Essay

In Isolation with Simi Kang

Location: Pittsburgh, USA

I am writing this from my dining room table in the middle of a grey rain. The smell of methi is dense in the humid air, and my cat and I are nestled in front of a box fan watching bright green elm leaves dance beyond our window. Here in what is called Pittsburgh, the traditional lands of the Lenape, Shawnee, and Haudenasaunee people, Pennsylvania’s governor has reinstated public health closures due to COVID-19.

I have been largely quarantined for over three months. During this time, I have been seeking comfort by collecting stories from my father and his siblings, and studying the Sikh faith. Via WhatsApp conversations that seem to include every Kang in India and the diaspora,  I’ve learned that my paternal grandmother, my Dadiji, made a habit of walking barefoot in the morning dew before making breakfast. In long phone calls with my father about his quarantine garden, I have surmised that karela grows well in this region. Bhindi, sadly, does not. As we reach for each other from what seem like ever-greater distances, the thing we want to talk about most is food. While this is not unique, it has reminded me that so much of how we inhabit the world—as Kangs, as family, as Sikhs—has food at its centre.


Under COVID-19, Sikh service organisations including the Sikh Coalition, Khalsa Aid, and others, have focused on feeding local community members and essential workers, creating food packages for US homeless and communities in need, and caring for refugees within India and globally. These initiatives are not simply about giving people food; they are acts of seva (or selfless service), a central principle of Sikhism. Ensuring that folks have access to staples and culturally-appropriate meals is imperative to their well-being, both body and soul. In this way, making and taking langar—the free, vegetarian communal meal served at gurdwaras twice a day, and available to all—is life-sustaining work.

For me, taking langar has always been the most incredible and faithful element of my relationship to Sikhism. When my Dadiji brought me to gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, on our annual visits to India, I loved everything about it. Each ritual, from removing my shoes on the cold white marble and washing my hands in the communal spigot outside, to giving an offering in front of the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (our holy book) was precious to me. 

My favourite part of our visits was langar. After praying, we sat on the floor together at the pangat alongside many others, holding tin plates up for the sewadars, or volunteers, who paced between eaters. Working with efficient grace, they walked down the line, one after another, dipping ladles into buckets full of raita, channa, and sabzi before gently letting them rest on each plate. This was a whole category of food for me—it tasted a lot like our family recipes, but was differently wholesome.

Peeking into the kitchen, I was amazed by the enormous pots that community volunteers stirred with ladles the size of small canoe paddles. Watching folks of all genders roll chapatis into perfect circles entranced me, and I was never more hungry than when the bread was placed on bright hot tawas to puff up and then exhale, steam roiling from their seams so densely I could already taste the warm wheat. These meals prepared by local families were early tastes of my culture and shaped how I conceive of my place in the world. Being Sikh means I am a part of a global family whose work it is to care—for and with—perpetually. Relentlessly.


It’s important to identify my stakes in this discussion. I am the child of a white mother and Punjabi immigrant father; I grew up middle-class in the US Midwest, where I often pass as white. In addition to these privileges, I am a working scholar with a PhD. Growing up, I did not have other Punjabis in my daily life except when my father and I irregularly attended gurdwara. I cannot speak Punjabi and don’t always know what to do during our rites, and yet, watching my Dadiji and aunts in their kitchens, I developed sensorial and kinetic memories of our family’s food, absorbing Sikh culture through our foodways. My early life precludes me from feeling comfortable declaring expertise of the Punjab and Punjabi culture, of Sikhism—of Indian-ness writ large. At the same time, my daily life is shaped by who I come from.

Under COVID-19, I have been craving dishes I’ve never tried to make; overwhelmingly, the things my Dadiji served when we gathered as a family at her table, collected from three continents and tens of cities—like kadhi. My Dadiji would make kadhi only once during our winter visits, using yoghurt she cured for daily use and adding aloo pakoras for heft. I think it became so special to me because of its infrequency. Whereas I could expect to have daal once a day, kadhi was a treat—a reward for my Dadaji and uncles who had worked in the field all morning. A perfect mid-day meal: something warm but light to come home to. I bought yoghurt on our next grocery run, looked up Priya Krishna’s recipe (published by Bon Appétit as “Turmeric-Yogurt Soup”, which, while as close a description as I could probably muster myself, sounds incredibly unappetising to me) and made an enormous pot of kadhi.

