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Release date: 12/28/2004.

You'll find this page in it, From AN EXALTATION OF SOUPS,
copyright © 2004
by Patricia Solley,
Published by Three Rivers Press.

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Proverbially Soup

(e-SoupSong 34: February 1, 2003)

"Oh, you are SO full of soup!"

"No, not at all. Alas, after what I did last night, with all the best intentions, I'm actually in the soup."

"Ah, and crying in your soup, no doubt. What happened?"

"The usual: too many cooks spoiled the broth."

"Oh right, it's always so easy to blame others for your own mistakes: the chicken always blames the soup pot for its tragic end."

"I protest! You aren't seeing both sides. Remember, the bowl cannot be warmer than the soup."

"Protest away, but I still say that whatever is put in the soup kettle comes out on the spoon."

"You are so hard hearted. And yet, I admit that it's been hard eating all this bad soup with a big spoon."

"Well, you know what they say, 'a spoon does not know the taste of soup, nor a learned fool the taste of wisdom.'"

"Ouch, give me a break, doll. And yet I've learned my lesson: He who once burns his mouth, always blows the soup."

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Phew. Ten proverbs from as many different countries, and most of them bucking for entry into the universal lexicon of folk wisdom. It's enough to make paremiologists stand up and shout, "Where's the soup?!"

Proverbs sure are funny things. You wouldn't believe the ink exhausted by scholars of proverbs (yeeees, they're called paremiologists) just trying to define the damn things:

"Old gems of generationally tested wisdom"
"Smallest verbal folklore genre"
"The wit of one, the wisdom of many"
"A condensed allegory"
"The edged tools of speech"

Paremiologically speaking, here's my favorite, from Harvard savant Bartlett Jere Whiting:
"A proverb is an expression which, owing its birth to the people, testifies to its origin in form and phrase. It expresses what is apparently a fundamental truth--that is, a truism--in homely language, often adorned, however, with alliterations and rhyme. It is usually short, but need not be; it is usually true, but need not be. Some proverbs have both a literal meaning and a figurative meaning, either of which makes perfect sense; but more often they have but one of the two...."

Okay. Well, maybe not my favorite. But, fact is, there's a lot of soup in them thar proverbs, and I think there's good reason why.

Let me take you back in the history of the world. It wasn't always like it is now, people hunched in front of computers doing take-out pizzas and creating high tech proverbs about "garbage in, garbage out." Stay with me here:

ONCE UPON A TIME people came home to a hearth with soup at a bubble and made conversation in flickering firelight about the events of the day. Young people would speak up naively or impatiently, "I can't BELIEVE the corn hasn't started sprouting!" Older folks--who'd been there, done that--would philosophically gaze into the simmering dinner, thinking about the unsprouting corn and their own hunger, and opine, "A watched pot never boils." Bingo, proverb. So true across so many hearths across the world that it understandably caught on.

It's nice to think about, isn't it--this time of apparently slower natural rhythms? When was the last time you gathered things from the garden, built a fire, brought water to a boil, and, hungry and expectant, thought about how these processes spoke to the larger questions that tug at the heartstrings of mankind? There is something fine about rituals building metaphors for life and finding room for reflection.

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As Mr. Whiting said, though, some proverbs are just talking about that liquid stuff in a bowl, pure and simple:

"Eat soup first and eat it last, and live till a hundred years be passed." (French)
"To make a good soup, the pot must only simmer or 'smile.'" (French)
"A good soup attracts seats" (Ghana)
"A house without soup is an unlucky house" (Russia)
"Of soup and love, the first is best." (Spain)
"Troubles are easier to take with soup than without." (Yiddish)
"Good broth will resurrect the dead" (South American)
"Broth to a cook is voice to a singer." (China)

Other proverbs are still about that pure-and-simple soup, but they imply other things too:

"A soup that tastes good by licking must taste better by eating." (African Annang tribe)
"Plenty fish or meat does not spoil the soup." (Ghana)
"Cheap meat never makes good soup." (Azerbaijan)
"The best soup is made of old meat." (France)
"If there are two cooks in one house, the soup is either too salty or too cold." (Iran)
"One cannot make soup out of beauty." (Estonia)
"Too many peas spoil the soup." (American)
"He who stirs the soup pot eats first" (American)
"If they can't eat the soup, they can spit in it." (Haitian)
"The more eggs, the thicker the soup." (Brazil)
"Soup is cooked hotter than it's eaten." (German)

And then there are those proverbs that, with a leap of imagination, use the image of soup to express a truth that really has nothing to do with soup at all:

"A rat's droppings can spoil a whole cauldron of soup" (China)
"The chicken in the coop has grain, but the soup pot is near; the wild crane has none, but its world is vast." (China)
"The disobedient chicken obeys in a pot of soup." (Benin)
"If a man makes soup of his tears, ask him not for broth." (Africa)
"Between the hand and mouth, the soup is lost." (Spain, Germany, Italy)
"The broth is cooking, and now we have to act as one." (Bedouin)
"When it rains soup, the poor man has no spoon." (Sweden)
"Better no soup than no spoon." (Germany)
"Boil stones in butter and the broth will be good." (Scotland)

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So what kind of soup goes well with these pungent platitudes anyway?

Ummm, I guess it should be "full of beans." "A good wife and cabbage soup, what more could you want?" "The best cook drops a whole tomato." "Give graciously--even an onion." "Garlic is as good as ten mothers." Definitely "salt of the earth." "Cheese and bread make the cheeks red." All rounded off with alphabet pasta, how else to puzzle life's meaning than with modern wheaten runes?

Sounds like minestrone to me; does it sound like minestrone to you? Here's a simple recipe for this cold winter day of reflection:


(Serves 6-8, and please don't stint on the bread, salad, and red wine)

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery, with leaves, chopped
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 28-ounce tin of tomatoes, with juice
  • 1 large can Italian white beans (Cannelli)
  • 5 cups beef or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup flat parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 cup extra-finely sliced, then roughly chopped cabbage
  • 2 zucchini, unpeeled and cut into little cubes
  • 1/2 cup ditalini (little tiny macaroni) or alphabet pasta

Garnish: Parmesan cheese

Saute the onion and celery in the oil over low heat til wilted, toss in the garlic and stir for a minute, then put in cut-up tomatoes and cook down over medium heat for about 10 minutes to concentrate flavors. Stir in the beef stock, reserved tomato juice, and beans and bring to a boil. Add half the parsley, lower heat, and cook for about 30 minutes.

Add cabbage, zucchini, and pasta and cook at a gentle boil until the pasta is tender, about 15 minutes.

When ready to serve, stir in the rest of the parsley, maybe sprinkle in some more minced garlic. Season to taste and grate in some black pepper. Ladle into bowls and pass the Parmesan.

And don't forget what Spaniards say: "Of soup and love, the first is best."

Not that I believe it for a minute.

Proverbially yours,
Pat Solley

Resources: Martha Warren Beckwith's Jamaica Proverbs; Julie Jensen McDonald's Scandanavian Proverbs; Julie McDonald's Scottish Proverbs; ed. Wolfgang Mieder's Dictionary of American Proverbs; Wolfgang Mieder's Proverbs Are Never Out of Season; Bartlett Jere Whiting's Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings; and a host of other Dictionary and Quote books and websites.

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NEXT MONTH: A Belated Valentine: What's Soup Got To Do With It?