A Gift of Soup
It’s your grandmother who explains it, hands still wet from the dishwater, twisitng a gold ring onto a wide-mouthed jar: how quart bottles work as well as anything, the same jar, maybe, that held the corn or tomatoes, if the lid isn’t too puckered. If you pop the lids off with the ring, that doesn’t happen the way it does with an opener, and they’re still a good fit, not leak proof, but tight. Or you can cap the bottle with plastic wrap and a rubber band, or tinfoil if you’re going to be careful. A bowl with a snug lid, that’s fine of course, but most times people aren’t so worried about getting bottles back. Canning jars trade around like a cold: a quart of cherries or bottled pears goes out to a daughter or a neighbor, peaches or tomato juice come back from home.
Put the soup in warm, and it will stay that way awhile. Wrap the bottle in something, a dishtowel or some newspaper, and it will still be right to eat when whoever you’ve given it gets home or where they’re going. Riding next to someone on a seat, the warmth itself will bring on appetite like the smell of cooking. When she did this for your father (or your mother), traveling off to school or back to the city after a holiday, she’d send a plastic spoon, so later they could eat straight from the jar, the soup still lukewarm, while a friend drove. They’d have that one good meal to get them started, and for as long as it took for the taste to fade, the lid to be screwed tight and the bottle put away, they’d miss where they had been, and that’s good for children who’ve begun to leave home.
Something hearty’s best—don’t send out a jar of something thin and fine, French onion or bouillon. The exception being a quart of stock as starter, which is like a cutting off a plant or the old loaning of an ember from a hearth to kindle a new fire. Better, though, to send rough-cut vegetable, rich with stew beef or big crumbs of hamburger. Chicken with good thick noodles—like her own, simmering on the range top and giving off the scent of celery and mild onion. Potato. A chowder. Stew. Something meant to make a meal, or even two. Tomato if it’s homemade, turkey with carrots and rice, beans with ham, split pea (if you like it), minestrone, goulash, the family chili, meaty gumbo.
There are rules to know. She looks at you sharply here because she believes propriety, the binding weave of social order, is lost to your generation. When it’s you on the receiving end, take care, on occasion, to rinse the jar and return it with a spray of bachelor buttons, the ones that grow along your porch; snapdragons from beside the fence; the columbine that winds around the backyard tap. Fill it full of M&Ms or butter mints, licorice, jelly beans, bridge mix or sour balls. Drop a note inside, or you can send a little card. This is not done in exchange; it’s a separate gift. And it’s not done every time—you don’t barter with affection. (If she only knew!) Don’t return soup for soup, just as you would never give back a pie plate with another pie: it feels like competition.
When you’re the giver, tell the son or daughter—brother, neighbor, stranger, bachelor, guest, friend—that the soup will be better on the second day. There’s a richness that comes with time and the close association of ingredients. Tell them to add a little salt if they need to. Tell them it’s good with bread and butter, cheese if they have it, a dish of fruit.
When they say thank you, just say you’re welcome. Don’t make apologies for your cooking.
She explains how she’ll sit and think of them the next day at noon, at the table where you sit down with her now, watching rain run down the window, steam twist up from an old pink bowl. She sends them a good thought, or a prayer, she says; then, unsure anymore of how you believe, she falters and settles on: just some good wish. You smile, butter bread for both of you. You pass plates and salt, eat while your cups are full.