The Soup of Life

The meat, the meat must be beef shank. Preferable with bone in, it makes a much better tasting soup. Set it to cook in a large pot three-quarters full of water. Add the spices at this initial stage. Salt, black pepper, garlic. The amounts are not measured, taste is what matters.

It must be watched closely at first. The fat will rise and needs to be scooped out, a spoonful at a time, making the broth leaner, clearer.

You let it simmer as life simmers, gently, but persistently. Bringing memories bubbling to the surface.

“Papa, when do you add the vegetables?”

“I don’t know, Mijita.”

You know he does, but you say nothing and instead turn back to the stove. The meat is soft now and curls around its round flat bone. The bone is white as white can be, the marrow nestled in its center. You poke at it with the spoon, breaking it up into pieces, allowing its juice to mix with the broth. Meanwhile, you have chopped an onion into large chunks and added it to the broth in progress. Its layers float to the top, shimmery, translucent, adding their own juice to the ensuing broth.

It is you in the kitchen this Sunday morning. Your mother is sick, a migraine keeping her abed. You feel a deep sense of desperation. You want to fill in for her, but you can’t. You are not her and your father knows you are not her. He walks through the kitchen and steps outside, leaving you to divine the next steps. You know what the soup looks like when it’s done, but not how it gets that way.

With the fat scooped out, you can step away and leave it alone for an hour, or two, being careful not to let the broth cook away to nothing. This simmering will cause the meat to shred, making it so tender you barely have to chew it.

This soup is a staple at your house growing up. Every other Sunday the house is filled with the aroma of its cooking. Your mouth waters at the thought and you are helplessly transported back in time. You see the tall clay pot sitting on the stove, flames licking its full rounded bottom, its flared top opened wide, gaping at the ceiling, its middle pinched in like a waist. It resembles a woman’s shape, you realize, and wonder what the potter was thinking while he shaped it. It doesn’t appear to hold much, yet your mother makes sure everyone eats their fill. You can never figure out how she does that.

Once the meat has cooked through and through, it’s time for the potatoes. Scrub them well and slice them crosswise into thick slices, unpeeled. During the time they need to cook, chop up the rest of the vegetables, carrots, squash and cabbage.

Take the fresh corn on the cob and slice off the tip then shuck the corn peeling back the husk to its core, then with a firm grip, snap off the cornstalk. Under running water, work off the silk tucked into the rows of kernels. Score the center of the corn with a sharp knife and then break it in half.

The corn was your favorite part. You looked forward to it. There seemed to be so few pieces in that pot, but your mother always made sure you got one. Those firm yellow kernels glistened sweetly as you inhaled your soup, leaving the corn for last. There was no need to salt it or add anything to it; it was perfect as it was. You ate it row by row, working your way down the length of it, making it last. When all the kernels had disappeared, you siphoned out the succulent broth from within that cob, again working your way along it lengthwise, making sucking noises that made your younger siblings laugh.

When the potatoes are done, fish them out and place them in a covered dish. Add the rest of the vegetables and continue cooking. In approximately thirty minutes it will all be done.

There is not enough room in your deep stainless steel cookpot to hold all the ingredients at once. It makes no sense to you. It seems so much bigger than the clay pot of your memories. Nevertheless, you set the potatoes aside before adding the vegetables. You’re not sure when you figured out the sequence to this, if you were shown it or if it just came to you, but it matters not, now.

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