Sooki thought for a minute and said, "Well, when I was a little girl I ate miso soup and rice for breakfast every morning back in Osaka. Umm, and my grandmother used to make an oxtail soup for special occasions--very long to make." Juja, across the room, said, "I still make canja de galinha every Sunday the way my mother taught me back in Castelo Branco." Olga came by with a towel: "Sopa de mariscos from Lima! Lucy, what about you?" Lucy, who does facials, said, "definitely caldo verde."
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Soup at the Beauty Shop
...makes you want to curl up and dye
(e-SoupSong 25: May 1, 2002)
ONCE UPON A TIME I was lodged in my usual chair at the "Perfect Endings" beauty salon of Falls Church, my hair in the Sassoon-trained hands of Sooki, when I idly broke the hushed quiet of the place and asked, "So, what kind of traditional soups did you eat when you were growing up?"
Oh. My. Goodness. Talk about tapping a resource right under my very nose.
Sooki thought for a minute and said, "Well, when I was a little girl I ate miso soup and rice for breakfast every morning back in Osaka. Umm, and my grandmother used to make an oxtail soup for special occasions--very long to make." Juja, across the room, said, "I still make canja de galinha every Sunday the way my mother taught me back in Castelo Branco." Olga came by with a towel: "Sopa de mariscos from Lima! Lucy, what about you?" Lucy, who does facials, said, "definitely caldo verde." "Me too," said Marcia Gomez from the reception desk. "Me too," said Nella, Lucy's cousin, who was combing out the woman next to me. "It's the best soup in the world." "Mais, non. Velouté de tomates," said Val, sweeping up under my chair. Gladys and Christina, both from Bolivia, came in from the other rooms to see what was going on. "Chanko," said Christina; "sopa de mani" added Gladys.
"Whoa, wait, wait!" I said, reaching for a pencil."I need to do this systematically." That's when we got the bright idea. I'd let them have their way with me--skin, hair, muscles, nails--and they'd tell me their stories. I left that day with a month of Saturdays' worth of appointments.
SATURDAY 1: FINGERNAILS AND CHANKO, PICANA, AND YOU DON'T WANNA KNOW
Christina gives me a choice of 16 services for these pathetic nails of mine. I go for the salt glow manicure. It's extraordinary: rock salt crystals in thick oil massaged up and down my arms as a preliminary to the manicure. "You don't pay much attention to your nails, huh?" says Christina, meaning I don't have to answer her obviously rhetorical observation.
Christina, from Oruru, is a petite and dramatically beautiful woman with sharp features and honey-colored eyes, a stylish dresser with brilliant clothes and small rich jewelry. She came to the United States when she was 20 with her 6-year-old daughter. She loves to cook, especially breads and pastry, everything from scratch. Now married to a man originally from Mexico, she still likes to cook the traditional Bolivian soups, chanko best of all.
"You take big white bones," she explains, "and big chunks of pork, tomato, onion, and garlic, and cook in water to cover for 45 minutes. Then put in chunks of lamb on the bone and cook some more. Then chunks of beef and cook some more. Then chicken thighs and drumsticks and potato together. Cook until the chicken is done and the potato is tender. Separately," and she looks at me severely while snipping, "separately, you take inch-long pieces of the green of scallions and boil them for a short time with peas, just until the peas are tender. When you want to serve the soup, arrange the chunks of meat and potato in a big soup bowl. Put the green peas and scallion chunks on top. Then pour in the strained broth to fill up the bowl."
"Wow," I say, "that is so much meat."
"Oh yes, in Bolivia we like meat the best. Meat and potatoes."
We've just arrived at the nail-painting stage, so I press on. "How about special soups for Christmas?" Bingo: picana de navidad.
"You go to midnight mass on Christmas eve," Christina says, "then come home, open champagne, hug all the little children and open presents, then sit down to a big bowl of picana to eat while you drink the champagne. Then the best part--turning on the music and dancing."
"You start dancing at 2 o'clock in the morning on Christmas?" I ask in disbelief. She shrugs, "Dancing, always, always--we love to dance. Dancing until dawn, so many times."
Gladys opens the door from the massage therapy room and watches Christina over my shoulder. They exchange some words in Spanish. "Oh yes," says Christina. "Cardan caldito. It's good for women when they are pregnant. My mother made it all the time for me when I was pregnant with my daughter."
I am thinking about her being 13 years old when she was pregnant. "What's in the soup?" I ask.
"The main things are from a steer: the tail and the, and the...." Christina looks up at Gladys for help. Now they have a big conversation in Spanish. Finally Christina looks at me and says meaningfully, "you know, the thing between a man's legs." "Testicles?" I hazard. "No," she says pointing down into her lap, "the other thing." Oh, okay. I nod that I understand. "Take that and pieces of the tail and some white bone and cook them down in water until the broth is like milk. It's also very good for people who drink too much."
