When the bright burnished October days give way to gray November, there's nothing like a bowl of old-fashioned vegetable soup to remind us what chilly days are for. Three ways to make it: Open a can (15 minutes), open lots of cans (about an hour), or start from scratch (all afternoon).
Starting from scratch is a relative term; assume the beef has been slaughtered and the vegetables harvested. Set a large heavy kettle or dutch oven over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. Then cut some chunks of fat from two to four meaty soup bones and throw them in the pot to melt. When the chunks are spongy and a thin layer of tallow greases the bottom of the kettle, put the soup bones in. Turn the heat to low and let them brown. Don't rush-this takes about an hour, turning the bones every 15 minutes or so. Slow browning develops a depth to the flavor that can't be shortcutted. When the smell fills the house with a rich aroma, they're done.
Add a gallon of water and salt to taste. Bring to boiling, skim the foam, and lower the heat to a simmer. Soup bone meat is tough, gristly, and scant-it'll take at least an hour and a half to soften it. Meanwhile, assemble your vegetables and make sure your knife is good and sharp.
Vegetables come from everywhere: your own garden, the farmers market, produce aisle, freezer case, even a can. They come in every color: reds and oranges and yellows and greens, bright as crayons. They come with contrasting textures and flavors. For example, carrots are hard, onions are sharp. But when they cook together one becomes tender, the other mellow-still themselves, only better.
Remove the bones from the broth and throw in the vegetables. While they come to a boil, you'll be picking meat from the crevasses of bone and sheaths of fat-not a job for the squeamish. It will come off in chunks and slivers. Cut up the big pieces and throw them back into the pot for another hour or so, while the meat and vegetables become comfortable together.
Don't be surprised if the process begins to feel sacramental. You might hear murmurs from the original, pre-carnivore garden. A soup made with only vegetables can be delicious, but given the world's fraught and vexed history, it's a little thin. Maybe that's one reason why Cain's offering of grains and fruits would not suffice, while Abel's was accepted. Flesh gives the soup its body, richness and character. It begins and finishes the job that bloodless vegetables complement; it forms the medium in which they consist. And it requires someone's ultimate sacrifice.
"Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (John 6:56). Some of Jesus' statements don't have the same stunning effect on us as on the original hearers, but this one still shocks. Eat His flesh? Drink His blood? Yes, it's metaphorical, but Jesus did literally offer His flesh and blood: the former to abide with us, the latter to pour out for us. And forever after, Christ feeds us.
He's the flesh and bone laying down His life at the bottom of the pot (so to speak). He gathers us, with our sharp angles and hard surfaces, our squishy and acidic selves, and chops us with the sharp blade of His Word. He adds us with all our imperfections and cooks us down to a mellow whole, conforming to Him and confirming each other. He sanctifies the garden and the butcher's block and the kettle. As we cook, a pleasing aroma rises to His Father. And when we're done, He serves us up.
As I write, the current election is still undecided. As you read, it is; the world stumbles on and today's controversies become tomorrow's specialties. And all the time we're cooking in the Lord's kitchen. Let's be patient-with ourselves, the world, and each other-for someday we'll be done.
Email Janie B. Cheaney