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The Making of Baked Potato Soup
(e-SoupSong 39: July 1, 2003)
If Martha had forgotten how to cook, she hadn't noticed it.
She never traveled to a new town on her foreign travels without visiting the local grocery. Running her hands over the fragrant melons, inspecting the cheeses, buying up small packets of spices, she'd wistfully tell her business associates of past triumphs at the dinner table, the eggy warmth of family breakfasts, extraordinary desserts, flambés, delicate, oh you wouldn't believe how exquisite.
"You cook?" her colleagues would say. "I'd never guess that about you."
Martha was unfailingly amazed. "Not guess? How strange. It's my true self, the very essence of my being," she'd say. She knew what they were thinking: that if her kitchen was anything like her office, she must serve up raw chopped beef hearts in a tart vinegar sauce. She'd once overheard a co-worker joke about how sharp her kitchen knives must be for her to so effortlessly cut off certain parts of her detractors' anatomy. "You've got to watch out when she starts looking down at her shoes," he'd said. "That's when she's sharpening the knife behind her back."
Martha was a late bloomer in the business world. When poor sweet Jack had died at age 50, a ruined man, she'd had a sickly teenaged daughter to support, no money, and few prospects. At the time, she didn't see that she had a choice. She locked away the nurturing homemaker that was her true self, wrote out an uncompromising recipe for success, strapped on a business suit, and stepped onto the first rung of the corporate ladder. Twelve years later, she'd clawed her way to Vice President of Human Resources in a multinational corporation.
"Mom," Janie had said at that point, "you've done it. You've made it. You can quit. You can go back to cooking. You can have fun. You SHOULD quit. You've gotten a little hard, you know; a little ruthless."
But Martha couldn't do it. Life was too uncertain. The cooking could wait. It was there, like an old friend, ready to come right back into her life whenever she wanted it.
Then when Janie, now in her thirties, got the bad news about her medical tests, she called Martha in Bangkok. "See," Martha said, "it's a good thing I kept working. You and Jim will need help with the medical bills. And you absolutely must hire a housekeeper. Lizzie will need support."
When Janie went into the hospital, Jim tracked Martha down at the plant in Jakarta. "Martha," he said, "I'll be full time at the hospital with Jane this week. We need you. Lizzie needs you. Come now."
Martha didn't see that she had a choice. She booked the first available flight and was on Janie and Jim's doorstep 34 hours and 30 minutes later. Lizzie opened the door. She looked like a pinched little mouse. Martha knew just what to do.
"Darling girl," she said, "come to your Nanna."
Lizzie hung back, shy.
But, of course, Martha DID know what to do. She swept Lizzie up into her arms and hugged her, rocking, until Lizzie finally cried and cried.
Then the years flowed away from Martha. She smelled Lizzie's grief and fear as she'd smelled Janie's so many years ago when poor sweet Jack had died. She felt herself respond powerfully to this little stick of a girl. Suddenly she thought of that Hans Christian Andersen story about the Snow Queen. It seemed to her that Lizzie's tears were melting away her own years of icy ambition just as Gerda's tears had melted away the devil's glass shard that had lodged in Kay's heart, returning him to his loving self after so many years of joyless striving.
"Oh darling girl," she crooned in Lizzie's ear, "you must be starved. Let's cook some dinner together, just like Janie and I used to do when she was a little girl. What would you like? Tell me your heart's desire."
Lizzie pulled away a little bit and looked into Martha's eyes. "Baked potato soup," she said.
"Baked potato soup, darling girl! Something better than that. Mmmmmmm, let me remember what your mother used to like. How about feuilletons de veau en croute?"
"No, I want baked potato soup."
"Oh dear, I see. Potatoes. How about galettes de pommes de terre farcies?
"No, Nanna, I want baked potato soup."
Martha frowned. "So be it, darling girl. Nanna knows just what to do." And with that, Martha strapped on an apron and stepped firmly into the kitchen.
Alas, things went badly right from the start. Martha couldn't resist the waxy red potatoes--"for pretty color, darling girl!"--and put aside the mealy russet "bakers." To save time, she microwaved them, a little underdone unfortunately. Rushing, she sliced her thumbnail right down to the quick into the chives...took her eye off the bacon in that panicked moment and burned every last slice. When Lizzie scraped her knuckles grating the cheese and cried at the sight of her own blood, Martha snatched the grater out of her hands and sent her to sit at table.
"Now, darling girl, we will whip this soup hard and it will all come out perfection." But it was not perfection. It was a starchy, gluey, opalescent mess. Martha pulled a wooden spoon through it and watched lumps clot on it like wallpaper paste.
"The potato skins should be thick and crispy in the soup, Nanna," Lizzie said. "And it's not supposed to be stringy."
Martha's eyes stung. She felt dizzy and stupid. Dear God, her own true self had deserted her at her time of need. She turned to Lizzie, wounded, pleading, and whispered only, "darling girl."
Lizzie put her arms around Martha. "Oh poor Nanna," she said. "You've lost your touch. You can't cook at all. Not even baked potato soup."
Martha carefully unlatched Lizzie's arms and set her down in front of her. For a moment, she looked fixedly down at her shoes. "Watch out, darling girl," she suddenly shot back. "Your sharp tongue will cut your own heart in the end and Nanna won't be here to fix it."
HEAVENLY BAKED POTATO SOUP (serves 4-6)
Bake well-scrubbed potatoes in a 400 degree oven until fork tender, about an hour. Don't wrap in foil--and no microwaving, please, as you want a dry environment for the potato and its skin.
Meanwhile, prepare the garnishes. Fry the bacon until very crisp, then drain and reserve. Grate the cheese. Slice the chives. Measure out the sour cream and whip it. Keep these all separate and on hand, just as you would if you were about to go whole hog on stuffed baked potatoes.
In a large saucepan, heat the milk and butter, then stir in the concentrated chicken base or bouillon until it completely dissolves. Stir in the grated onion, salt, and pepper and simmer over low heat.
When the potatoes are finished baking, cut them in half lengthwise, scoop out the meat, and put the potato shells back into the oven to crisp. Stir the potato meat into the hot milk mixture--mashing it as you go. Let simmer on low heat for another 10-15 minutes.
When ready to serve the soup, heat it to a low simmer and stir in the grated cheese. While it's melting, chop the crisp potato peels. At the last gasp of serving, toss the chopped potato skins onto the soup and ladle the portions into individual bowls. Swirl a dollop of sour cream into each serving, then sprinkle each with the chopped chives pieces and crumbled bacon. Serve immediately. It's a beauty of a soup.
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NEXT MONTH: Nightmare on Eskridge Street: Cooking on Channel 10