Start with an empty kettle, preferably on a cold, rainy day, next to a garden in a prison. Surround yourself with a number of young inmates, serving long sentences, isolated, estranged from their families. Make sure they are close to you, hungry for lunch and hungry for the simple joy of simply being together and wanting to accomplish something important today.
Add an aching heart or more, maybe a dozen, mixed with feelings of loneliness and disconnection, even a little abandonment. Throw in a handful of indifference, and a pound of neglect.
Take a gallon of tomatoes, grown by these men in this garden. Grown from seeds, where their sprouting was a miracle of life witnessed by those who had never been placed in fertile soil, watered, and kissed by sunlight and love. Tomatoes potted up in rich soil, then transplanted out in the spring sunshine, to grow, and bloom, producing wonderful red, ripening tomatoes, and harvested by young, eager hands. Don’t forget to stir in the pride that comes with using OUR tomatoes.
Simmer the tomatoes, adding heat from the stove, and the heat of a young man’s heart, eager to learn and show that he can do this.
Slice some onions, preferably sliced by a young man who had never held an onion, never knew how to peel and slice it. Add the spirit of his curiosity and excitement, of being a cook, making something to eat, with his own hands. Take all that and simmer it in your heart, and feel the warmth of that nurture your own soul.
Find a frying pan, and heat it on the stove. Add olive oil, making sure your assistant chef gets a drop or two of the oil on his finger, so he can taste the sweet richness of olives ripening in Californian or Italian sun, asking him to describe a taste he has never had before on his tongue. Add the warmth of his smile to the soup, and stir gently.
Teach your young friend to peel a few cloves of garlic, by smashing them with the flat of a knife, watching him lean down to smell the pungent garlic, freshly peeled and minced. See him smile, when he realizes he has learned something new.
Find some peppers nearby, the ones the young men grew in the greenhouse this summer, the ones that are now just ripening. Ask him to select the peppers himself, asking him to trust his own judgment as to whether they are ripe. Gently stir in the newly discovered sense of trust and respect into your soup.
Put a wooden spoon in your young friend’s hand, letting him stir the onions, garlic and peppers together, as they begin to sizzle in the heat of the olive oil. Put some salt and black pepper, and a little brown sugar in his hand, letting him judge how much to add, when to stir, deciding when the mixture is cooked just right. Fold in the sense of accomplishment and the pride of making his own soup into the mixture, and remark about how wonderful it all smells.
Let him discover what happens when you mix the wonderful medley of onions, peppers, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and olive oil, and his accomplishments and emotions, into the warmth of the tomatoes, the transformation into soup.
Stir gently, letting the flavors blend, letting him slip into the ownership of his creation. Hand him a small spoon, urging him to taste, and evaluate, to enjoy his work, his creativity. Watch his face, overcome with pleasure and art, as he seriously evaluates and decides what to add.
Stand back, and let him take control, adding basil and a little more salt. See the glimmer in his eye, as he finds a secret ingredient to add. Enjoy his boldness, as he adds a pinch of his secret ingredient, and add that sense of power and confidence to the soup.
Gently whisper that it is time to add the milk, that the soup should be ready soon, for all the other men to enjoy. Ask him to taste it again, and sense all of its wonderfulness. With tenderness, tell him that this is an amazing soup, that everyone will love it, that it will be the best thing to experience on this cold, rainy day in the garden.
Watch him hold himself up strong, shoulders back, as he ladles out the soup, handing a bowl to all of the other men, his friends, his compatriots.
“I made this,” he says, to each of the men. Each one of them takes their bowl from him, with a slight motion of deference, respect, and thanksgiving.
“Thank you. Thank you,” they tell him.
And, a few moments later, see him smile as the room fills with the chatter of hungry men filling their bellies with warm soup on a cold rainy day.
“This is delicious. This is the best soup I’ve ever had. Amazing. Fabulous. Ah, so wonderful.”
See him nod, understanding what this is all about, what we have accomplished today, the making of the soup, the growing of the man.
–Neal Lemery 11/16/15