The minute I tasted the finished product, I could smell my grandparents’ dining room—the tile floors cold against my feet, windows cracked just enough to let in the rich scent of a burnt sugarcane, a cacophony of spoons against Corelle echoing off the white-washed walls. Krishna is not Punjabi—her family is South Indian—but her recipe felt like my childhood. I immediately took a picture and sent it to my father, who complimented me and decided to make it himself. When my partner tried some she simply nodded, understanding that this food was pure comfort even if it could never transport her the way it did me.

Any other time, making kadhi would soothe me. In the present, it has helped me suture small pieces of my memory back together under COVID-19’s weaponisation against Asian Americans and structurally underserved communities in the US. This, in turn, has given me a greater understanding of who I am within my family’s faith and culture, grounding me in the present as the myth of certainty disappears for all of us. This is somewhat fitting; Sikh history is a series of stories about how we have responded to violence, displacement, and erasure—how we have leaned on each other and survived as a community. My grandparents went through Partition; my father’s generation survived targeted genocide in 1984 India, and while my brothers are too young to remember what it was like after 9/11, I do.

This moment is nothing like those and yet, exploring our foodways has forced me to reckon with the things that have lived in my bones for generations. This includes thinking through our hardest moments and triumphs as a people, grappling with losing my Dadiji, our family’s matriarch, many years later, and loving my family over a variety of distances. It is this latter piece—of trying to stay present with one’s people or at least, what they make—that Valerie Kaur, a civil rights lawyer, memoirist, filmmaker, mama, and Sikh voice in the North American landscape, is doing beautifully and visibly right alongside me.

During the pandemic, Kaur has been cooking with her mom on Instagram live once a week, making family dishes—aloo gobi, daal palak, chohl, and more—as her mother sips chai, advises her daughter on next steps, and answers viewer questions from miles and miles away. Their rapport brings me back to India, where we would gather on lawn chairs and charpois in the late afternoon, drinking chai, eating biscuits, and debating politics or telling stories. It also makes me miss my mother, who, when I was very young, begged my Dadiji to modify some recipes with ingredients accessible in the Midwest in the late ‘80s so she could feed me Punjabi food. (My father, incidentally, is an excellent cook in his own right). Watching these two powerful women share food and love reminds me of food’s function in care work—be it langar for thousands displaced by Modi’s own regime or family (given and chosen) feeding one another—and its ability to heal pasts and presents. 


Last week, I received distance reiki from a friend and after my session, she called me to share what she had learned in journeying my nervous system. When she finished explaining where my body was blocked—my heart, unsurprisingly, is carrying a lot of grief right now—I heard her smile before saying: your ancestors are with you; you are very protected. I began crying and thanked her for her gift. After weeks of calling them in in the kitchen and at my altar, it meant everything that my friend had not only felt my longing for them, but had witnessed my ancestors’ care for me.

That night, I washed rice for dinner, running the grains between my thumb and forefinger. Watching face-masked neighbours walk past my kitchen window, I wondered how many times my kin had carried out the same ritual in the middle of chaos—how often the simple act of making our food had calmed them as it has calmed me. How much it carried them through their own impossible times. I would like to think that this is what we still share, whether they have passed on or are just very far away: the ability to make food as the world changes and violence increases, and giving relentlessly of ourselves in communal need.


Author’s note: This piece was written prior to the US and global uprising against anti-Black racism that has followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. While the above does not include an analysis of this ongoing moment, I want to be clear that I unequivocally support the Movement for Black Lives and am with the movement in love and in labour from my small place in the world. In addition to Dining In Place editor Nadia Bailey, I would like to thank Bao Phi, Vidhya Shanker, and Parag Khandhar of ‘Unmargin,’ where this piece was first nurtured, as well as Sun Yung Shin, for their collaborative and generous editorial engagement.


By Simi Kang

Essay

In Isolation with Sam van Zweden

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Ugly Delicious | One week in


I start watching David Chang’s Netflix food documentary Ugly Delicious with my friend Connor. We serialise it in Netflix Party, sitting behind the blue glow of our screens. In our separate houses, we’re both despairing.

In the sidebar we talk about how isolation has changed how we eat. We’re cooking more, trying more challenging things. At the same time, panic buying restricts what’s possible.

“When I can get yeast and flour again,” Connor says, “I’m making pizza bases.”

In a recent Guardian article, Bee Wilson explores the UK’s panic buying, a phenomenon which is more or less mirrored in Australia. Eggs are in short supply, pasta is scarce, and good luck finding a bag of flour. Of empty supermarket shelves, Wilson observes: “When you are not used to it, this sight does strange things to your insides.”

