Robert Minhinnick

A Glossary of Soup

It’s lucky I’ve got staff. Well, the boy who comes in today, that simple sod. When I take them on they can’t even hold a knife. But they learn. There he is now, cracking a marrowbone. Needs strength, but this recipe demands hot syrup. And there’s nothing like marrow in soup, its yellow ore.
    The broth is simmering. Three minutes to go, I calculate, holding back the rosemary. Three minutes for the leaves to soften, their power to... diffuse. Difficult herb, rosemary, that crafty aromatic. Some say it’s a better perfume than a food, but I say different. Here I go, counting the nails from my rosemary bush, greener than gorse. Yes, rosemary, I say. My old lover. We know each other so well.
    Some of the others call me a mercenary. But they’re just as bad. The truth is we go where we’re paid to go. These days people give good money for what I can offer. It’s a skill. No. A talent. But it’s more than that. It’s a lifetime commitment. It’s everything I’ve learned and also it’s wherever I’ve learned it, because every place is unique.
    I look out the kitchen window. How wet Wales is. Or maybe England. The border twists so much here no walker can tell what country he’s pissing in. There are castles small as dunghills where only nettles grow, and country inns where the country food is straight from the chicken tikka factory in Hounslow. But not here. Everything in my kitchen is made in my kitchen. Outside on the blackboard they’re chalking the day’s specials and in the car park the big series BMWs have already arrived. There’s a jazz singer in, and a comedian. A gentleman who writes for The Sunday Times. Three months here and I’m famous. Or at least, my soup is famous. Soup, you see, it’s always the soup: cavefood, babyfood. So I make them pay. For the talent. Which is the essential ingredient. For the education. Because as I say, every kitchen is different.

