Playwright Sheila Callaghan on Soup Gone Wrong

published Oct 16, 2016
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(Image credit: Illustrations by Amy Jean Porter)

This month, we’re delighted to share four essays from The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook about the power of a simple bowl of soup. Playwright Sheila Callaghan continues our series today with a story about good intentions gone dreadfully wrong.

One Thanksgiving years ago, I was meeting my future husband’s extended family for the first time. His mother and her people are from Cyprus, and his father and his people are from Greece. At the time they all lived in Toledo, Ohio. When I say “all” I mean a gaggle of relatives who fled their countries to escape Turkish oppression. While I am neither Greek nor much of a cook, I knew if I wanted to be an acceptable Greek wife to my future husband’s family I needed to learn how to make at least one delicious dish that could feed 15 hungry Mediterraneans. So, I tasked myself to find a flavorful, idiot-proof, large-batch item in keeping with the brisk Midwestern autumn. I settled on a deceptively simple butternut squash soup recipe that uses Herbes de Provence as the forward flavor. I did a test run in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen. Easy and delicious.

I memorized the recipe on the plane so I could seem competent in the kitchen. After we dropped our bags off at my fiancé’s childhood home, we set out to the local Kroger’s. I found all my ingredients with one notable exception: Herbes de Provence. We tried three different markets. Nothing. I panicked. That herb mix is the very essence of this soup, the thing that makes it elegant and imposing. And, I had promised the soup to his family. I had to make the soup.

So like any Type-A/vaguely-OCD pragmatist, I researched the composition of Herbes de Provence: savory, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, marjoram, fennel seed. We set off again to the Kroger’s. We were able to find dried versions of all except the rosemary, which I yanked off a fresh potted plant in the floral section. Figured I’d use it for garnish. Garnish shows you mean business. Garnish declares your dish isn’t just about taste; it’s about style. I was styling myself as an elevated autumnal purée for my future family.

At dinner, everyone fussed over my appealing-looking soup. I made a show of walking around to lay a drop of olive oil and a sprig of rosemary in the center of every bowl. I marveled at the fruits of my own tenacity, ignoring the reality that I had just spent over $50 on dried herbs I would never use again.

But then, I noticed my fiancé’s mother had pushed her bowl away. Tears welled in her eyes. She said she was sorry but she couldn’t eat it. I realized other relatives around the table were having trouble as well. I asked my fiancé what was going on. He had no idea. Finally, my mother-in-law’s sister pulled me into the kitchen to explain. “In Cyprus, we plant rosemary bushes at the gravesites of our loved ones. The smell of fresh rosemary makes us think of death—especially our mother’s. We lost her to breast cancer in our 20s. She died two months after my sister’s wedding. During her honeymoon.”

The following Thanksgiving, I brought pie.

Sheila Callaghan is a playwright dividing her time between New York and Los Angeles. She is the recipient of a Whiting Award, and was profiled by Marie Claire as one of “18 Successful Women Who Are Changing the World.” Sheila is currently a writer/producer on the Showtime series Shameless.

Excerpted from The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes © 2016, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, published by powerHouse Books.

Get the Book: The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, $22.50 at Amazon