Monday, September 13, 2010

Beef Soup: True Enough

My friend John Reimringer has just published his first novel, Vestments. John has called it his love letter to the city of St. Paul. Indeed, the city’s presence is strong throughout the book, shaping the characters’ daily lives, their choices, their reactions to each other—just as cities do in real life.

After listening to him read from Vestments, I decided John should have some soup and it must be of beef. For this man, a steer should be hewn down in its prime and laid low with long simmering. And so I’d make stock. As an homage, the ingredients would come from the St. Paul Farmers Market.

I got beef shanks from Farm on Wheels. I put them, together with cubed beef chuck, in the oven to roast while I prepared the aromatics. First, the strong leaves of an unblanched celery plant. Yellow onions and sage would bolster John and his wife, poet Katrina Vandenberg, with their pungency. But I added bay and rosemary, black pepper and sweet carrots, too, to soften and round out the flavors; I wanted my friends to be happy. Oh, and a bit of garlic, too. They would get no less than the best.

I put the bones to bed in a crock pot, their vegetable friends tucked in all around them. Then I let slow heat work its magic, easing subtle fingers into the hearts of marrow bones, smoothing out collagen and fat, drawing out essences; leaving the souls of vegetables and meat suspended in cooking liquid.

Finally, when I tasted a bit of meat, there was nothing beefy about it anymore. I strained the broth, defatted it, and cooked it down until it was strong, velvety, and satisfying. In went a half cup of pearled barley along with the beef cubes I roasted earlier. It would take about forty-five minutes for the grain to cook. In that time, I diced some more carrots and sliced shallots, then chopped some green beans for color and fun.

The weird thing about being friends with a novelist and a poet is this: I worry that I know a lot more about them than they can possibly have deduced about me. Their jobs are to make art, and art is emotional truth. A poem, the characters in a novel: they are shards of the author’s self caught and pinned onto the page like an entomological specimen. It’s published and out there, for better or for worse. Little bits of their truths are available on for anyone in the world to buy and read in black and white.

I brought two quarts of my emotional truth, still hot from the stove, to another of John’s readings on a rainy night last week. Soup can’t say everything. I hope it said enough.

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