I stand over the biggest pot we own — the pot I call the spaghetti pot — and throw things in on a whim. The steam rises up and fogs my glasses, warm air meeting the cool air in the kitchen. I don’t normally make chicken noodle soup in August, but the youngest boy came down with a wicked fever and after a day and a half of eating nothing, requested my “noodle soup.” I obliged, but turned the air conditioning down and pointed a fan at myself as I stood in the kitchen, making the magic elixir of feeling better.
I make my chicken noodle soup when the fall winds start to blow and we have plans to sit at a high school football game in jeans and hooded sweatshirts, cuddling under royal blue blankets as we cheer for our team. Through the bone-chilling winds of winter, I make pot after steamy pot of the warming soup, in hopes that we’ll make it through another dark season. As spring thaws us out, I make it a few last times to give us the energy to make it through baseball season and off into the summer, the season that we live on sandwiches and fresh vegetables and all the berries.
And, of course, when someone is sick. I make my soup during colds and after fevers. My boys have been known to spike ridiculous fevers and adding any food into the mix only results in unfortunate vomiting. After a diet of saltine crackers, bananas and water, they get quite ravenous once the fever breaks. LittleBrother came up with a 103.2 degree fever the other afternoon, which I discovered after he put himself down for a nap. Never a good sign. We kept him resting and hydrated, and a day and a half later, he asked for chicken noodle soup for dinner.
That’s how I found myself sweating in the kitchen on an August evening.
Someday I fear that the boys will ask me for a recipe so that they can carry their feel good soup off into their own families when they grow up and move on to new things. I will have to look at them and admit: I don’t have a recipe for my soup.
I’ve never made it the same way twice.
Sometimes the chicken is already shredded, leftover from something else earlier in the week when I had the good sense to plan ahead. Sometimes, like this time, I have to boil it up. Sometimes I use a whole chicken, roasted. Sometimes I use chicken breasts, other times thighs. I have, in a pinch, used canned chicken — because when a previously sick and now feeling better child asks for the chicken noodle soup, you deliver the chicken noodle soup. Sometimes I use carrots, celery, onions and parsnips. Sometimes I only use one of those — or, one time after the entire house had been down for the count with a wicked stomach virus, I use none. Salt and pepper — or not. Poultry seasoning and garlic — or not. Rosemary — or not. Any number of spices that I run my hand against as I reach high above my head to our spice cupboard could end up in the brothy mix — or not.
I grew up watching the adults in my life cook in much the same manner. My dad would (and still does) “doctor up” even convenience foods, never content with what came out of a package or a jar or a box. My grandmother had never written down her recipes until she made me a book of all of my favorites when I got married. I still think she left out some of the secret ingredients just because she could. My mom could take a bunch of random ingredients and make the best stir fry ever. It’s how I grew up watching the adults in my life cook.
I’ve grown in the kitchen over the years. Even up to a few years ago, I felt the need to follow a recipe exactly as it was written. Now, I substitute here and omit there and add in over here and skip this step and do something else when I feel something else needs done. I know what I like, I know what my kids will eat, I know what makes my husband look at me with that look in his eye and say, “This is good.” I still rely heavily on recipes found on the web, in books, and from friends in order to make a two week menu plan, but not in the perfectionist, “it must be like this to be right” kind of way that I started out way back when.
I chop up a quarter of an onion, only crying a little bit. I finish off a bag of baby carrots, only sending one little piece rolling to the floor where the dog chased it and gobbled it up before I could bend to grab it away from her. Garlic, a smidge of butter, salt, pepper, and yes to the rosemary this time. And then comes the best part of the chicken noodle soup: the sitting down and reading a book with the boys while the soup does its “thing.” The house smells with the scent of good things as we snuggle closely on the couch under green and blue blankies, reading and giggling and tummies growling.
Eventually the flavors have simmered together for long enough and the wide egg noodles — the noodles of my childhood — are thrown in while I get the table set, the cups filled, the kids sent off to wash hands. I fill the bowls, glasses steaming again. I set each one down in front of a seat, cooked noodles and chicken and broth and carrots looking inviting and warming. I set out the saltines and I sit in my own seat, the boys looking to me. We say our meal time prayer, and then… we eat.
The room falls quiet for all of four seconds.
“Mommy, you make the best soup ever.”
“I’m going to eat all of this and then have some more.”
“I’m going to eat more than you.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re NOT!’
I tune them out and close my eyes, escaping in the flavors in my mouth… in my soul. Generations of my family have provided for their children, their families, in this way. I feel thankful that I learned and made my own way in this manner, that I can sit at the table with my two Talky McGees and know that I did this, that I have provided, that I did something real, something good.