My mother ate like a bird.
Her favorite lunch was cottage cheese and red pepper, with a side of Ryvita crackers.
Her aviary-like diet was the subject of much gentle teasing by those who loved her.
While she had the ability to cook a five-course gourmet meal or an Italian feast for 20, when we were growing up, she would often opt for a huge vat of homemade soup or chili.
One of her favorite soups was mushroom barley.
Mushroom barley soup was a lightning rod in our house. Some of us hated it, some of us loved it, and some of us thought it didn’t much qualify as a meal. But my mother loved it.
Usually focused on pleasing the masses, when it came to this broth-based delicacy, she refused to eliminate it from her repertoire.
Despite the variant complaints and rabid discussions about what constituted a filling four squares (“Not mushroom barley soup!” my little brother roared) she routinely boiled and brewed up the hearty concoction.
I remember her vivaciously answering, her hazel green eyes glowing, “Mushroom barley soup!” when asked what was for dinner.
She reveled in eating it – and could stretch it out into several lunches and mid-afternoon snacks.
While I liked MBS at first, it lost some of its luster for me as her fervor for making it grew.
I was ambivalent about it at best, when its popularity finally began to plummet.
Always a family with a culture focused around food (blame our Italian-American roots), when my mom stopped cooking due to her illness, an intangible significant something was lost. Some part of our family fiber was broken. After she died, I was nearly inconsolable until I had her recipe books in my possession.
Oddly, the recipe for mushroom barley soup was missing. She must have committed it cleanly to memory.
Like so many, my mother’s cooking holds a powerful place in my heart-mind-belly. I miss it like the salty broth of chicken noodle soup after your fever breaks and you think, “I may recover after all” and you’re finally, blessedly, ravenously hungry again.
But she sends little reminders my way.
Recently, during a day jam-packed with meetings and measurements, calls and conferences, I fled for food.
It wasn’t too cool out yet, and my throat was fine, but I longed for soup. And for a respite from the break-neck pace of the stop-start-stop pace of my life, which had lately been presenting me with tough choices, hard conversations and a requirement for a conscious commitment to optimism.
After making two phone calls on the way, and feeling my frazzled nerves buzz between the vertebrae of my back, I found my way into a local café that usually proffered a few different varieties of soup.
Hoping for a hearty vegetarian option, I looked at the menu board to behold, “Mushroom barley soup.”