My nails are done. They're lovely, and I can't wait for them to dry so I can write all of this down.
SATURDAY 2: SKIN CARE AND CALDO VERDE
Maria Lucilia ushers me into the special room for skin care and facials. I inspect the menu: 14 different treatments to wax off unwanted hair. Tinting eye lashes and eye brows. 13 different skin treatments--power peels, facials, and masks that are specially geared to teens, men, and women. Men don't really have a choice: tellingly, it's "Men's European Facial" or nothing. But a bounty for women. I can't decide: a facial, yes, but European, Oxygen, Super Hydraderm, Aromatherapy, or Deep Cleansing? Lucy gives me a close up scan. "Let's do Deep Cleansing," she says. That settles it.
Lucy leaves while I disrobe. I fit myself into a terry shift and slide onto the plushly padded gurney. What a great space: it's small and immaculate, like a doctor's examining room, but with soft green walls, uplit sconce lighting, and a radiant golden sun wall sculpture as the "patient's" focal point. Lucy's framed diplomas cover the walls. And music--how could she know I'm a sucker for top-40 opera hits?
Lucy is slender with the golden skin of Portuguese from southernmost Algarve. Her light brown eyes are warm and dart quickly as she works and talks. "I'm a terrible cook," she says. "My stepmother never let me in the kitchen when I was growing up in Quarteira." But she's led a life of incredible adventure: married at 17, a son following quickly, then escaping a terrible marriage by parking her son with a sister in France and taking passage on a ship to Mexico, from where she illegally entered the United States . She stops the cleansing process, walks around to face me, and, eyes huge, shows me with sweeping gestures how her heart was pounding as, all alone, she crept across the border, thinking at every step she heard the border patrol after her. Making her way to Washington, she moved in with a childhood friend and worked nonstop at every job she could find--house cleaning, baby sitting, manicures, anything and everything, hardly sleeping until she found the ways to bring her son to her side and to become a legal resident. Now fiercely independent, a true professional, she has bought a summer home back in Portugal a mere 300 meters from the Bay of Cadiz. Will she go back to Portugal to settle at some point I wonder? "No, never. I love America and I am completely happy here."
"What about that soup?" I ask.
She laughs, reminding me that she hates to cook. "It's the only one I make because it is so easy: caldo verde, "green soup." It's good for all holidays," she adds, "and you make it to eat as a meal because it is so filling. First you get kale. Roll up the leaves and cut them very very finely, like that really thin pasta, you know, angel hair. Set them aside. Then you get potatoes, peel them, cut them in chunks, and put them in a pan with water to cover and a little salt. Cook them until they are tender, then puree them. It's best to have that machine--I forget what it's called in English--the one where you do both, cook then puree the soup in the same pot. Okay, then cook the kale in boiling water for a minute or two, just til it's bright green, then drain the water away. Stir chunks of linguica or other sausage into the potato soup, then stir in the kale and boil for 5 minutes. When you're ready to serve it, pour a little olive oil on top to flavor. See, it's so easy. And really really good."
Alas all good things must come to an end. "Your skin is pretty good," Lucy says, "but make sure you drink lots of water every day."
SATURDAY 3+: MASSAGE THERAPY AND SOPA DE MANI
Gladys I know and love. Gladys is a goddess, an artist; she taketh away my aches and pains. I come to Gladys everytime I do something really stupid. Last month, for example, when I broke my tailbone on a rock while sliding down an ice field on Mount Baker with daughter Meg. Gladys can't heal the bone, but she can sure untraumatize the muscles. I'm a believer. In fact, I'm embarrassed to say that in spite of all my good intentions, I do not ask Gladys one single question about soup during our session. It would be sacrilegious, somehow, to break the rhythm of her craft. So, okay, I went away happy but ignorant...but came back another day to talk soup.
Blanca Gladys Rojas, from the mountainous area of Bolivia, says she likes to eat more than cook, but she is always willing to make her very favorite soup, sopa de mani or peanut soup. Her family loves it too, and they like to celebrate birthdays and all holidays with it. "First I boil the red meat of chicken for a long time to make a lot of broth," she says. "Then I add rice, onions, a little garlic, carrots, and raw peanuts crushed fine. Salt and pepper, then bring it to a boil for a minute. Cook it softly for about 30 minutes. Also you must separately cut potatoes into little sticks and fry them until they are very crispy, like french fries. When you are ready to eat, put the soup in bowls, put the potatoes on top, and sprinkle each bowl with parsley. It looks very nice. And it is a good time for the family to be all together because it takes a long time to cook."
SATURDAY 4: HAIR AND A UNITED NATIONS OF SOUPS
Thank goodness I keep a pencil and tablet in my lap while Sooki and her assistants work miracles on my aging hair.
Sooki picks up the scissors, tells me this month's concept, and thoughtfully starts cutting. "My grandmother would put the whole oxtail and a big round radish in water and cook them overnight. You know those Japanese kitchens were not very hot and you had to cook meat all night just to get it tender." Sooki, as usual, is looking drop dead elegant with her pale skin, jet black hair, deep red lips, severely stylish clothes, and platform shoes. "Then, in the morning, strip away all the meat and save it. Let the broth sit for a day so you can remove all the fat. Then boil the broth, add the meat in small pieces, and serve. You eat the meat with chopsticks, then drink the broth."
"But, Sooki," I say, "isn't this unusual in Japan, to use meat broth instead of dashi?"
"Yeees, of cooouurse. That's why it's for hollllllliday." She always draws out the words when she thinks I'm slow to understand. "But now my favorite is chicken soup--'regular American,' very plain and simple." Sooki left Japan and came to the U.S. as the young bride of a U.S. serviceman. Two children later, they broke up. When she remarried and put her new husband through medical school, he said, "Okay, your turn. What do you want to do?" "I said I wanted to be a hair stylist," Sooki says, "my heart's desire, and he was so good--he sent me to the finest schools, first Santa Monica, then Paris, then Sassoon in London." It was after working at a top celebrity salon in Atlanta that she moved to Washington with the dream of owning her own business.
Juja walks over at that point, smiling. "Remember when we hardly knew each other and decided to buy this business?" Juja also came to America with her husband, turning 17 after she arrived. She's a natural beauty with rumpled but well cut blonde hair, honey amber eyes, always wearing colorful and comfortable cotton and linen outfits, not a scrap of make up on her face. She and Sooki exchange looks of pleasure at the memory. It was back in 1987, just the two of them here in one little room at that time. "My favorite soup is now clam chowder, the one with tomato, not the white one. Very American. But I always make Portuguese canja on Sunday so that after the big meal in the afternoon, my family can just eat soup at night."
"Just the soup alone?"
"No, no. Lots of bread, very crusty. I make it with half white flour and half wheat. And fruit, nothing else. And any leftover soup is eaten during the week. It's also good for people who are sick or don't feel well..."
Nineteen-year-old receptionist Marcia, who is listening in, agrees. "Juja, that's so right. My mom used to always make it for me when I had a stomach ache."
"...and it's very simple to prepare," adds Juja. "Boil a whole chicken for 2-3 hours to get every bit of goodness from it. Take off the bones and skin and put the meat back in. Then little star-shaped pasta. Delicious."
Sooki interrupts, "Just like mine, didn't I tell you? Juja and I are so much alike. I didn't even know she made chicken soup like that, and it's just like mine." Suddenly she barks, "Olga, come here; I need you."
Olga runs over to hand Sooki foils for my hair. She's small and compact, middle aged, short reddish hair, thick glasses, always in slacks and a bright shirt, always wearing gold hoop earrings. She's been washing my hair for 10 years and only now I find out that she left her native Peru to live with her Japanese husband and son in Japan. It seems so unlikely to me somehow. She laughs. "It was terrible," she says. Terrible. I lived in a tiny paper house. I tried to learn the language, but it was so hard and I couldn't communicate. I tried to work at a job making bento box lunches, but it was (again!) terrible because I couldn't understand what people wanted." Sobbing one day, she called her sisters in Washington, DC, and told them how miserable she was. "Come here," they said. "Come live with us and learn English." She arrived in 1990 and immediately got a job with Sooki and Juja.
"We love her," Sooki says. "She is such a good woman. And, do you know, that Japanese father never sees his son."
Olga blushes and tells me about soup. "I don't know any Japanese soup," she says. "I could never understand how to shop or make food there." So she tells me about sopa de mariscos: "Take one thick fish fillet for each person, cut them into chunks, and put them in water. Add celery and onion and garlic and dry red pepper and cook until just before the fish is done. Add a little milk or cream and cook 10 more minutes. Then stir in chopped basil and an egg that has been beaten."
"Do you make a Christmas soup?"
Her face lights up. "Oh yes, caldo de gallina--you get a chicken, an old one, do you know what I mean? Tough! Then you put it in water with carrot and celery and onion and garlic and boil for 2-3 hours. Take away the bones and skin, then put the meat back in with some cilantro and rice. It's very good."
