Volume 4
An Online Literary Magazine
October 30, 2010


Soupe du Jour


Meredith Escudier


"The turnip is not a pretentious vegetable, nor is it prestigious. Smaller than many a potato and less versatile, it occupies an easily overlooked bin in market stalls...And yet the turnip dominates..."

he turnip dominates,” I was once told as I sipped hot soup around the family dinner table. Concerned by such news, I looked up from my assiette creuse, my spoon still poised in mid-air, but no one else seemed perturbed by the turnip’s domination. The careful sipping and slurping of home-made soup carried on as usual around the mahogany table of my French parents-in-law.


The turnip is not a pretentious vegetable, nor is it prestigious. Smaller than many a potato and less versatile, it occupies an easily overlooked bin in market stalls. It can be found way down by the ordinary vegetables, neighboring the carrots and earth-encrusted potatoes, some pungent leeks, or maybe a few round nubby cabbages. And yet, the turnip, this oblong, irregularly-shaped, purplish white root tuber, dominates. How is this possible?


But there was no room for doubt. I had just heard it from the horse’s mouth. With quiet purpose and calm deliberation, my father-in-law, Alexandre, was just stating the obvious: C’est le navet qui domine. He shared this information with the same casual ease that he might pronounce any obvious truth. Time marches on. Live and let live. The turnip dominates. He was practicing the consummate French art of commenting on food while simultaneously consuming food, an exercise so commonplace in France that it hardly bears mentioning. Biology is destiny and so, apparently, is food reviewing in France.


Jovial, thoughtful, searching, comparative, historical, sophisticated or sentimental, the tone may vary, but ongoing food commentary will not go away. It is based on the notion of respect: respect for the cook, for the ingredients and for the moment. Food for sustenance triggers food for thought and quite naturally slides into food for conversation. Past meals are tenderly remembered: the Day of the Twelve-Egg Omelette, the Season of Milky Oysters, the Five-Hour Lunch. They serve as past personal benchmarks and offer new perspectives for advancing the careful evaluation of the food at hand, not to be overlooked. La soupe d’Alexandre, as a model of straightforward turnip dominance, would be no exception.


The soup itself was a golden, nearly apricot color, suggesting the presence of pumpkin and carrots, maybe white beans for heartiness or leeks for tradition. The lowly turnip could easily have been overpowered by the rest--the soup had been puréed--but the French palate and nose were, as always, on alert, sleuthing out the subtlety of this given soup and what the unique result of such a seasonal improvisation might be. And this time, it was undeniable: The turnip had come out on top.


Alexandre is a soup maker. This does not mean he makes industrial quantities of soup in one fell swoop, storing it in quart jars while it awaits consumption. No, instead, he makes a new soup nearly every day. Why is this? Because in the evening, one has soup, fresh soup, la soupe du jour, not la soupe d’hier. These are the principles garnered from his childhood in rural Périgord, one of the poorest regions in France where he was born in 1912. Poor in gross domestic product peut-être, but rich in culinary traditions. This is the original land of the force-fed geese and ducks who succumb to the pressures of funnel-feeding. Filled to the brim with poultry pâtée (pâtée, not pâté, a different animal altogether), they have no choice but to roll over and render their foie gras for Christmas dinner.


No less revered in Alexandre’s childhood was the Périgourdin pig, also the recipient of a devoted, familial attention. In Salignac, Montignac and Sarlat, le cochon would be nourished and coddled all year long, only to be lovingly slaughtered in the late fall at what would turn out to be a family fête lasting several days. In vats and pots and on vast tables, the venerable pig would be transformed into pâté, salted ham, blood sausage, pig’s feet and rillettes, and would provide precious, rich, caloric provisions for the whole year.


In Périgord, as in any rural region of the world, people respect the seasons and consume nature’s sometimes meager bounty, whether it be planted and harvested by man or offered up by the forest. Chestnuts are collected and roasted in wintertime, their hot, marbled chestnut meat rough and thick on the tongue. They form the basis of the typical stuffing for the Christmas turkey, la dinde aux marrons, a tradition the French still follow today. Autumn is rich with the promise of mushrooms--giant ceps, pitted-topped morels, burnt orange chanterelles--all lurking and waiting to be found when the conditions are right, after a rain when the soil is still moist, near some old oak trees, surrounded by wild ferns, just around the bend in a secret hideaway that no one else knows about--and never will, if all goes according to plan.



"Prigord, poor in gross domestic product peut-tre, but rich in culinary traditions." Photo by Luc Viatour.

