There is a knife in my hand, fingers poised on the tang of it, blade winking in the lights over my sink. Sleet sniggers against the window, and the pace is on par with the chatter of the blade against the cutting board. The onion I’m cutting is throwing haymakers, fumes rolling up off it, lighting fires under my eyelids, and I take two handfuls of the sassy buggers and hurtle them into the stock pot. They spatter indignantly. On to the garlic now, which accepts its fate with a quiet dignity and no napalm. Ginger, slivered on my Goodwill cutting board with my hand-me-down knife to the metronome of hail in March. When all that is browned, I pour the vegetable stock into the pot, then the dried shiitakes and finally the miso paste, and in two or three hours I will have broth. If I hover over it and taste it regularly, and add this here and that there, it will be good broth. It will be deep and complex and rich, and I will stand by it. I’ll serve it proudly.
Twenty minutes ago, I was at the grocery store, street sweeping soup items into my shopping cart with the reckless abandon of a man who shops hungry, and I overheard a sentence that stuck with me. A man was on his phone and he said, “I know what he did was wrong, but he’s a really good person … deep down.”
It bothered me all through the store and on the drive home, and now that all the prep work is done and I’m hovering over soup, I can finally pin it down and dissect it. Being a good person doesn’t work like that. You are you. That is the only thing you get to be permanently and without exception. Everything that defines your character, makes you who you are, is still simmering on the stovetop. It never stops developing. Everywhere you go and all the things you do are a potential ingredients that will change the composition of who you are. If you sit behind the wheel screaming at the person in front of you, you’re throwing a big pinch of angry into your life. If you hurt someone to benefit yourself, that’s a cup and a half of selfish.
Sitting at a lunch counter off Pac Highway, a man wandered in off the street screaming obscenities at the wait staff, and he will forever be cruel in my memory. Folding perfection into my mouth in Mi Chalateca, the waiter asked the older woman behind me what kind of pupusas she wanted, and she told him to surprise her, and she will always be adventurous to me. They serve a Japanese pizza/pancake at I Love Ramen, and I was mushing one into my face obscenely, loving every minute of it, when the teenagers behind me mocked the kimono hung up on the wall and became those ignorant kids I talk about. The waitress took their order anyway, and she was kind and helpful, and I will never forget how good she was.
Goodness is a difficult, time consuming flavor. It is something you must tend to carefully because it is changing constantly. It is the product of work and patience. Leave it unattended, unquestioned or unobserved, and it will get away from you, and when that happens, there will be no telling your guests that, even though it tastes awful, deep down, it’s good soup and they should enjoy it. There will be no convincing them that it’s usually delicious. They will know what you put into it and what you didn’t.
Standing at my kitchen counter, watching the sleet pound against my windows, I cannot help but feel that these are cold, frightening times. And that we could all use more good soup.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.