Here I’m out early mornings when it’s misty and only the crows are up, grumbling in the dew. I follow the hedgerows, the medieval ones with their hazel and stagheaded oaks. A few weeks ago they were overpowering with garlic leaves, but I use the flowers too, a white garnish with cheese, and sorrel, delicate with the glans of a woodland mushroom, and the sage flower’s almost-indigo, and hawthorn leaves new and pale, and the tiny yellow cogs of nettleflowers, and the nettleleaves too, the greenest green in that hedge world, and those grapes I can never resist, fat and red on the bryony vines, those too, what a sauce they make, and the sly nightshade, looking at me with its tipsy eyes, who could resist such succulents? It’s all I’ve learned, you see. It’s education. And they’re paying out fortunes, the newspapers, the TV, the owner of this thatched shithole the luvvies wet their knickers about. They’re paying for soup.
    Yes, soup. It’s serving me well. I remember the soup I invented at the Fuschl Castle in Salzburg. Such a kitchen. Generations of imperial filth had left a golden patina on wall and ceiling. What a wonderful place. The last skiers would come down about four. The previous night I would have had one of the boys trimming the garlic, three hundred cloves every day, stripping the haulms and cutting off the cuticles, all that paper at his feet like a child on Christmas morning.
    Soup, soup, the skiers would roar, and there would lie the new peeled cloves, white and curled under my steel, and soon I would add the onions as out there in the firelight the skiers would demand my soup, my creation, and I would look into the dining room at the girls taking off their caps and unlocking an avalanche of hair and the young men with dark curls and perfect skin. That’s how you tell breeding. By the skin. Soup, they’d shout, those aristocrats, those laughing Hapsburgs, their genealogies more intricate than frost, banging their spoons on the board and raising their purple kir, and there I would stand in the kitchen, bringing their soup to the boil, the cream gone in, the wine gone in, adding the parsley and the nutmeg like a benediction, the drops of spunk from my warm cock as I knew they’d desire it, desire my soup in its frothing pan and the boy pouring it into the tureens and the waiters carrying it out to applause, my soup that would now anoint their chins, garlic soup that would chase a glow into their eyes, and tonight their lovemaking would smell of my soup, their cries to each other in an ecstasy of soup, cries and supplications as the logs burned down and the snow crept through the darkness hiding their trails on the glacier and the smoke from my kitchen rose in a single spire.
    But winter was chilly. I had to leave. That was my wandering phase, though to tell the truth, I don’t stay anywhere long. I hate routine, or routine hates me. I’m an inventor, but try patenting a recipe. Anyway, food’s my passport. It takes me everywhere. Once I drove into a town south side of the Black Mesa. Got a job washing dishes at the Sundial Motel but soon proved I was better than any staff they’d ever had or are ever likely to have again. Mexican soup, the senor said. What about it? I asked. Can you make it? he said. Does the moon shine? I asked. Is it hot as hell outside just now, most likely up to one hundred and ten, do coyotes bark in the night? Of course I can make it, senor, I said. Good, he said. Get into town, we need those peppers pronto.
    Three weeks later every miner for fifty miles was parking his Ranchero outside the motel. Every rodeo widow in three counties was driving her girlfriends up to the Sundial and I can assure you not bothering to consult the menu at all. Mexican soup was what they wanted and Mexican soup was what those hungry boys and girls were assured of getting.
    Jalapenos? I sliced them red and I sliced them green. But kept the seeds. I put on gloves and wore a mask and sunglasses and then I’d commence cutting the habaneros, little polyps of gunpowder, or like something you’d find in a rock pool. Such diabolic fruits. Day by day that soup got hotter, son-of-a-bitch soup I called it, and of course the customers started challenging each other. Who could take the strongest soup? Who was the biggest sumvabitch in the Sundial Motel? There were groups that ran books on it, there were champions proclaimed and champions deposed, great chili kings who ran weeping out the Sundial door, dogged trenchermen who stuck to the task even though their eyes were streaming and their lips blistering and their bellies must have been vats of molten stone. Like they’d spent all day breathing chipotle smoke. Before they gave up. Pushed away their plates and stuck their head in a carafe. Except the one. Peabody they called him. Shy Peabody from the uranium mine.
    So the senor is selling beer by the pickup load as well as the soup. And fair play, I’m learning too. Because a talent like mine is always restless. It can’t stay the same or it becomes no talent at all. I was working with limes which I never really thought about before, and dark little tomatillos, and an Indian boy would peel the ajo and his sister crack the nogales out in the courtyard by the sundial itself, crack them with a pebble out of the Verde river.
    That soup meant everything to me. Every day it was different, lemons and limes and pumpkin pieces, goatmeat, rattlesnakemeat, such a delicacy in those parts, I’d make a real menudo they called it, the halves of the walnuts that the little girl would bring from the courtyard gathered in her dress, acorns like the Apache used, beans and nixtamal, all the Mexican parsley I could get in town or at Wal Mart. The tomatoes and squash I planted myself, swelling on their umbilicals. But chillies were the thing. Chillies like you’ve never seen, Big Jims and anchos, the serranos that were hot enough for almost everyone, and those habaneros grown by the devil himself. Gila monsters the cowboys called them, those big oafs fanning themselves with their baseball caps.
    And for Peabody, who would always come back for more, folding his workmates’ money into the backpocket of his jeans, there were the pepper seeds and a pinch or two of that special ingredient from up off the mesa behind the town. Yellowcake, the Navaho called it, a few grains from the rock that the miners left around. Don’t ask me what it tasted like. Even when we were lining up the tequilas after the Sundial had closed I wasn’t stupid enough to put it into my mouth. It must have tasted like the desert, I suppose, the desert where Peabody had always dug. Sumvabitch, he’d say, smiling his shy smile, the uranium tailings grey on his boots, and I’d smile back, telling him oh boy Peabody, you’ve done it again, you’ve beaten the cook of the Sundial Motel. Then Peabody would raise the spoon to his lips and his cheeks glow with pride.
    The writer from The Sunday Times is not interested in our blackboard. He says he wants me to create something unique. Especially for him. Which, of course, I was always planning to do. My privilege, sir. Outside the rain falls on the border. A Mercedes gleams like caramel. Sometimes I long for the cold again and see the glacier that groaned by my kitchen door and me leaning against its ribs with a cigarette. Or the irrefutable sun as I poured dishwater on the tomato vines and sat chopping the cilantro. Perhaps it’s time I was off once again. Planning things for those who live to eat. Because this is how it always starts, a listlessness, then a hunger to be away. I lift the lid on the pan. Ah, nicely. My kitchen’s aromatherapy. We’re almost there, Mr Writer Man. And I throw in the rosemary, just a few green nails.