Respect for nature, with its quirks and fluctuations, colored Alexandre’s youth, indelibly marking both his palate and sense of self. Nightly home-made soups brought him and his two sisters, all war-orphaned by 1915, an authoritative mark of stability, of ongoing life, of a daily rhythm whose energy cycles were observed with their peaks, troughs, arcs and eternal new beginnings, make no mistake about it. La soupe au pain, a childhood favorite, had the advantage of recycling stale bread; not the baguette of today, but the yeasty brown bread that people bought in big chunks, meant to last a good week in varying degrees of freshness.


A proper soupe au pain required nothing younger than five- or six-day old bread. Slivers were literally carved out of a hard loaf with a formidable knife, wielded in quiet concentration by the head of the household. Irregular slices of fermented bread placed in the soup bowls would swell and thicken the vegetable soup to be poured on top. Before plunging in, family members were likely to contemplate the steaming mass, probably already feeling a sense of wealth from the warm, rising steam and the anticipation of a well-deserved stodgy meal for the hard-working. Success was measured by a spoon’s capacity to stand erect in the middle of the soup, its verticality supported by the equal weight of soaked bread on all sides.


“Who’s this man in the old black-and-white photograph?” I inquired of Alexandre one day. A large fuzzy photograph had been hanging on the wall of his veranda for some time next to a cracked leather horse harness. It featured a man in a tweedy, visored cap, standing proudly next to a workhorse. His generous mustache had me guessing as to the facial expression underneath. I ventured to discern the hint of a modest smile.


“That’s Uncle Armand,” he said. “When he drank his soup, all the vermicelle would get caught up in his mustache.”


The vermicelle? The little angel-hair noodles that underwent a five-minute rolling boil to thicken an honest tomato soup? Well, of course. Uncle Armand surely had many things to recommend him, perhaps a valiant war record or a huge mushroom he may have found one day or maybe his prowess in the art of plowing in straight lines but those things would surface at a later date. In the meantime, the vermicelle-clogged mustache would have to do as a valuable character trait, the vermicelle-laden mustache that was the inevitable result of slurping thick, hot, homey soup around a wooden table somewhere in the Périgord at the beginning of the twentieth century.


Vermicelle has always figured strongly in Alexandre’s prized soupe à la tomate. Unmatched by brazen imitators, his tomato soup can be gratefully consumed on any day of the year, grey or bright, cold and foreboding or with a radiant autumn sun flooding through the windows. It’s the soup that wanderers will always return to, that travelers will long for. It is as welcoming and cozy as a familiar flannel nightgown. It is irreplaceable, no matter how many lobster bisques or gazpachos or vichyssoises may have lured you elsewhere. Made from his own garden tomatoes, sautéed onions (Attention! Il faut de l’oignon!), some garlic cloves that swim around whole, and the key ingredient: celery. Celery imparts a taste that is like a sweet-coated sour, a flavor all its own. In go a couple of stalks, leaves and all. It’s the kind of essential ingredient that a secretive cook just might forget to pass on when sharing a recipe. After a nice simmering boil, the whole thing will be blended into a velvety thickness and served with vermicelle. It’ll make a down-to-earth man see grace. It’ll feed the hungry, quench the depleted, restore the downtrodden. And it’ll jam up the mustache of Uncle Armand.


Soupe à l’oignon, soupe à l’ail, soupe de legumes, whatever’s in season, nothing fancy, nothing that requires measuring, nothing that can be faithfully reproduced. Alexandre has been providing steaming hot, restorative soups for years, the kind that convinces the soup consumer to peel off a couple of layers of clothing while partaking.


“The turnip dominates” was just a casual observation made one day, a passing remark on a wintry evening. But turnips will come and go. Next time, it could be the pumpkin that dominates or even, who knows, the leek. All the vegetables are players in the pot and depending on the mix, any one of them might rise to the top of the heap. Years of sitting around the table in France have led me to believe in certain principles. One of them is that soup will remain, not just as a starter course, but as a way of life. Soupe du jour attests to that. In the world of vegetable soups, any one can dominate, at least for a day. And if it’s in France, it will be reviewed, considered and given its due recognition. It’s only fair.



Meredith Escudier, a native Californian, came to France years ago as a young, earnest student and watched with ongoing wonder and puzzlement as the rest of her life unfolded in France. She writes poetry and essays about the grand, the ordinary and the endearing, much of which, if it's in France, takes place around the table.


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