Comfort Soup

Photo by Matthew Genitempo, via.
Growing up, ours was a very holistic sort of household; my parents would usually skip the over-prescribed antibiotics and brightly colored drugstore meds in favor of more natural remedies. I remember many instances of being chased around the house with a gloopy aloe leaf, bee pollen capsules or arnica gel. Sore throats were usually tended to not with capfuls of cough syrup, but rather spoonfuls of lemon juice and raw honey. Tummy aches got ginger tea, and fevers were cured with bay rum-soaked cloths and bowls of hot, spicy seafood soup.

That soup was my favorite. Upon the first hint of a temperature, my mom would make a trip to the seafood market and come home with a bag full of shellfish, sea bass, scallops, and a live lobster, thwacking around in its box. She started with a sofrito base, sauteing diced peppers, onions, and other aromatics until fragrant. To this she'd add chunks of calabaza (West Indian pumpkin) for color and thickness, and season it with Old Bay and cayenne. All the while, she'd peel shrimp, dropping the shells into a large simmering pot that became shrimp stock. By the time she was ready to ladle the soup into bowls, the house was filled with a rich seaside aroma.

I loved the soup, but it wasn't a regular on the menu at home. For one, my dad, who is sensitive to spice, was never really a fan. And the pounds of fresh seafood were rather pricey. So my mother only ever made it when I got sick. Or at least, when she thought I was sick, for I went to great lengths to feign illness in the hopes that she would make me a pot of that incredible soup. I used to plan it in advance, acting a bit weak for a couple days, before finally asking to be sent to the nurse's office at school. There I would complain of nonspecific aches and curl up listlessly until my parent's were called. And then at home I'd lay patiently in bed, reading a book and pressing hard against the thermometer with my tongue in order to raise the temperature a few degrees higher.

Several years later, as an adult, I finally confessed. My mother laughed it off and noted, "you could have just asked me to make you soup."

In the years since, I've openly adopted my parent's holistic ways, responding to Eugene's request for a decongestant by dumping a teaspoon of cayenne into a mug of tea and making many pots of the same soup, which has also become one of his favorites. This past week, after several days of nonstop work and late nights, my body gave out and I found myself ravaged with a nasty cold, too bleary to do much for myself beside make tea and reheat leftovers.

My mom, upon learning I was sick, offered to come by on Monday with the ingredients to make me soup. She came over and spent a couple hours working on the soup telling me about how she used to have something similar when she was a child in Puerto Rico. It was nice to have her buzzing around in the kitchen, and to have the apartment filled with those incredible smells of my childhood. When it was ready, we sat down on the couch to each have a bowl, the spice and steam instantly making it possible for me to breathe through my nose again.

Everybody has a comforting dish they enjoy when sick. For some it's chicken noodle soup. For others it's cinnamon toast. For me, it'll always be spicy seafood soup.