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Fall Soups For Body And Soul

Fall was whipping around the stone corners of the high-rise when my boyfriend, who had a cold, flew in for a visit. I had just moved to the city, and among the things I did not know were: how to save enough for rent, how to survive a long-distance relationship and how to cook. But Andrew's sniffling appearance at the doorstep of my sublet awoke in me a primal caretaker's urge. Within the hour, I was attempting — in the most unschooled and haphazard fashion — to make my first curative soup.

It was a lentil soup with vegetables, very rough and plain. I'm sure I didn't let the lentils simmer long enough to really soften, and the chicken broth was canned. The bread was from the store (it would be years before I'd learn to bake). Still, it smelled divine. As I brought the steaming bowl to the invalid, I felt a warm rush of pride and affection. This, I later realized, was inspired more by the soup than the invalid.

The next fall and those following, I got a little better at making lentil soup. I learned to add a ham bone, if I had one, and to give the lentils the time they needed to relent and yield up their earthy goodness. I learned to hold off on adding the carrots until the end, so they'd retain a little firmness. I made it for the next boyfriend, and the next. But mostly I made it for myself, especially if I had the sniffles.

Lentil soup was my first fall soup, but certainly not my last. A year or so later, I learned my Russian-American brother-in-law's recipe for wild mushroom soup, afloat with potato chunks and barley, and festooned with dill and sour cream. Every October, I'd debate whether I ought to splurge on the dried porcini needed to make the soup. The answer was always a cash-strapped "no," but I inevitably did it anyway. Eventually, I even learned to bake the challah that went so well with it. For years, lentil soup and mushroom soup were the twin, invariable staples of my autumn soup repertoire.

Then came the white bean and escarole soup in Nancy Harmon Jenkins' Cucina del Sole (Morrow 2007), the one I came to think of as "$5 soup." It was a classic cucina povera ("cooking of the poor") soup — a bunch of escarole, a handful of dried beans, a few cherry tomatoes. Bitter escarole has a secret, irresistible sweetness that shyly emerges after a low simmer. Nothing's better for restoring confidence in your household economy than eating $5 soup, particularly when it tastes so good.

The newest arrival on the soup scene for me has been squash soup. Although I love squash, the rest of my household is an informal anti-orange-vegetable lobbying organization, which routinely puts the kibosh on the kabocha (a Japanese winter squash). So I was shocked when my 7-year-old son declared Jamie Oliver's squash soup to be his "second favorite," after chicken soup. Was it the fried sage leaves or the Parmesan croutons that sealed the deal? I don't know. But hey, when the kid reaches across the aisle, you don't question his motives.

What is it that makes us feel such nostalgia for the fruits of a harvest few of us actually experience? It isn't as though most of us gathered the mushrooms ourselves, or grew the squash or picked the lentils. Maybe something inside us recognizes the ancient symbolism hidden in fall's produce. To sum up very roughly:

Mushrooms: prosperity (Asia)

Lentils and beans: coins, wealth (Europe, South America)

Greens: paper money (American South, China)

Squash: abundance (Europe), health (Asia)

I don't know about you, but I'm detecting a theme here: When we're feeling thin, weak, poor or sick, fall soups are there to build up the treasury of our strength, strengthen the currency of our resolve and shore up the markets of our spirit.

On the other hand, it turned out that no amount of soup could restore my sputtering relationship with the unlucky Andrew. I was a faithless and feckless 20, and I ditched him about a week later.

But the feeling that had been kindled when I served him the soup was real. For the first time, with my own hands, I had made something meant to comfort and heal. It embodied the compassion I longed to feel. In the years that followed, I would discover that soup is good for large and small disasters, from failures of empathy to global financial crises. It's almost impossible to feel impoverished or hopeless when you have a warm bellyful of soup.

If you're blessed to have someone you love, soup gives you a way to show it. If you're not, soup is the love you give yourself. So this fall, as the cost of fuel rises and the mercury drops, when the world seems full of dry leaves and cold shoulders, hold out your bowl for fall's abundance. For a moment, you can taste what it means to be truly rich, one soupy sip at a time.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.