The Power of the Soup

I write this entry while on a bike tour in the Czech Republic with my husband and three kids. We took our bikes down to Prague by train and are working our way back to Meissen in Germany. We ride about 45-65 km a day and spend the night in little hotels.

Written by Henriette J. Runte

I write this entry while on a bike tour in the Czech Republic with my husband and three kids. We took our bikes down to Prague by train and are working our way back to Meissen in Germany. We ride about 45-65 km a day and spend the night in little hotels. On the way, we stop for drinks and snacks from tiny locals on the banks of the rivers Vlata (Moldau in German) and the Elbe.

It is a wonderful vacation. We are together, enjoying the fresh air and the magnificent landscape, and using the strength of our legs and the sturdiness of our bikes to drive us up and down the beautiful rolling hills. One perk of the trip has to do with a part of my culture that is deeply anchored in my family tradition, something that brings with it many stories and memories, and an aspect of daily life that ultimately makes me feel at home in a foreign country.

If you listen to my podcast, read my books, or just follow me on social media, you know by now that one of my central themes is cultural identity. And MY cultural identity is not always easy. (A quick recap for those who might not know yet: I was born in Romania as a Hungarian minority, grew up in Texas and in Kansas, studied and worked in France and in the USA, and traveled around before settling down in Hamburg, Germany.)

One very important part of cultural identity is how we eat. Culinary similarities have been known to unite people in the most controversial situations, while differences in the preparation of meals have often set two cultures apart. At our house, we eat like a Hungarian-German-American family with strong influences from France, Italy, and Mexico.

One dish that is almost always a must is soup! We have soup almost every day. On weekdays, when the kids come back from school around 1:30 pm / 2:00 pm, there is usually a bowl of soup waiting for them, and it is met with limited enthusiasm. Since time is of essence, this soup that serves as lunch resembles more a stew and is meant to be filling and nutritious. On weekends, I cook up more elaborate soups that take longer to prepare, are more fine and light, and are accompanied by other courses. I vary my soups across cultures, but mainly use traditional Hungarian, German, and French recipes.

Growing up in the Carpathian Basin, I learned that a proper meal included some kind of soup. My mother was known for her tarragon soup with lamb, my grandmother for her white bean soup, and my mother’s best friend for her tripe soup. It seemed like every household made a soup that they were particularly proud of and loved to share with family and friends.

Perhaps the most famous soup of my childhood was my mother’s chicken soup, though. My mother is a very religious person who, in the Christian spirit, believes in helping the poor and doing good by others. She also observes religious holidays and follows the traditions strictly. A personal tradition she started when she got married was to feed the whole neighborhood on Easter. My mother believes that part of the Easter tradition should include a communal celebration, to which she likes to contribute her amazingly savory chicken soup. (Again, if you have read my books or have listened to my podcast, you already know how important cooking is to my mom and how she loves to share meals with close friends and neighbors.) The  Easter Sundays of my childhood in Romania did not include Easter Egg Hunts but were marked by my mother’s gigantic pot of chicken soup, which she served to rich and poor, to friends and strangers, or in other words, to anyone who cared to come by our house for a helping.

When my parents moved to the US, we ate a lot of soup, to feed our bodies and our souls, and to accommodate our budget. My mother knew how to cook with very little. She had managed to feed us with the food shortages and rations of Communist Romania, so she was certainly going to manage in the US. My mother would buy a chicken and use every part of the animal to create a goulash, a broth, a stew, a ragout, and still have enough for some meat jelly and some bouillon. She would literally feed us for 7-10 days from that one chicken.

My friends from school all knew that at my house, we ate lots of soup, and they grew to appreciate this. Next to recalling my mother’s enchanting Hungarian pastries, my friends from school still talk about my mother’s various soups.

In college, I tried to recreate my mother’s recipes, but for the most part, I failed. My room mates and my boyfriends of my undergraduate years don’t have memories of my cooking, but still recall my mother’s soups.

My first attempts to make a soup involved following some recipe, trying to add all the ingredients at the appropriate times, stirring, mixing, waiting, … and then being disappointed.  Somehow my cookbooks failed to teach me how to make a good soup. Somehow I was missing a secret ingredient. Somewhere along the way, through trial and error and lots of patience, I did manage to make a decent soup – a good cream of broccoli soup, a fabulous potato soup, a magnificent tomato soup, a legendary lentil soup, etc. I picked up recipes from everywhere I went and adapted them to create my own versions of these traditional soups. 

Another remarkable phase in my personal history with soups was during my pregnancies. Next to berries (all kinds of berries, from blackberries to blueberries, to red current and raspberries), the food I craved the most during my pregnancies was soup. I just didn’t feel right without a bowl of hot liquid mush. My husband was constantly hunting for soup. Our twin pregnancy was particularly tough, because I had double the cravings! But it was during our pregnancy with our youngest daughter that I struggled most to find available soup. I remember being on vacation in France for three weeks when I was about 5 months pregnant. It was in the middle of the summer and we were traveling through the South of France in an RV. One thing you have to know about me is that I adore France. I think everything in France is wonderful when I am there. It’s not objective, I know, but I can’t help myself. But even my beloved France found it strange to be providing hot soup for me in summer temperatures.

Wherever we went, the restaurants and bistros all did their best to provide the demanding pregnant woman with soup. One restaurant asked the nearby hotel to defrost some soup for me. Another sent a waiter home for a can of soup, which they reheated for me. Most restaurants placated me with a cup of gazpacho, or a cold cucumber soup, or a chilled tomato and basil soup. A few had a traditional French onion soup, but if there was one soup that I didn’t crave during pregnancy, it was an onion soup…

Near Cannes, we stayed at a campsite that had a restaurant on it, run by a Vietnamese chef, named Giselle, and her husband. Giselle was one of those chefs who would look at her customers and just know what they craved. She cooked two meals a day for me for two weeks, and once a day, she made me some soup. She was very good at her job. I don’t want to know what she really thought about my cravings, though. One thing is for sure, I was the only one she was making soup for that summer! 

Everyone I have known has always found me bizarre for liking soup so much, everyone except for my friends and family from Hungary and Romania, where it is quite normal.

This summer, knowing that we would take a bike tour through the Check Republic, I prepared myself and my belly for two weeks without soup. I knew we would be riding all day and stopping at some small establishment along the way for lunch and drinks. In the evenings we wanted to pamper ourselves and our exhausted bodies. On the itinerary we set for ourselves, we made arrangements to have nightly shelter at rather nice hotels, where we also planned to eat our evening meals, but I expected more traditional salads and meat-based main courses to be offered to us.

We left our car in Meissen and took our bikes by train to Prague, where our adventure started in temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius, which is about 97 degrees Fahrenheit. We arrived at our first hotel in Prague fairly late in the evening, and I figured we should be thankful if they still had anything left for us to eat. Indeed, the kitchen was almost closed, but they weren’t going to let three kids who had ridden through Prague go to bed hungry. And they had a lovely minestrone for the mother.

We left the Check capital in the morning after a magnificent breakfast. It was already hot, and we had to stop by 11 am for a drink. Another little piece of information about me: I am very picky about my drinks. I don’t like beer. I avoid all sodas. And I typically find water overpriced. At our first stop, my husband had a beer, our three children each had a soda, and I was left with the choice of still or carbonated water. Carefully, and already expecting to be disappointed, I asked if they might, by some chance, have a soup on offer. We were at one of those tiny stands on the river bank, and my husband looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. He was about to order me a water, when the answer to my question came. They had not one, but two soups to choose from – a potato soup and a minestrone. Having just eaten a minestrone the night before, I took the potato soup. The five of us toasted to our first stop with beer, soda and soup, and I listened to my family make fun of me for hours.

Our next stop was for lunch around 1 pm. Encouraged by my success at our previous stop, I asked, more bravely this time, if they had a soup on offer. And they did, this time a creamy garlic soup with croutons. While my family enjoyed a cold, refreshing drink, I slurped on my hot, delicious soup!

The trip continued with this newly found ritual of ours. At every stop, with every meal along our way, instead of a drink, I always ordered a soup. The first few times, my family made bets that my luck would run out soon. But finding a soup on the menu was not a mere coincidence. Every single place we stopped at had at least one or two soups on offer.

My family was baffled. My husband just couldn’t believe it. How strange! How weird! No way! My kids made faces every time I spooned some of the hot liquid into my mouth. How can you eat that; it’s so hot outside!

On the fifth or sixth day we stopped at a place that had a large group of Check kids there. It looked like some sort of a summer camp. The kids were sitting in a circle in the grass, playing a game that their instructor was leading them through. Then, in turns, they each took out a ringing buzzer from their pocket and went up to the little kiosk to get their order that was announced ready. Our own kids were taking their time with locking their bikes up, so I was able to observe the group of Check children a little longer. One by one, each child returned from the kiosk with a big bowl and a spoon. It was sauerkraut soup with meatballs and ham bits.

Once we made it to the kiosk to place our own orders, I of course bought myself a sauerkraut soup. At this point my husband couldn’t contain himself and asked the chef, “How can you have sauerkraut soup in the summer? Who would eat sauerkraut soup in the summer, besides my wife, I mean?!” The chef looked at him strangely and answered, “I don’t know what you mean. In about half an hour, I will be sold out of sauerkraut soup for the day. It’s very refreshing, especially on a hot day!”

And all of the sudden, after all those years of feeling like “the other,” I was the normal one, and my husband was the one whose taste was put into question. All of the sudden, my instincts were just fine. All of the sudden, I didn’t have to make excuses for what I naturally craved.

Everyone around me was eating soup, young and old alike. A lot of people were drinking beer and soda as well, and eating sausages and French fries. It’s not as if soup were the only food item consumed. But my quenching thirst with soup was in no way weird or out of the ordinary. It was considered usual and even logical. It was part of the cultural norm, part of the tradition and custom. And for me, it was an official, open legitimization of my own culture.

My husband and my three children of course know how my family has always eaten a lot of soup. They have also observed my Hungarian friends serve soup at all occasions. But to them, it was still an isolated practice, somehow part of mom’s weird otherness, somehow still something to make fun of and roll your eyes at.

I realize we’re talking about soup here and that my enthusiasm for this topic might seem exaggerated. But the cultural similarity I shared with the Check people through our liking of soup made me feel at home and accepted. It also made me stand a little taller in front of my family.

When you live in a foreign culture, you walk the thin line between integration and assimilation. On the one hand, you hopefully learn to accept, abide by, and even enjoy the culture of your host country. On the other hand, it is, in my opinion, very important not to lose touch with the customs, traditions and values of your country of heritage and to see this culture valued in the eyes of others as well. In the case of someone like me, a third culture kid, who brings not only one but at least two distinct sets of cultures to the equation, this balance becomes even more delicate and significant.    

I’ve had tremendous difficulty deciding what to write about in my very first entry for Dr. J’s Diary 4 Culture. Everything I wanted to write seemed either too academic or too banal, too silly or too sad, too personal or too stereotypical. This story about eating soup in the Check Republic seemed to combine all the ingredients I wanted to include. So, this is what I was able to cook up for you today. I certainly hope you enjoyed it.    

Book suggestion for more information and research:

Janet Clarkson – Soup: A Global History.

My books that reveal more about my culinary preferences:

Henriette Javorek – Life with Coach Pop.

Anna Molnar – We Fade to Green.

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