Soul Food



It was the day I’d been waiting for. But rising out of bed in the early morning light of my mother’s house, I felt a heaviness in my head and sinuses, the lingering effects of the flu that had kept me housebound for the past several days. As I slipped into flannel pants and a sweatshirt, I wondered how I’d fare that afternoon at the local library where friends and family were gathering to hear me read from my first book of poetry. I’d flown back to Toronto from the West Coast for this event and, despite the way I felt, I was determined to make the best of the occasion.

I was still contemplating the reading when, as I opened the door of the bedroom, a soft earthy aroma enveloped me, an aroma I realized was chicken soup that my mother, Mary, was making. I smiled, flooded with memories of the magical broth, handed down from her mother, Anna, to become an integral part of family dinners during my childhood and teenage years.

Now, its scent seemed to bathe every cell with its healing essence. My head and sinuses cleared as soon as I walked into the kitchen, where the old chicken soup pot was sitting on the stove emitting its delicate steam. Moments later, my mother emerged from the basement where she’d been doing the laundry and other tasks. She told me she’d been up since before dawn making the soup and setting the dining room table for lunch, when my oldest brother’s family would join us.

I couldn’t wait. After last-minute preparations for the reading, I took the biggest bowl from the cupboard and ladled large scoops of golden broth with bits of carrot, celery and potato into it. Then, I forked a pile of newly cooked egg noodles into the bowl and blended the mixture. Ensconced on the living room couch with the bowl on my lap and spooning the delightful concoction into my mouth, I felt sure I’d be well enough to do a passable reading. And indeed, I was.

Extending my stay over the next couple of weeks and with Christmas approaching, I watched the unfolding of my mother’s holiday cooking. First was the baking of white Christmas cake, a 40-year family tradition, as is the highly coveted dark cake, which she had made before my arrival. (In weeks to come, she would lay out both versions in silver dishes around the house, or wrap them as gifts for her friends and neighbours.) Next she baked delicate tarts of sweet mincemeat that, after a small sampling, she wisely stored in boxes in the freezer. Following this came pale, perfectly baked shortbread that melted in my mouth.

One morning, I entered the kitchen to find my mother making cabbage rolls on the table. As she lifted a limp, green leaf into a large pan, then scooped a mixture of cooked rice and hamburger into its centre, she explained: “You’ve got to fold the top down first, then the sides before you roll it up, otherwise the mixture will fall out.” I marvelled at her nimble but strong fingers, her steady patience in folding each leaf carefully before rolling it into a small bundle. As a young girl, she would watch her mother make meatless cabbage rolls, “and she’d give me the small ones to eat,” she said, her voice softening.

I’d heard the same soft tones days before as she told me of another one of her mother’s dishes, this one made out of the gel from boiled pork hocks. “Mother always made me a little dish and set it aside. It was very special. It was very good.”

I realized then it wasn’t so much what dish her mother cooked; it was the fact that it was prepared with care and attention. It was as though my grandmother infused a part of herself into the food, which my mother perhaps didn’t consciously recognize at the time but felt intuitively. And I realized that this was the significance of my mother’s cooking, too. I had come to associate her chicken soup with continuity, comfort and, most of all, the feeling of being nourished. Her desire to offer something of herself to her children and grandchildren is an expression of her love for us. And through our mother’s cooking, we are linked to our grandmother and to our cultural roots.

I never knew my grandmother well. She died of a heart attack when I was 13. Still, I remember visits to her small home in Thorold, Ont., on Sunday afternoons after church. After we arrived from our nearby home in Niagara Falls, I’d head for the jar of “twisters” (lightly fried pastry thins) and hard honey cookies on the counter and take them to the cellar to eat while playing in the cupboards with my brothers. On special occasions, the whole family would gather in my grandmother’s dining room, where the table would be covered with platters of cabbage rolls, sauerkraut and sausage, egg bread and chicken soup, in gold-etched china bowls. My mother told me my grandmother had had a hard life, having come to Canada by boat from Poland in 1929 with her three small daughters, speaking only Ukrainian. My grandfather had arrived months earlier to find work in Windsor, Ont., where the family, once reunited, stayed with cousins for nine months. There was little money for anything except life’s necessities, but the family managed. Thus the importance of simple pleasures — such as home-cooked dishes.

The other day, I made chicken soup for the first time. My partner, Phil, got all the ingredients, including carrots, potatoes, onion and celery, as well as organic chicken, at a local shop on Salt Spring Island, B.C., where we live. Having gone to pick up my youngest brother for a weekend visit, I began cooking late — it was well after dinnertime when the familiar earthy aroma began wafting through the cottage. Several times I bent my head over the pot to breathe in the alluring scent. What was itabout this simple recipe of chicken and vegetables that produces such pleasing flavours? I wondered. At this moment an image of my grandmother came into my mind, and she smiled as though to say, “This is the magic of the soup. Enjoy it.”

Published in Homemaker’s, November, 2003