During World War II, psychologist Ancel Keys conducted an experiment using healthy conscientious objectors, who underwent a ‘semi-starvation’ diet. The restrictions on their intake had long-term effects on their attitudes toward food. One of these was aspirational: they talked a lot about the foods they couldn’t eat. They cut out food pictures and recipes from magazines; they planned fantasy dinner parties.

We watch Ugly Delicious. We can’t eat pizza, so we discuss the best pizzas we’ve eaten. The concept of highbrow pizzas, honesty in pizzas, whether you always want a nice pizza—the merits of Dominos. I want to try his pizza base, but it’ll be some time before we can do that, and so this imaginary dinner party is the best we can manage.

We’ve both got enough tuna and pasta to get us through two weeks without access to shops if it comes to that, but that’s not what we want. That’s not comfort food.

We’re not alone. I’ve seen the challenging things other people are making popping up in my Instagram feed. Some of us despair. Some of us start fermenting, or meal prepping, or growing our own.

Pastitsio | Two weeks in


The posts in my social feed range from those who seem to be ordering delivery food every night (who can afford this? Disparities in pay grades are suddenly obvious), to meal prepping, to those who ‘throw together’ what look like Melburnian brunch plates three times a day.

Before isolation, I enjoyed seeing people’s meals shared online. Now, I’m not so sure. It feels so much more complicated; compounded by all the ways it speaks to class, productivity, income, body anxieties, and so much else. I especially miss posts about group meals: the communal love-ins over a table of shared food. Now I can only think of the potential for infection created by shared cutlery and close seating. Where I used to take comfort, I now feel alienated.

On Saturday night, my friend Chloe drops over pastitsio that she’s cooked and distributed to her elderly relatives.

I wait out the front of my apartment block. As she crosses the road, we both burst into tears. Heavy, slow tears that plop onto our chests. Seeing each other—the physical reality, not just disembodied heads and voices and text—breaks open something inside me that I’ve been working weeks to dam. Normally with greetings, and with tears, there are hugs. With gifts there are hugs. But today there’s none of that. We laugh, though, too; shocked at our need to touch; the surprise by which our emotions have taken us both.

Chloe puts the pastitsio down on the retaining wall. She steps back and I pick it up. We wipe our tears and make some new ones while we talk about how our days have been. Shopping for groceries and having a cry afterwards; visiting elderly women with differing understandings of the pandemic and what’s okay at this time.

That night, separately, we both eat pastitsio. The fat in the sauce crackles as it heats in the microwave, and when I chew, little puffs of steam escape my mouth. Rich, creamy bechamel oozes over layered meat sauce and macaroni. What I wouldn’t give to have Chloe here with me, eating pastitsio together—but it is a comfort to know that she’s been kind and generous enough to think of me, and share her bake-up. Although we have to keep the distance between bodies, we can nourish them from that distance, still.

Kummerspeck | Four weeks in


I receive a text from a friend who’s come across the work kummerspeck and thought of me, because it’s related to food and has no direct English equivalent. The kind of thing I get a kick out of. Kummerspeck is a German word that literally translates as “grief bacon”—the weight gained as a result of comfort eating.

Four weeks in, ‘the COVID 19’ is already circulating as a phrase to describe the 19 kilos people expect to put on during isolation. In a world where we may die of a highly contagious respiratory illness, people are still expressing more concern about getting fat during isolation. The weight gain anxiety ramps up: ready-made calorie-controlled meal ads, which normally slow down coming into winter, return in uncomfortably high proportions. I can’t watch free-to-air television without seeing at least one in each break.

Eating in isolation is one of the last comforts I have access to. I turn my heater on, inching down under a heavy blanket. I tell my friends how much I miss them. On especially hard days, I send my friends baklava or donuts. Other days it’s enough to crack a row of chocolate from a block of chilled Cadbury Marble, waiting in the fridge for just such an emergency. Ordering delivery food once a week with my partner, it almost feels like we’ve busted out of the four walls of our apartment for just an hour.

Let the kummerspeck come, then; this is my last defence against all the panic, the loneliness and uncertainty of the world right now.

Appeltaart | Seven weeks in


After a while, my focus returns. Where it had fractured in the early weeks of lockdown, I’m now catching something of a rhythm: I can read again; I can cook. With supply levels returning slowly to normal, I can even plan a dish ahead of time.

