Writing Catalog

Emily Wilson

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor(s): Beth Armstrong, Scott Parsons

My Home: A Place After Boulanger's Heart

Personal Essay/Memoir

My Home: A Place After Boulanger's Heart

Today, my mom made her radish soup. She used radish, of course—the round, Korean one—red miso, beef, baby kale, potato, onion, tofu, garlic, sesame seed and oil, Japanese dashi broth, water, and salt. Her version is not very "traditional"—some of the ingredients, like the miso, are not established parts of the dish—but it is still a fairly light, clear soup, despite how its distinct scent is known as soon as you walk in the door.

Soup is something that I eat often at home. My mom has a repertoire of them: seaweed, radish, chicken, spicy fish. Because of this, I've come to notice that in Western cultures, and especially in America, it is rare to have a bowl of soup be the central part of a meal.

Once in a while, my mom makes a comment on how tteokguk (rice cake soup) is eaten on New Years in South Korea, or on how seaweed soup is considered the birthday meal. Mothers who have given birth eat it throughout their recovery—a way to replenish blood, nutrients, and strength. Because of this, babies get to enjoy seaweed soup as well, feeding on its nutrients while suckling on their mother's milk. My family eats seaweed soup many times a year, but very rarely have those times landed on birthdays, if at all. However, my Halmuni, my Korean grandma, did visit my parents after my sister and I were born, so diligently making seaweed soup that my Dad quickly became tired of it.

My family moved to Ohio when I was in first grade. Since then, we have gone pretty much every weekend to a specific Vietnamese restaurant in the Cleveland area. I have eaten there for as long as it has been open, and although we joke that I have grown up in the restaurant, it really is the truth. Whereas I once used to eat the most simple thing on the menu, perhaps some chicken on skewers, over the past ten years, I began to eat a bowl of pho tai every Saturday. And, as I have changed, the family has, too: one server, whose name I was too young to remember, left, and then Lucy and Chris did as well. Now, the only servers I know well are Alex and Matt, who have been there around five and ten years, respectively. Even the restaurant itself has changed: Where there once used to be elegantly dim lights suspended on slender rods throughout the restaurant, this summer has seen the installation of significantly brighter ones that rest flat against the ceiling. The squirt bottles of Sriracha and peanut sauce have been recently replaced, too, and are now a translucent red and white in color. However, these changes are minute; even after ten years, around half of the chopsticks at each table are still reliably mismatched, a testament to the timeliness of the place. Such inconsistencies may seem to disguise the restaurant's familiarity, but really, they contribute to it.

Yesterday, I had gotten a cup of broccoli-cheddar soup with my lunch. It is a soup that, if not American in origin, has no doubt become Americanized. My friends and I were joking around, describing the soup in ways that some may describe the foods of our non-Western cultures. Perhaps they would comment that "the texture is quite interesting," pausing after saying "texture" to move their tongue around their mouth, their body language demonstrating that "interesting" really means "distasteful" or "gross" or "too mushy." Perhaps they would bob their head slightly while opening a furled hand, as if forcing out a subtly offensive comment through their disgust: "I can tell that this is an American dish. I know that Americans really like their butters and cheeses."

These jokes, while born from a shared "outsider" identity, were still made by a group of Americans. Really, myself and all of my friends eat American food for at least half of our meals. And here is where the humor laid—we all knew well that the quintessential American food is not broccoli-cheddar soup, or any soup for that matter. As Americans ourselves, we ate this soup as infrequently as some may consume the foods of our other cultures. After yesterday's lunch, I realized once again that, in the West, soup is typically seen as only an appetizer or side. Perhaps certain dishes, most of which lean closer to stews,—clam chowder, gumbo, lobster bisque—are enjoyed in certain regions. However, in truth, the sole "American soup" that comes to mind is chicken soup, which many only eat when sick.

This aspect of many Western cuisines is quite ironic: The very first "restaurant" was opened in France in 1765 by a man known as Boulanger. It served mostly bouillons restaurants, or "restorative broths." In fact, the restaurant's motto was, "Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo," or, "Come to me all who suffer from pain of the stomach and I will restore you" ("The History of 'Restaurant'").

The more I learn of this, the more I am reminded of other ways in which food, liquids, tea, soup are subtle acts of care. (Just now, my mom texted me, "We can do pho wed if want.") During our irregular gatherings with my mom's side of the family, on the days where we are in New York or Philadelphia and having even one of my eemos (aunts) able to drive down is a reason to celebrate, we make sure to eat at a restaurant with jjampong (a spicy, Chinese-Korean seafood soup) for one of our only meals together. My families' memories also flow through the soups of Japanese cuisine. Two of these are udon and miso, the latter of which may not be the center of every Japanese meal, but it certainly is present at each one. There's also ramen, which I both slurp down at our other weekly restaurant, and which I eat instantly, whipped together from a packet of spices, dried noodles, and boiling water. In middle school, this was the evening snack among my Science Olympiad teammates when attending competitions far from home. Admittedly, this wasn't very nourishing—our stomachs often disliked this, and I ended up missing the actual dinner once.

Despite this, soups are (usually) hearty and restorative. Seaweed soup has fed generations of families from birth, as it has for me. Those who are sick consume soup, even if they do not eat it regularly. The restaurant industry has sprung from one man's desire to care for others, restoring their strength through his broths. And even now, restaurant workers—Alex, who has all of our orders, and alternatives, memorized; the servers at our weekly Japanese restaurant, who are always smiling, always wearing beautiful kimonos, and always offering more tea or kimchi or pickled daikon—are in the business of warming families' stomachs and hearts.

I am reminded of Ross Gay's poem "The Sanctity of Trains," which is an acknowledgement of how humans are constantly taking care of each other in subtle and overlooked ways. Perhaps it is holding open a door, or picking up an object someone else dropped. It could be letting a car enter into your lane, or, as Ross Gay noticed, trusting strangers enough to leave your possessions unattended in a train.

In my opinion, foods, soups, are some of the most unnoticed gifts of caretaking, as I'm sure Boulanger would agree. Every night, when I have to tell my mom not to give me too much food; every weekend, when my dad gets up before dawn to start barbequing or smoking or slow-cooking a rack of ribs; every time I have a test late in the day and my mom makes me an extra thermos of tea, labelling the two drinks "now" and "later"—these are, at their cores, acts of caretaking. And so are my mom's soups—her very own bouillons restaurants, her very own offerings of nourishment, her very own gifts of life, of love, and of home.

Works Cited

"The History of 'Restaurant'." Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster.