Monday, September 30, 2013

Tomato Soup from Heaven

It's autumn. Time to harvest. Makes me remember Papo, my grandfather, and sweet afternoons in his kitchen.

                                                    TOMATO SOUP FROM HEAVEN

                    Only the pure in heart can make a good soup. Ludwig van Beethoven 

I heard the soft creak of our front door. From my upstairs bedroom, the sound was distant but distinct. I’d been in bed for over a month with herniated disks in my back, and I was lonely. I knew a visitor when I heard one.

“Baby Girl?” My grandfather’s voice traveled up the stairwell. Same kind tone, same name he’d called me all my life, though I was now well past a girlish state. I was thirty-something and pregnant with my third son.

“Papo, come on up,” I called. I tried to roll to my side, but even that was painful and difficult.

It seemed small ages before Papo ducked his head through the door frame. He pulled his hat from his head and held it in his worn hands. “How are you today, darlin?”

“Same, same, same, Papo. Ready to do something different,” I said.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

“What did you bring?” I couldn’t help but smile. And I’d bet my beagle he’d brought his homemade tomato soup. I could just imagine it, in blue-handled Kemp’s ice cream bucket, with the lid pressed on for secure travel. It was about thirty miles from my grandparents’ door to my bedside.

“Why, I’ll be,” he said. “What makes you ask that?” Papo’s grin now matched my own.

“Is there soup in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I’ll bring you some up,” Papo said. He walked into the bedroom and bent, slowly, to kiss the top of my head. Then he disappeared. Out the door. Down the stairs. Into the kitchen to ladle some soup.

Papo’s tomato soup had been a comfort food stitch in the fabric of my life. He was a gardener long before my grandmother’s health failed and he became the cook. The tomatoes for his soup came plump and fresh from dark Mississippi River Valley soil. The weather could be too dry, too wet. The blight would hit and sturdy tomato plants would spot and spoil, yet somehow Papo’s plants would yield juicy tomatoes. He’d peel, cut, and cook the tomatoes and seal them in clear, shiny Mason jars. When we were sick or sad or just plain hungry, the jars would be extracted, one by one, from the shelf in his basement. Then he’d pour them into his heavy, old stock pot. He’d add creamy cold milk, garlic, seasonings, a spot of butter and pinches of parsley and soda. The result would be thick and delicious, fresh and smooth, a slight red that filled the bowls and tummies with something warm and wonderful.

Papo usually served his soup with crisp, salty crackers, and he didn’t skimp. He didn’t let me down, that afternoon, either. A few minutes later, Papo once again climbed the stairs, this time even more slowly than the first. I could see a steaming bowl balanced on a tray, crackers piled high on the side. I caught the garlicky aroma before he hit the bedroom, and my mouth watered.

“Papo,” I said. “It was so kind of you to bring me this soup. It smells amazing.” I tried to prop myself up enough to support the tray on my lap. The sharp shoots of pain were softened by Papo’s response.

“Oh, darlin. I wish I could do more,” he said. His hands shook slightly as he placed the tray over my legs.

I reached out to embrace my grandfather. He once again leaned in, careful to not upset my lunch. “Can you stay?” I asked.

“Your grandmother’s in the car,” he said. “She just can’t make it up the stairs today. But she said she loves you. And we’ll be back, soon.”

I could only imagine what he must’ve gone through, transporting my poor, sweet grandmother to the car. Her legs had just about given out and traveling was a real sacrifice.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you, too, Baby Girl,” Papo said. Then he squeezed my hands and once again left the way he came. I sat alone, on my bed, and sipped slow spoonfuls of soup. When the bottom of the bowl peeked through, I tipped it forward to scoop every last drop. Funny as it sounds, the flavor was more than tomatoes and garlic and cream. To me, hurting and alone, the soup tasted like love.

A few months later, after a healthy delivery and a healed back, Papo called me to his kitchen. He wanted to teach me to make the soup. He’d instruct and I’d work, under his watchful eye. Then I’d go home and try to make it for my family. The soup would scorch. The soda would turn the kettle to a pink, frothy mess. I’d get too much garlic and we’d pant for water like thirsty dogs. I just couldn’t get it. But my Papo was a patient man, and we kept trying, until one day I hit it right. I didn’t understand it at the time, but those moments stooped over the stock pot were in preparation.

A few years later, I no longer have the blessing of learning in Papo’s kitchen.  And“How ‘bout some soup, Baby Girl?” no longer travels up the stairwell, through the kitchen, from Papo’s heart to mine. But those words echo in my memory, and they bring precious peace. When one of my five boys is hurting, sad, or just needs some extra loving, I pull the copper-bottom stock pot from the pantry shelf. I reach for tomatoes that I learned to “put up” for all seasons. I stir the ingredients together and get the recipe just right. And I remember my grandfather, dear sweet Papo, full of encouragement and love.
Then I sit at the table with my son and enjoy tomato soup from heaven.

Papo's Tomato Soup:

2 T butter
2 T flour
4 c milk
1 qt home canned tomatoes  (used crushed if using canned tomatoes from the store)
1/4 tsp baking soda
garlic powder, salt, pepper

Warm milk, in pan, over low/med heat. Add butter, stirring constantly. Sprinkle in flour.

Add baking soda to tomatoes.

While continuing to stir, add tomatoes to milk mixture (will froth a bit).

Season to taste with garlic powder, salt, pepper. Stir until creamy.

*Very important to use low/med heat. Don't boil...soup will curdle

Story and recipe as printed in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love


  1. BEAUTIFUL story, Shawnelle! Makes me want to go out and buy the Chicken Soup for the Soul Food and Love book! Wonderful Papo love!

    1. Thanks, BJ. You are such a sweet encourager...
      Yes - been missing Papo these days.
      Thank you for the help this morning - you're a gem!

  2. This is beautiful. I can see why it was included!

    1. Thank you, Kathy for the encouragement, Kathy. Sending hugs.