Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar. —William Faulkner
Our lives intersected when we were at polar opposite phases. I was looking forward to growing a family. She was well into old age; too frail to care for herself, let alone the large house she solely occupied.
She and her husband had built the home, from scratch I’m told, mostly with their bare hands, and adorned it with spruce, cedar and pine saplings, rhododendrons and a vegetable garden. By the time I met her, the saplings had grown into a sizable woodlot. It was a difficult decision to sell her home, understandably so, but soon after I met her, she gave up her fight and for the remainder of the time that our lives overlapped, she lived in an old-age home in a suburb south of the city, close to where she had lived, quietly and peacefully, for most of her life in Canada. She was my husband’s grandmother.
From our first meeting, she befriended me. Contrarily though, she wasn’t the type to make friends easily and living at a not-so-convenient distance from us meant that she spent most of her time alone; her television and books and for some years, her cat, her steady companions. She preferred it this way, and so she said. Her life had never been the easiest and throughout it all, she always managed to remain positive and made the best of what she had. We talked on the phone often; her stories, always intriguing; her wisdom, always welcomed; her joy, always infectious. We visited her as often as we could, bringing with us freshly baked cookies and scones (heart-shaped ones that my children insisted on punching out only for her) and Godiva chocolates, her favourite. Other times, celebratory ones, my husband would pick her up and bring her over to our home, to a feast waiting or off we would all go to a restaurant of her choice. Of course, in retrospect, it no longer seems enough or even often enough.
Shortly after she had moved into the old-age home, we realized that although she was comfortably settled into this new phase of life (sporting a new motorized scooter and making daily use of the swimming facilities at her new home), she had quickly become dissatisfied with the meals served there and longed for the home-cooked meals that she had spoiled herself (and my husband growing up) with. We asked her to move in with us or at least closer to us but she would not hear of it; she wasn’t the type to impose on anyone, let alone her only grandchild. So, we remedied the problem by stocking her freezer with carefully packaged single portions of homemade frozen meals; as many as could fit, enough to get her through until we would visit her next and swap full containers for empty ones. She was grateful. And we were more than happy to provide this small comfort. Soups were her favourite; pot pies, a close second. We constantly tried new recipes that she might like, as well as attempt to recreate hers. She would smile with delight as she would read the labels on each container before neatly stacking them in her freezer. Chicken Barley. Old Country. Cream of Carrot. Turkey.
Six years ago, on a summer’s day, my husband and I both at work, he received a call notifying us that she had been admitted to a hospital for an excruciating back pain. Before the end of the week, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before her 88th birthday, before the season could change, before she could be discharged to a convalescence home, before we could say good-bye, she passed away, in a room at Hôpital Charles-LeMoyne, on the fifth floor, in her sleep, as quietly and as peacefully as she had lived her life, and to us left mourning, heartbreakingly alone. The only sign of life left behind, children’s drawings hanging on the wall, as crookedly as they had been stuck there by the very same hands that had drawn them. “I love you Grandma” one said, in the disproportionate lettering of my then almost 6-year-old. That August, as in ones past, I made soups, stock-potfuls. The market was brimming with a new harvest, as nostalgic and familiar as the previous ones, only this one, weighted down heavily with melancholy and grief and guilt and beckoning me to the solace of my kitchen. I washed and peeled, sliced and chopped, vegetables by the pounds. I made stock by gallons and melted butter by cups, everything my hands had become accustomed to doing during happier times, only this time, without any purpose. The last time I had seen her, the look in her glassy blue eyes, the firm grip of her almost translucent hands, had conveyed to me that she was ready for what was coming. She may have been, but I, my husband, our young children… we were not. I packaged the soups into individual portions for freezing and labelled them. Though there was no longer a need.
We’ve continued this tradition ever since. Soup here, is never made for a single mealtime. It’s made in commercial amounts, packaged in individual ones. The convenience this affords is incredible. Plus, the goodness of fresh produce is preserved as perfectly as memories are by the heart. Long after the season of harvest has passed, there’s healing in a bowl of soup, “with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar.”
This is not a soup we made for Grandma. The idea of it came to me shortly after her cancer diagnosis. I thought ginger and turmeric would help. She was not very fond of Indian flavours but I thought I could sneak them in, just a hint, and maybe she wouldn’t mind. I guess we will never know.
Butternut Squash & Carrot Soup with Ginger and Turmeric
- 450 g (about 1 small) butternut squash, coarsely cubed
- 400 g carrots, chopped
- 170 g onion, chopped
- 90 g celery, chopped
- 100 g butter
- 15 g garlic
- 10 g ginger (about 1 tbsp), peeled and finely grated
- 10 g fresh turmeric, peeled and finely grated (or substitute with 1 tsp turmeric powder)
- 4 cups vegetable stock (or chicken stock if you prefer)
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground coriander powder
- Melt butter in a large casserole (I use my 5.4 L dutch oven pot) over medium heat, be sure not to burn the butter. Add onions, garlic, ginger and fresh turmeric (if using) and cook for a few minutes to soften onions.
- Mix in carrots, cover and cook on medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
- Mix in squash and celery, cover and continue cooking for another 3 minutes.
- Add stock, salt, turmeric powder (if using) and ground coriander and increase heat to bring to a boil.
- Once boiling, reduce heat to just allow soup to simmer. Cover and continue simmering for 30 minutes.
- Allow to cool slightly.
- Using an immersion blender, blend the soup to achieve a creamy, smooth texture.
- Serve garnished with fresh mint, fenugreek, or coriander, or a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.