In Clare Bowditch’s memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, I read about her mum’s appeltaart recipe. This is a familiar one: a Dutch deep-dish pie, made from crumbly shortcrust pastry and a filling of apples and not much else. Rather than following the recipe in the book, I call my own Dutch father and ask how he’d do it. He dictates a shortcrust recipe he’s used for years, and entreats me to commit the 3:2:1 ratio to memory.

Without a stand mixer, my wrists ache from rubbing butter into flour. It’s a relief to pat the bulky mass into a little pile to be refrigerated. Later, I roll the dough out, watching it flatten and expand. Sliced apples are layered, and in between I sprinkle sultanas and crushed Marie biscuits to soak up any excess moisture. Before placing the pie in the oven, I weave an intricate lattice on its top and brush it with egg.

The finished pie is so beautiful that I dream of making it for picnics, when I can share cutlery with my friends again. When we can reach into a shared container of food without anxiety. For now, this is my contribution to the feed: this perfectly formed pie; my very best effort at creating something beautiful that cannot be taken away.


By Sam van Zweden

Essay

In Isolation with Lauren Cerand

Location: Florence, Italy

It was only last summer I believed I was moving to Italy for the rest of my life. But less than a year later, I’ll have to leave in August when my visa expires and my savings are gone. This has overlaid my time here with a certain melancholy as well as a tangible sweetness; the rush of juice in the last bite of the last peach of summer, hiding in the shadow of the first bite of the first one that hasn’t even come yet; licking the spilling drip of gelato that rolls down the cone; the race to satisfaction in the face of time. I don’t know yet where I’ll go from here, and even that loses a certain heft every time anyone asks if I’ve bought my plane ticket yet. Lately, I say that there are no planes. But soon, even that will give way to something new.

For now, I stay grounded in Florence, the most exquisite of cities, a butterfly under a glass bell, in which the houses seem to be the same colour as the food and the light, pink ham and rosy terracotta (“cooked earth”), a golden glow like aged cheese and dreams during naps. I had a Plan A, B, C, and D, and they all fell through, and the so longed-for home is only a resting place. I spent more than a decade in Manhattan and the last few years in Brooklyn, and never really felt like I was there to stay. Somehow, I just didn’t leave. Three years ago, I came to Florence for the first time, and as I crossed the Ponte Santa Trinita over the river that hellishly hot afternoon, I had the sudden jolt that I would live here at some point in my lifetime, a feeling I had been hoping to have about anywhere since I stopped thinking, as the train would approach New York City, “There is the City, and I live in its heart.” I just never thought I’d get here so fast.

Since I moved here on the cusp of fall, I’ve thought a lot about nourishment. Partly because this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve thought about what it means for myself, both what I have and what still feels out of reach, and partly because this is Italy, and what’s on the table is always on everybody’s mind. When I mentioned a dinner party I’d attended to an Italian friend, instead of a New Yorker’s response—Where? Who was there?—his first question was, What did you eat? With my polished anecdotes of fame, betrayal, hubris, and the usual suspects lined up, I was taken aback. Another time, I sat for hours with an American friend in Procacci, right in the centre of the high fashion shopping district, eating anchovy and butter sandwiches and quaffing Prosecco, and told a Florentine how much I enjoyed it. “I’m sure you did,” he said. “But that’s not lunch.”

All of this is to say I’m still learning the fundamentals of Tuscan cuisine, even just for myself. Lots of beans, fresh vegetables, tangy olive oil, red wine from the surrounding hills, rarely more than a handful of ingredients, and always the very best that a budget can afford. And always, and only, in season. Cooking with a new precision and attention to detail, I understand in a way I never did in my whole life in America that the results are dictated by the ingredients.

The things I miss and dream about in these days are often a one-word shorthand for my desires—scamorza, a smoky cheese slipping out of the frying pan in velvet curves; pici, fat, fresh spaghetti said to have its roots in the pre-Roman Etruscan culture, the enigmatic pleasure lovers who gave their name to Tuscany. But instead of longing—too much—for things out of reach, I make sure I have the staples for my favourite snack, courtesy of I Capture the Castle, on hand: “I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea,” the protagonist writes in her diary as the place crumbles around her. 

Cooking with a new precision and attention to detail, I understand in a way I never did in my whole life in America that the results are dictated by the ingredients.