Sooki finishes with the foils and I'm farmed out to the holding tank chair while chemicals penetrate my hair. I'm keeping my eye out for Val, the French "shampoo person," as he calls himself, who has promised me a recipe but greeted with me excuses for the last 3 Saturdays, saying he does not know how to translate the recipe properly into English. "Nella," I say, "please tell Val we can talk about his recipe half in English and half in French." Before I can finish, though, there he is with a big file card in his hand. Oh my, Velouté de tomates--and it looks excellent. He has written everything out: tomates, oignon, gousse d'ail, thym, laurier, huile d'olive, cassonade, piment, noix de muscade, jaune d'oeuf, creme fraiche, parmesan, basilic, sel, poivre. It's a wonderful soup, rich and layered in flavor. Valery is young and tall, good looking, bit of a gallic nose, sandy hair and light moustache, blue eyes--native to Paris but loved spending his young summers in a small village close by St. Tropez. He's come to the U.S. with a friend.
"Don't you miss Paris?" I ask.
"Mais oui. J'aime Paris. Mais je suis très content ici maintenant." Mentally, he's an American now; he thinks he'll only vacation in France henceforth.
The timer rings and Nella, stylist assistant, comes over to squirt on the next round of chemicals. She was born in Villa Real in the Portuguese Algarve; she has dark tawny skin, black hair, and dark black eyes with a brooding, passionate cast to them. She says she best loves that caldo verde soup and that it is traditional to eat on New Year's Day in her region. She puts onion and garlic in hers. "My mother never cooked," she says, "so I learned from my sister." Nella is always mischievous. When she's done, she calls Val to take me off for a shampoo. "Val-LY," she singsongs, winking at me, "Val-LY...mon amour!" She listens in as he tells me he could also give me a good recipe for asparagus soup. "Asparagus!" she interrupts, "that is SO French--always, always les asperges. Me, I won't eat it. I keep thinking I'll try it when it's on my plate, but I never do."
Ah me, my day of beautification, not to mention my month of beautification, is drawing to a close. Not bad, given the raw material, but I don't think I'm going to stop any clocks after all these ministrations. On the other hand, I have certainly come to a new and profound appreciation of the people who have treated me with care and kindness over the past 10 years. Sooki and Juja; Lucy, Nella, and Marcia; Christina and Gladys; Olga and Val--all artists and consummate professionals who, to me, tell the real story of America--the one not exactly popular among Al Queda terrorists right this very minute.
IS THIS THE "REAL" AMERICA OR WHAT?
The story of "Perfect Endings" is, I think, the story of America in the guise of these 8 women and one man who started life in points all over the globe but who found their way to Falls Church, Virginia, to find success and happiness. And it's perfect that they all ended up here, their shop actually located at the intersection of two of the oldest roads in America.
This one square mile of town on the western edge of Washington, DC, has been a crossroads of vital beginnings since prehistoric man arrived in 6000 BCE...since some 5 tribes of Powatan Indians with exotic names like the Tauxenents, the Patawomekes, the Matchotics, the Chicacoans, and the Wicocomocos fished its waterways...since it served as a link on the "rolling road" between colonial Leesburg tobacco plantations and the port of Alexandria...since it sheltered President and Dolley Madison when the British set fire to Washington in 1812...then served as headquarters, alternately, to Union General Daniel Tyler and Confederate General James Longstreet during the Civil War...and served to house the flood of people into Washington during World War II.
Today it's another kind of crossroads--home to a vibrant population of new settlers. The Year 2000 census shows it to be a melting pot of Asian, Hispanic, Arab, European, African, and Native American peoples. Our local phone book is published in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. We've got Irish pubs and Japanese sushi bars; 8 pho parlors, Italian mom & pops, gourmet Indian and French. Our Panjshir Afghanistani restaurant catered dinner to the White House this year in honor of Prime Minister Karzai. Our Kurdish restaurant was closed down by the Sheriff last year, its owner bitterly claiming it had been done in by its neighbor, the original "Falls Church." We've got Chinese restaurants, Peruvian, El Salvadoran, Korean, Greek, a bunch of Persian, Mexican, Thai, Lebanese, oh sure and a couple McDonalds, Taco Bells, and Pizza Huts. We've got 33 different varieties of places to worship. We've got grocery stores that would make you weep with jealousy--how do you think I've been able to experiment so widely in my soup recipes? Thirty-six ethnic grocers in this tiny village with connections to the most arcane and precious and freshest ingredients you could ever imagine.
And did I mention we have great soup here? You bet we do. Now THAT'S a "Perfect Ending"!
Resources used and not used: American FactFinder; Paula Begoun's Blue Eyeshadow Should Still Be Illegal; Susan Brownmiller's Femininity; Rita Freeman's Beauty Bound; B. Gernand and N. Netherton's Falls Church: A Virginia Village Revisited; Milady's Standard Textbook of Cosmetology 2000.* * *
NEXT MONTH: The beginning of a new 12-month series--"Soup and a Story" that will feature one fabulous soup recipe each month...and a story about it.