Today I worked on a project that was off the menu, if you will, along with the other prep I had to do to get ready for dinner. One of the organizations in Durham that works hard to figure out how to feed and house folks who, for whatever reason, are hungry and homeless is Urban Ministries. One of their big fundraising events is called Empty Bowls. (The concept is a national one you can learn about here.) The way it works is potters here in town make clay soup bowls, restaurants make and donate soup, and people come and pay for a bowl and soup ($30) or just soup ($15) to help support UMD.
The Durham restaurant is one of the restaurants involved and I am the one who gets to make the soup. This will be my second year doing that; the new part for me is I get to go to the event and serve the soup this year. And yes, there is a friendly competition among the soup providers. (Durham folks: come eat and vote.) Here’s their promotional video.
Now, I’m not just making soup; I’m making twenty-five gallons of soup, which means I have no recipe that large. Let me back up. I don’t actually have a recipe, period, other than this is a soup I have made before and love: Sweet Potato, Apple, and Poblano Bisque. The largest batch I’ve made to this point was about three gallons. In many ways, soup is a forgiving thing to make because it is not an exact science in the way baking is, for instance, but in both cases, expanding the recipe means working to figure out the ratios: the ingredients have to be seen in relationship to one another. A salad dressing, for example, hangs on the ratio between the vinegar or acid and the oil. For my soup, the relationship between the sweet potatoes, apples, and poblanos has to be in ratios that let you taste the ingredients in that order and in that priority: you need to know it is a sweet potato soup, with a touch of apple in the middle, and a nice peppery finish at the end. The garlic and ginger are there to fill in the background, if you will. My recipe ended up something like this:
60 quarts of peeled and sliced sweet potatoes and the water they are soaking inWe don’t have pots big enough to do all of that in one, so I divided it into fours (because I had two big pots) and made half of it today and will do the other half tomorrow. Then I’m going to mix the batches in the containers (five 5 gallon containers) so the soup will be consistent from batch to batch because I want the soup to taste the same to the first people who come to eat on Friday night as it does to the last people. And it will.
16 quarts of onions
16 quarts of Granny Smith apples
8 quarts of poblano peppers
4 cups of garlic
4 cups of fresh ginger
enough vegetable stock to get the soup to the consistency needed
salt and pepper
My brother called me this afternoon in the middle of my souping and I tried to explain what I was doing, much as I have tried to do here. He is the pastor of a church with several thousand members; our church has about a hundred and fifty active folks. I listen to what he has to do and feel about his job the same way he felt about how I was spending my day. I love being in a small church where I know the three year olds and the eighty three year olds, where worship has both focus and informality, and where there is a certain hand made quality to the whole experience. I have no idea how to think about going to church with eight or ten thousand other people. I imagine understanding the commonalties means learning to understand the ratios and how you expand the recipe for what it means to be a community of faith. I’m sure making more soup is easier to do.
The word ratio has relate in its roots, which is to say figuring out ratios has to do with figuring out relationships and priorities. In the same way I want the taste of the sweet potato to come first, and then the apple, and then the pepper, so I have to keep tweaking the recipe of my life so that my relationship with Ginger is the strongest note and let the other aspects of my life begin to find their place in relation to what matters most to me. As one who is capable of becoming quite task-focused in any given situation, I have to keep reminding myself that the ratio between people and stuff that needs to get done, people should always be on the heavy end of the equation. The analogy works on an individual level, as I struggle trying to figure out how to exercise and lose some weight in a personal world that has all but written both out of the equation.
On a couple of the recipe sites I have found, they have a function that allows you to change the number of servings and they will recalculate the amount of the ingredients. When the new recipe comes up, so does a disclaimer saying expanding a recipe is not as easy as proportionally increasing the ingredients. Sometimes you have to add more of something, or less of something else, to get it to taste and feel and look the way you know it’s supposed to look. Life may be about ratios, but it’s more than just doing the math. If I were someone who understood the nuances of mathematics, I would probably say life is more complex than just following the recipe.
I do wish, sometimes, life was as easy as soup.