When I returned to Florence a few months after my first visit, already sinking gratefully into the feeling that this must be the place, I was invited for Bistecca alla’ Fiorentina, the city’s iconic steak, so large that it must be shared with at least one other person, and served charred but rare. My companion and the waiter suggested a glass of wine that they described as “rude,” which didn’t translate to my American ears. “We’d say earthy,” I replied, which made them both laugh at my simple view of things. “Well, of course it’s earthy, it comes from the earth.”

I could say this experience grounded me, which it has. This beginning of a new life, I was so sure I’d grabbed on to, now feels to me like the last act of an old one. From the perspective of a New Yorker, running a thriving international public relations consultancy while also attending jewellery school full-time sounded a-okay; challenging, but I’d make it work. Visa restrictions meant I had to shut down the former, and the demands of the latter made seeking out the local part-time employment I was permitted to have impossible. By the time it all unravelled, I couldn’t imagine how I’d thought any of it would have flown, given what I value now: time for meals, not just to eat them, but to shop for and prepare them, and cultivate the relationships and settings with which to share them; deep, regular and sustained communion with art that has transmitted essential truths over the centuries; an entirely new need to sit quietly by the sea, unproductively occupied.

The pleasure and freedom to simply be, forty years old and single, living out of a suitcase, somehow existing without the resources or opportunities I once sacrificed everything else to keep close at hand. I don’t have much of what I used to think I couldn’t live without, and I don’t feel drawn to anything from my life before. I need money, of course, and I’ll have to go back to work, where and when I can find it in this new reality.

What matters to me now is so much simpler, and I wonder how it ever became so complicated. But it’s more than being grounded—it’s that earthiness I return to, and feel closest to these days. The gravity. The dirt under the nails that demonstrates you’ve had your hands in something real. The feeling, walking along the Arno River near my apartment after being indoors for almost two months, of a stolen spring, that I had missed the birth of everything, that I was Persephone, alighting to a different season. I don’t miss winter, but I wanted to watch the wisteria come into being.

Recently a thousand-year old monastery in the Tuscan countryside posted on Instagram that without the usual avenues to bring their goods to the market and fund their work, they are in need of support. I order dark chocolate, the exacting combination of bitter and sweet I like best; dried Porcini mushrooms, which I gently sauté in olive oil and torn herbs from pots on my terrace and eat with fresh pappardelle pasta. And three bottles of wine—gorgeous old reds that bloom with the dark promise of the forest, the soft, giving wood of the undergrowth, the ripened allure of fruit at the peak of its offering, and a sweet, soulful Passito that tastes of warm caramel, rich and round, and feels like walking in the rain: cleansed, awakened, almost home.


By Lauren Cerand

Essay

In Isolation with Mikaella Clements

Location: Berlin, Germany

Leftovers


In the green cube, I do the dishes and pick at leftovers. Summer is unfurling easily, so most of the time the light is already fresh and gold, and now and then I get the grey mornings that are my favourites, everything cool and still around me. My flat doesn’t have a balcony or a useable garden but it does have big glass windows, and when the leaves come back it feels like living in a giant treehouse, lindens tapping against the panes, squirrels pausing on their branches to glare inside.

The first week of lockdown I found myself waking earlier and earlier: first eight, then seven, then six. I am usually a late sleeper and on weekdays I’d drag myself out of bed just in time to sling myself into clothes and aim for the train station. Now I have the luck to work from home, and my mornings are newly long. In them I call my sisters, read my book, wash the dishes.

In between I pick at the covered pan, the mouthfuls of whatever we ate last night, richer and saltier and deeper in their own existence than when they were first served up. Lemon potatoes gone cold, still flaky with salt; hits of Sichuan noodles, spice sharp and smoky at once; a guilty scrape of pasta and onions and cheese from the bottom of the pan. I like mouthfuls of past meals on their way to the fridge; breakfast in handfuls, or the cancelled shallot pasta sauce (won’t someone think of the shallots!) on toast with feta and parsley.

The giant mug of tea, of course, although this lockdown has been a startling, semi-obscene insight into how much milk we go through: we are drowning in milk. Thinking about checking Twitter and reading my book instead. I’m reading about heresies in late antiquity, about Augustine’s bleak faith lashing out like a whip as Rome crumbles. I won’t leave this room all day.

Chilli


When Onj and I got married in January, my aunt gave us a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook The Food of Sichuan. Over the past month I have used it obsessively and lovingly, making a trip every fortnight or so to the Chinese supermarket on our corner where I can stock up on new pantry staples: fermented black beans, Sichuan peppers, Shaoxing cooking wine.

The best bit is the hit of red every time I open our cupboard: dried chillies spilling towards me, thick sedimented jars of chilli paste. It’s a pleasure to cook with handfuls of heat, spooning them on, mouth burning. Onj doesn’t like her food so spicy and so I make a gentler version, tell her, remember, your bowl is the one on the right.

“If you forget, just remember that I’m right for you,” I tell her grandly, and she makes a disgusting gesture at me.

Fish


When I get back from the market, Onj is on the phone to her mum, leaning over the kitchen counter, drinking coffee from the little East German cups we picked up at a flea market in another summer, when there were still flea markets. My mother-in-law watches over Facetime from Hastings as I unpack ciabatta bread, the Pflaumen-Streuselkuchen that makes a very indulgent weekend breakfast, and wrapped in another bag, eyes bulging against the plastic, two gleaming sea bream, which the Germans call Dorade.

“He cleaned them for me,” I say, as we slip them out onto the counter and take an immediate, admiring step back. “He cut them open and pulled out their guts.”

“That’s what he’s meant to do,” Onj’s mum says.

“We love the fish man,” Onj explains. “We find everything he does very impressive.”

As a child, I did not like fish very much; neither did my wife, and though I grew out of this fairly indifferently, she did not. I would eat fish if it was served to me, but I never sought it out, and Onj was much more actively opposed. She didn’t like the idea of it, or the weird flexing texture of it, a muscle that gave, like going at someone’s bicep with unexpectedly sharp teeth. For five years, without paying much attention, we steered clear. Then, on holiday in Sicily, we started eating fish, mostly for the aesthetic.

“Fuck,” Onj said ruefully, over a catch of the day served with lemons and shredded lettuce and red onions, because it was really fucking good.

Landlocked in Berlin, without much discussion of motivations or considerations, we started buying our own fish. We only buy from the market fish man, whom we trust implicitly and over-order as a result. First Onj cooked cod following a Bengali recipe from her aunties, staining her fingers turmeric yellow for days, the fish flaky and melting and somehow sweet. Then sumac and za’atar roasted monkfish, with a fattoush salad that we remade every day for a week. Then our Dorade: Onj fries it with garlic and cherry tomatoes bursting around it. When the lid is lifted after fifteen minutes, we crowd round gasping desperate, grateful lungfuls. It smells like the sea.


By Mikaella Clements

Essay

In Isolation with Liam Pieper

Location: Sydney, Australia

There’s a memory I have of my grandmother reading to me which I’m not sure is a real memory, or a chimera of one—fragments of life stored in the same part of the brain and sewn together over years through time and sentiment. The memory is of a children’s book called Stone Soup, a story she read to me time and again before I could read myself; back when a story had a way of growing more precious and soothing each time you heard it, when all stories were lullaby, when being read to was indistinguishable from reading.

The basics of the story are so: a penniless wanderer knocks on the door of a stranger’s home and convinces them that he knows how to make delicious soup by boiling a magical stone he keeps in his pocket. The wanderer puts the soup on the stove, and little by little he coaxes ingredients to garnish the soup from the stranger’s own pantry: onions, carrots, bones, spices, and soon, as if by magic, there is a rich soup in the pot.

Different versions of this story are found across European folklore. The identity of the wanderer, his host, the ingredients of the soup, and moral of the story change according to whichever culture it’s told in. The story, like the soup, tends to get saltier the further east you travel.

In Portugal, the traveller is a poor friar who finds himself starving on the threshold of the town of Almeirim. Too proud to beg, he pulls the stone soup trick in the town square. Little by little, the villagers make suggestions on how to improve the recipe, and bring out salt, potatoes and beans, chouriço, pork belly. The result is sopa da pedra, the thick, moreish Catholic comfort food. When the friar moves on, stone in his pocket, the villagers have learned a powerful lesson about sharing and generosity.

In the Hungarian version, the traveller is a starving soldier returning to his homeland, who then sells the stone on to the villagers at the end of the story. In the Russian tradition, the soup is made from an axe-head. The German version flirts with anti-Semitism, and involves a pilgrim on his way to Jerusalem who tricks a miserly household into handing over their hoarded foods to contribute to the stone soup. It’s this version, where the overwhelming lesson seems to be in the joys of mendacity, that made it to England, then Ireland, and finally, through Grandma, to me.

