Mushroom Barley Soup: An Invocation

When I was little, my grandmother made the most amazing mushroom barley soup.

She made it from scratch, and that alone was so different from dinner with my parents, who don’t cook. (My father grills. But usually dinner at their place is takeout.) Just the flash of her knife on the cutting board was something out of another world for me, something to be observed and marveled at. My grandmother’s world was so different from mine, so foreign – and the story that we were told as children of the ’70s and early ’80s was that progress was all, progress was what one strived for. Never look back. Spaghetti and meatballs in a takeout tin was superior to homemade soup; it saved time and mess.

But I loved that soup! I loved the heavy spoon in the green Depression glass bowl. I loved the dense flavors. I loved that my grandmother loved making it. It was my grandfather’s favorite dish, you see; she made it for him.

And he died, and she never made it again.

I asked a few times, but she demurred, and I realized that it was her soup for him; that she couldn’t. I don’t know if she knew how much I loved it; I was ten, and I don’t know if I ever really communicated it to her. She died when I was 14, after a protracted and terrible illness.

It’s not just the recipe I lost. It’s not even just my quietly funny and sweet grandmother. It’s my connection to a past that I value more every year, the sense of history, of where we came from. In my early life, the culture around me was telling me to sever that connection and boldly go into a homogenous future. That is not what I want. I want my grandmother’s soup, and the glass bowls she kept all her life, and the slow chopping of mushrooms, and the murmurs of a dying language. I want my roots.

I cook from scratch. I’ve discovered that I have celiac disease; one of the first things I realized upon my diagnosis is “I can never have that soup again.” But I’ll be experimenting with quinoa or millet in place of the barley. And it may never be my grandmother’s soup, but it’s okay if it’s mine. And I will teach the recipe to my daughter and, when she has them, to her children, and I will tell them about their silly-sweet great-great-grandma Essie.

Mushroom Barley Soup: An Invocation” was published in Stone Telling #8, August 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *