Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy Flu Year, Or, How Did My Grandmother Make That Soup?

It's official. I have the flu. Not "the Flu," but a flu. Apparently, while the incidence of H1N1 cases has dropped here in the Bay Area, a bug of less famous but nonetheless formidable nastiness has been making its rounds. And I caught it. The worst is certainly over but my doctor advised that I restrict my activities for a few more days. So since I can't bake gobs, or do much else, I've been finishing my issue of Panorama, reading long-neglected books on my shelf - why did I allow Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go to sit unread? - and, now, blogging. I've also googled away hours on the web to see what I could shake loose from the internets in the form of flu recipes. Well, I should clarify, because that previous statement makes it sound like I was seeking out a formula for making a flu, when in fact what I was looking for were recipes to help alleviate flu symptoms.

Surprisingly I came up empty handed. But I was seeking something very specific as this search had two sources of inspiration. The first came from my Chinese doctor whose prescription for my recovery included "steamed fish and rice." But even when I'm not feeling well, I want to do a little more in the kitchen than put an unseasoned slab of fish over a stove-top sauna. But the second, and more significant factor fueling my exploration was my longing for a comforting bowl of what my grandmother made for us when we were sick. She called it Sick Soup, and following her example, we did the same.

Sick Soup's ingredients were few, but its flavors - and healing properties - were miraculous. When we were ill we would sit huddled at her kitchen table, our shoulders draped with blankets while our feet, in over-sized slippers, dangled from the chair. As my grandmother stood at her stove, Tammy Wynette spelled out the tragedies of her marriage in the background on a small plastic radio - a transistor which my grandmother had religiously set to WIYQ, a Pennsylvania radio station whose programming used to feature a "sacred song" of the hour hence her interest - while we waited for the c-u-r-e for whatever it was that a-i-l-e-d us.

Any cook who has ever tried to recreate a recipe for a dish they had in the past knows that memories can get you so far. Then instinct takes over. But, over the years as I've tried to recreate the broth that was made in that blue enamel pot, I've had to restrict myself to the contents Gram, as we called her, would've had in her kitchen and pantry. The list of possible ingredients is frustratingly short. While I originally assumed chicken stock was certainly the soup's base, the notion that my grandmother would have always used her own stock is questionable. She didn't have much freezer space in her fridge for storage. Canned stock could have been an option, on occasion, but because of the expense its regular usage was probably unlikely. That leaves the only consistent ingredient as water.

Eggs, salt and pepper were all added to that soup, but beyond that, the options in my recreation were scant. Even though her kitchen was about as Hungarian as a room this side of Budapest could get, Gram knew enough about food and its possible effects on an upset stomach that paprika and sour cream were tilos.

In the past few days I attempted an approximation of Sick Soup again. And as I had in the past, I failed. What I made this time was basically scrambled eggs in water, in both taste and appearance. It bore little resemblance to Gram's medicinal wonder. Clumps of yellow and white floated in my mustardy colored broth. The eggs in my grandmother's soup, on the other hand, had blossomed in bursts of white and gold, much the same way flowers unfold in Chinese Chrysanthemum tea. The bowl she served was as soothing to the sight as it was to the soul.

Still, I ate the soup I made. And while I can't say its properties were as healing as what Gram used to administer to us, it certainly didn't make me any sicker. It didn't look like much, but illness isn't pretty. In fact it can be downright scary, which brings me to this entry's photo. My doctor's office urges patients who are experiencing flu symptoms to don a surgical mask out of respect for others. I dutifully put mine on, and then as I waited for my appointment, I proceeded to take my picture and send it to friends and family with the caption "Guess where I am?" In hindsight it wasn't the best idea, especially judging from some of the reactions text back to me. If you were one of the recipients of that image, I apologize. Let me make it up to you. C'mon over. I'll play some Tammy Wynette and I'll make you a nice bowl of soup. When I'm feeling better, of course.

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