Have you ever completely written off a food altogether? That’s what I did with tomato soup after tasting the ubiquitous red and white canned variety when I was growing up. It’s one of those things that when people talked about how good it was or described it as being comforting I always thought to myself why? I could not wrap my head around what it was that other people found appealing about it. I remember finding it just kinda blah: lackluster, vaguely sweet in an off-putting way that reminded me of (uh-oh) SpaghettiOs, and worst of all, it left a strange sorta metallic, tinny taste on my tongue...it just wasn’t meant for me to understand the love others had for it.
That being said, I was always encouraged to try new foods—as well as to retry foods I didn’t like—at least three times. That was one of my mom’s rules, because, as she would say: “You never know, you might learn to like it.” And she was right. (Boy, is she gonna love that). I have since learned to like many things because of it, and let me tell you, I’d hate to look back on a life lived without mustard, lox, cauliflower, shrimp with their heads still on, and even tomato soup. But I sometimes need my senses to override my skeptical, preconceived notions as to what I may or may not like.
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When I was studying anthropology in college, I worked as a server and bartender at a small, family-owned white tablecloth restaurant where I learned many things about food, people, different cultures, wealth, status, and the food service industry. And yet, what stuck with me then, and still sticks with me to this day, is how little I actually know. Ya know?
At my job, I was serving lots of things I’d never eaten before, and things I was certain I never would eat: not only because I couldn’t afford to, but also because I was, admittedly and embarrassingly, grossed out by the idea of them. One being foie gras, and the other being mussels. Now, I’d happily sell and serve them all day—if I remember correctly, the foie gras appetizer went for $18 bucks a pop, and that could be most auspicious for a broke college student’s impending tip—but in my mind, I’d wonder why do people eat these things?
Well, sometimes when you’re working and you get into a state of flow where all you can focus on is gliding through the tasks at hand like a pinball bouncing around a machine played by a wizard (Greet table two. Water table six. Table four needs bread. The six-top at table eleven looks ready to order. The drinks are up at the bar for table eight. I think there’s food up in the kitchen for the guests at the bar. Oh crap, the chicken people just walked in…) it can be surprising to get knocked out of it all of a sudden because your sense of smell stops you in your tracks to let you know “Hey! Holy hell! Those mussels smell amazing!” And you realize your tongue is now salivating from the scent of the sauteed foie gras that sits glistening atop a coin of toasted brioche and is draped with a whisper of balsamic reduction and smacked with a flick of minced chives. My senses were tipping me off to the fact that I was missing out on things. And I do not like missing out on things when it comes to food.
Once in awhile, at the end of a crazy busy night, my boss would order a smattering of dishes from the menu for the front of house to munch on, and we’d soothe ourselves with it while telling each other tales from that evening’s weeds. This took place much to the chagrin of the back of house, who had also just gotten rocked, and was trying to clean up and get the eff outta the restaurant in order to grab a drink or see their families before they had to go to sleep, get up, come back, and do it all over again. While everyone else descended like vultures, I would hesitate: I always felt conflicted and a little guilty about partaking in the feast. It really felt like a slap in the face to the kitchen. I mean, they did always cook us a top-notch family meal before service, so it wasn’t like we hadn’t been fed. But, this was a different kind of hunger. And, I’m only human. So, nonetheless, I dug in. It was always an array of decadence: warm goat cheese accompanied either by raisin-walnut bread or roasted elephant garlic and crostini; grilled andouille and chicken-apple sausages with sauteed peppers, onions, and cornbread; the best crab cake I’ve ever had, with remoulade, roasted red pepper coulis, and sauteed julienned vegetables; mussels piled high in a garlicky broth, spiked with white wine and punctuated with bright green fines herbs; and not to be outdone, the aforementioned foie gras. I mean, all discussion of lavage aside, the flesh is weak, and I needed to taste.
Besides, have you ever seen how the front of house gets down with free food put in front of them? Have you ever seen Jaws? Or one of those nature shows where a pack of lions gets ahold of a galloping gazelle? In mere moments there’s nothing left but hoof and antler. You’re either part of the pack or the carrion lurking nearby. I, myself, prefer to grab a plate with a little bit of everything and back out of the feeding frenzy before the double-dippers and finger-lickers can contaminate my experience.
I suddenly found myself eating the same foods that the wealthy folk who dined at the restaurant ate. The people whose Burberry coats and furs I’d check. The people who drove fancy cars and were always either coming from the country club or going to the theater. I was awakening to how food can be a unifying, equalizing force and to the fact that despite the variety of reasons people choose to eat what they do, none the least of which is simply because they taste so good! By being afraid to try, I had, indeed, been missing out.
Yet, sometimes the mind becomes numb to what it thinks it knows and needs a jolt. And so it was with tomato soup. I found myself working at another restaurant selling something other people went bonkers for but that I had decided wasn’t for me. Once again I experienced a moment where I couldn’t deny my senses...its savory aroma would taunt me as it wafted from the terrine “You are missing out, Katherine!” (Because in my mind it addressed me formally.) It was deceptively simple in design: canned tomatoes, onions, sugar, milk, and baking soda. People would often clamor after what the secret ingredient was, eyes narrowing as they scowled at me in disbelief while I promised there wasn’t one. I would ladle out cups here and bowls there by the hundreds all while it made my mouth water until, one day, I tried it, and I, too, saw the light. It was sweet, savory, acidic, bright, creamy, and its warmth filled me with the satisfying and soul-soothing sense that I always imagined others experienced when they ate tomato soup. What an utter fool I’d been!
And later on at another place of work, I experienced yet again a mind-blowingly good tomato soup that was familiar and yet so different. This one was comprised of a veritable V8’s worth of vegetables along with a touch of cream, and I found it was best delivered/enjoyed via hand-torn hunks of warm, crusty French bread dunked into it, treating it less like a soup and more like a thick, delicious dip you stand nearby at a party partially because you’re socially awkward but also for fear that if you walk away and come back it will all be gone.
This tomato soup is a best of both worlds scenario of the two that taught me how good tomato soup can be. It is still simple, delicious, and rich but also includes more vegetables along with the depth of flavor that a good-quality (homemade!) stock provides.
Yield: About 1 ½ quarts
Well hello! I'm Kat, and
I'm always either cooking or thinking about what I want to cook next. For me, food is always about so much more than just my next meal. This is a place for sharing stories and recipes from a life lived through the lens of food...