turn of the century industrialist from Arques (a town where we lived in Northern France in the early 80s). The family did well –a Victorian mansion in northern France, an apartment in Paris, a summer home in Saint Tropez. But those were grander days that passed with the changing wind. For although the buildings remained, the lifestyle and its contents were austere, like Daphne’s visage, bare and pink, no trace of makeup. No pretenses either with her flowing frizzy orange hair that bounced freely, when she walked.

On a day like any other, only a couple months working at the glass distillery called Arcopal – my mother, a new émigré and secretary, met Daphne, the cousin of the HR director. Something clicked and they became inseparable.

I saw her often in our tiny 1 bedroom flat where they would talk well into the night that became day again, the sounds of scraping butter over toast. Or during long walks we would take on the canal behind our apartment or on lovely late summer picnics when you could eat sweet raspberries right off of the vine.

In winter, we were invited to have dinner with her family. I was 6 at the time. We walked into the mansion; with its large wrought iron doors, its echoing hallways and cavernous rooms. The grandeur of wealth turned into a shadow, dilapidated and cold.

Madame P - Daphne's mother, a petite woman with black hair pulled into a bun, was in the kitchen – one of the 2 places in the home that was lit and heated. The kitchen was covered with white tiles and Wonder Woman was on the television. If no one were there, I would have surely spun myself around with Linda Carter to reveal my true magical identity.

Madame saw my eyes light up as I stood in front of the television, hypnotized. We didn’t have one.

Vien ici, come here.”

She lured me away from the tv set and pointed to a brown box in the corner. There was a circle of black fur inside. Several kittens lay hibernating tucked inside a labyrinth of each other’s bodies.

“You can pet them. Take one.”

I knelt down next to the box excited by their miniature bodies and limbs. I stroked their heads of black velvet, mesmerized by their sharp claws, their eyes, and whiskers, the sounds they made, mie…mieee… mieeou.

Madame went to a pot on the stove and stirred its mysterious, unassuming contents. Finally, the soup was ready.

We made our way to the dining room, the second place in the house that was lit and heated. There was a large roaring fire. The dining table sat right in front of the fireplace so you could instantly feel the heat on your face.

The oval table was vast and immense - more than enough space for the 5 of us. Madame, Daphne, her brother –(I don’t remember his name, something that sounded like Gregoire or Edouard) and my mom. Gregoire or Edouard spoke little. He looked like his sister, yet with eyes more distinctly out turned and that same orange hair, parted down in the middle. Across from me, he grinned like a devil as he lifted his hands, revealing 3 fingers on each hand, a secret deformity meant to shock.

Daphne ladled the soup, red and white lava pools into each of the delicate china bowls and passed them around. There was salt on the table, pepper, cheese, cream and croutons.

The soup was an autumn pasture–the smell of fresh milk inside a pail and ruby tomatoes that had ripened underneath a bay leaf tree. On first taste, it felt like putting on a cashmere sweater after coming back from the rain. Soft, warm and comforting. Each spoonful was another coal for the fire, stoking the flames inside my chest and belly. Daphne poured more cream liberally into her soup. She added cheese and croutons. I followed along and did the same, enjoying the hard bread turning into soft clouds on my tongue. I looked around studying my surrounding, the edges of the room began to transform into a chiaroscuro painting from Caravaggio; faces around me, the dark shadows and lines illuminated against the bold orange rays of the fire.

On my lap, a secret; a black kitten sleeping that I would pet ever so often with my fingers.

I don’t remember the rest of the meal.

I just remember that soup. And that bubbling feeling of delight. Yes, that feeling. The first feeling of comfort and joy by which to define future experiences. I’ve felt it many times later in life, in different forms, similar vibrations like the feeling after a long run, the sheer thrill of jumping into a pool, or maybe a first kiss, soft and breathless. Or even falling in love when you feel something warm in your heart and then a little light headed afterwards. A mixture of fear/uncertainty turned into surprise turned into bliss.


10 years went by and I was 16 when my mother and I returned to France, our first trip back. It was the last month of the year, and we were in Paris with family. We met up with Daphne for an afternoon. We spent long hours catching up and walking on the cold streets along the Champs Elysees and along the department stores of Gallerie de Lafayette.

She took us back to their home where we found Madame P in the kitchen.

“Maman, do you remember Lan and her daughter?”

Madame smiled blankly, but then something in the curve of her mouth revealed a glimmer of the past.

“Yes, of course. Your daughter, I remember when she spent the week with us and she didn’t let me bathe her. She wouldn't let me. She went a week without bathing. Yes! How are you? Would you like something warm to eat?”

Something was bubbling on the stove, something familiar that greeted me from the cold.

Daphne’s cousin, his hands cupped around a coffee cup filled with the color of fire.

“Mmmmm, la soupe de tomate. Elle est bonne. Tomato soup, it’s good.”


I made my version of the tomato soup recently. I tried to recreate the same taste by memory. It ended up being slightly different from my childhood, perhaps my own experiences infusing the soup. But still so tasty. It’s something you can try if you need to stoke and keep the internal fires warm or even recreate the feeling of falling in love on a winter’s day.

Tomato Soup. Serves 12-16

3 large cans of tomatoes, (although you can use fresh)
1 leek
1 potato
1 yam
vegetable bouillon cubes
1 cheese rind
bay leaves

Cook for several hours (it was 10 hrs on low, you can easily cut it to 2-3 hrs on med/high). Time (like writing) is really the secret ingredient. The more time, the better it tastes. Add honey, pepper, salt, butter and cream to taste.


Julia said...

I loved that soup! so warm and tasty :) Taking note of the recipe!

White Shell Girl said...

So glad you liked it and it didn't make you think of tomato sauce ;)

Lan N. Bui said...

I think I read a classic novel, your expressions, your writing brings me back the momentum.There were tender memories along the beautiful passage of life I cherish. You write it so glowingly.

White Shell Girl said...

thanks ma :))))))) they were lovely memories.

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