I was so taken by the legend that whenever my Grandma was making soup, she would trek to the garden, bring in a smooth round stone, and add it the pot, thrilling me insensible. Her soup was always a roughly improvised Scotch broth, a Celtic variant of the French pot-au-feu: a thick stew of barley and bone. A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. Slivers of carrots reduced to mush, salty little bursts of potato that dissolved on the tongue, the surprising pop of sweetcorn and green peas, fresh from the freezer, barely ruffled by the indignity of cooking.

In my large, fractious Irish Catholic family, this was one of the few things we could all agree on—that the soup was transcendently good. Served with supermarket white bread and margarine scooped from an ancient Pyrex bowl, the entire table fall into a contented hush for the duration of the meal.

Grandma was the one who talk me to cook. I years spent toddling after her in the kitchen, convinced she was the source of all culinary knowledge. She showed me a trick with a tomato once: you slice the fruit in half, sprinkle salt on only one half, and wait five minutes. Taste the plain tomato, taste the seasoned one. Imagine my eyes bugging out of my tiny head as I realised that you can take a dull, sour, hateful thing and make it glorious with time and seasoning.


A spoon dipped below the surface—an iridescent slick of oil and butter—would churn up a silt of wonders. 


A later realisation, once I was an adult: Grandma wasn’t a particularly good cook. Just so-so, just proficient. She cooked the food I liked, and I liked it because she cooked it. Fish-fingers with lemon, oven chips with White Crow, lettuce drenched in Paul Newman dressing. All of it a tiny little gastronomic morphine drip. But most of all, the soup.

A generation ago the recipe called for beef bones, but then the 70s happened, and much of the family became vegetarian, and Grandma did too, and so the soup was adapted: an extra handful of barley, a little vinegar to leach the umami from the grain, to thicken the broth, to fool the carnivores in our midst. Everyone in the family asked her how she made it, and all of them had a recipe somewhere she’d dutifully tapped out on her typewriter. But none of us could ever recreate it. Every time I tried to make it, it came out wrong.

There was an interlude, a decade or so I was lost to the world, and when I returned, I began the process of getting to know my grandma as an adult. Her typewriter, a hulking Olivetti, now sat in the centre of her dining table. When my books were reviewed in the paper she would cut out the clippings and post them to me, along with little missives and memories from her life—books long passed the pulping point that she urged me to track down. At some point, she began to talk about how she would die. As the years passed it became one of the only things she would talk about.

One day she had ‘a fall’. Such a toothless euphemism for what it is. It’s a wild thing, when the woman who shaped you as an infant begins to fade from the world, the long-held dignities slipping away into a future that grew opaque and oily when you looked to it. When I visited, I would fix the tea, help her chop vegetables. One day, I asked her to teach me how to make stone soup again. I asked what she was doing that nobody else in the family could get right. She went to the back of the cupboard, slid some boxes out of the way and retrieved two cartons of Campbell’s stock. There was a twinkle in her eye, a touch of the confessional: “I don’t make the soup at all. It comes in a box.”

This, then, was the secret. It was right there in the storybook: the secret is mendacity, in pretending a thing is good and wholesome until the world makes it so. She died in the early hours on the day the first coronavirus case was reported in Australia. At the funeral, the various wings of the family gave separate eulogies. But we all spoke about the soup, how much we missed it. Afterwards, we stuck to our various corners at the wake and ate soggy white bread sandwiches, drank wine from plastic cups.

Perhaps you have been shopping during the lockdown. Perhaps, like me, you bought the ingredients for a mighty bout of self care and then found yourself too stressed, too besieged, somehow too busy despite having nothing to do to cook a decent dinner.

Things fall apart. Especially in kitchens. You will go to your fridge, and survey your broken kingdom of dreams, the odds and ends of vegetables, a near-terminal bag of green beans, a wilting head of celery, the sum parts of a planned ratatouille, now a monument to hubris. But all is not lost, it is never all lost. You will rally.

You will find at the back of the cupboard a jar of pearlescent barley. You will boil it with stock, with beans, with a French trick with an onion you learned from someone you will never see again. With this, you will bring it all to life again. All the best recipes started as salvage, a monument to scarcity and improvisation. There are no rules beyond those we choose to adhere to. You will fossick in the garbage and the muck and you will create something perfect, and pure as the slick of oil on its oceanic surface. You will make stone soup.


By Liam Pieper