Sopa Ministry for the Grieving & Unmothered by Vanessa Mártir
Editor's Note: Sopa Ministry for the Grieving & Unmothered, won the 2019 AWP Kurt Brown Award in Creative Nonfiction.
Written with a skilled eye for language and incredibly poignant pacing, Vanessa Mártir's creative non-fiction piece speaks to the ways in which the food we prepare can become a silent communication, a way our grief is processed, and even become life lessons with each time we prepare it.
Vanessa Mártir is a big-hearted, 1980s Bushwick-raised bocona learning the heartbeat of silence in the countryside of upstate NY; an oil-and-water combination of imposter syndrome, ambition, procrastination, certainty, insecurity and drive. Vanessa is a 2021 Letras Boricuas fellow in Creative Nonfiction. She writes personal essays, memoir & novels, is a wanna be poet & playwright, and the creator of the Writing Our Lives Workshop, the Writing the Mother Wound Movement, and most recently the Write Your Abortion Story class. Vanessa has been widely published including in in The NY Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Longreads, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Aster(ix) Journal, and the NYTimes Bestselling anthology Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay, among others. She has partnered with Tin House and The Rumpus to publish WOL alumni, and with Longreads and NYU's Latinx Project to publish Mother Wound essays. She has also served as guest editor of Aster(ix) and The James Franco Review. When she's not writing or teaching, you can find Vanessa in her garden or hiking in an old growth forest. Find out more about her relentless belief in our stories at vanessamartir.com.
RECIPE IS IN THE WRITTEN PIECE! ENJOY!
Fried Eggs & Rice Writing Prompt: Vanessa's piece is written in second person (you, your, yours) and does this so that the reader can connect and place themselves more deeply within the piece being told. Consider a moment of your life (the moment does not have to be food-related) that created a certain clarity for you. In second person POV, write out this moment in any genre you'd like.
Sopa Ministry for the Grieving & Unmothered
By Vanessa Mártir
Mom has never known how to say I’m sorry. She says it with a heaping bowl of soup.
Even now, decades after you moved out to make your way in the world and become a woman alone, she still doesn’t know how to say sorry when she hurts you, over and over. Instead, she sends you large tupperwares full of your favorite sopa de frijoles. A soup you’ve never learned how to make. A soup you know you’d ask for as your last meal. A soup she’s said she’d teach you how to make but never did.
You’ve never tried to make this soup. You’ve never looked for recipes online. The only way you would ever make this soup is if your mom taught you, but you’ve given up on the idea, so you wait for the sopa to come, as it always does.
You’ll get a call or a text from your Titi. She’ll say: “Ven a buscar la sopa que te mandó tu mama.” And you’ll know she’ll reach out soon. Your mother. And she’ll act like nothing’s happened. Like she didn’t hurt you with her cruelty. She didn’t say that thing you wish she hadn’t said. She’ll pretend to love you as you are, until you do something to set her off and she’ll disappear again, punishing you by denying you her love, and you’ll long for her and months later she’ll send you sopa and the process will start again…
You know because this has been going on for decades.
Every time you make sopa, you will think of your mother whom you haven’t seen in months.
You will remember that you don’t know the last time she hugged you or touched you tenderly.
You will remember that time you ran into her at your aunt’s house. When she walked by you, she pulled in her shoulder so she wouldn’t touch you. Your chest still caves at the memory.
That kind of shit is distracting. You don’t want to forget any of the ingredients for your soup. Make a damn list.
Sopa making list:
For sopa de pollo: chicken — legs, thighs and maybe one breast if you’re obsessing over growing numbers on the scale. (Just know that when the sopa is done, that breast is gonna be eaten last because the dark meat is the good stuff.) Buy the meat skinned or skin it yourself. You only have to make one pot with the skin on to know--the three inches of oil on the top will make you never do that shit again.
For sopa de res: beef neck bone & beef shin (bone in). If you can’t find beef shin, beef chuck works but you can’t make this sopa without beef neck bone. The marrow is everything for the broth.
Sausage like your mama used to get. The Hillshire farm brand. Any kind works.
Comino al el estilo Hondureño. You can only get this kind of comino from your aunt, who gets the cumin seeds from the Africanas who sell their goods in carts on the streets of Harlem. Titi roasts them with fresh peppercorn, then grinds them together in the old school, wooden grinder that sits on the shelf above her stove. You tell yourself that one day you’ll make it yourself; that you’ll eventually figure out the comino to peppercorn ratio, but your titi always saves you a stash when she makes some. You may be unmothered but your titi is a surrogate. (Mental note: get more comino from titi.)
Herbs: thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil, bay leaves if you wanna be cute.
Adobo — the Goya kind with black pepper
Cilantro & recao (no, they are not the same, and yes, they must be fresh)
Pepper -- green, red, yellow, whichever you prefer on that given day is fine
Fresh garlic — ground to a pulp in the straight from the island wooden pilón you’ve held onto though it’s cracked. Everytime you mash garlic cloves, you think about the steel one your mother brought your sister from PR and still wonder why she didn’t bring you one. Then you remember: your sister is not unmothered like you.
A thick, long carrot
Aguacate (if it’s in season)
You had to teach yourself how to make sopa.
You mastered it after your brother died. Your Superman who you tell your daughter stories about. How when you were kids, you followed him around and did everything he did: you climbed onto the top of the closet to leap onto the bed; you dug into the sand at the ocean’s edge at Rockaway Beach, looking for sandcrabs, and chased your sister with them.
You tell your daughter about the time you were playing house and Carlos put on one of mom’s dresses, high heels, and a pair of pantyhose on his head for hair. When he flicked his neck and the hose cascaded down his shoulder, he batted his eyes at you and you knew your brother was different. You didn’t have the words for it then but you knew. So when he came out to you when you were both in your twenties, you laughed and told him you’ve always known.
When your daughter has her first crush, you tell her about how your brother snuck you letters from Ruben, your first love from down the block, when you were 12. When Carlos left a few months later, you knew you had to get out too. With him gone, there was no reason for you to stay.
The sopa making ritual was how you took care of yourself when the grief of his loss sent you reeling into the darkest place of your life. They tell you when someone dies, that will be the biggest grief. They don’t tell you about the griefs that grief will uncover. They don’t tell you how those griefs will suffocate you.
The grief that was uncovered for you was your being unmothered. How mommy was abusive and cruel, and that’s why you left her house when you were 13 and never moved back. You had to save your own life and have been taking care of yourself since. But you’ve also clawed for her love ever since too, repeating that “love me please love me cycle” in all your relationships. When Carlos died, you couldn’t run away from it anymore. This truth. How it suffocated you.
Your asthma got out of control. You couldn’t walk a block without gasping for air. You who boxed and lifted weights and rollerbladed and biked and went on three mile hikes a few times a week. Once, while hiking in the woods of your beloved Inwood Hill Park, you felt your lungs seize while climbing a hill. Your albuterol inhaler didn’t work. You stripped off your jacket, sat on a log and put your head between your legs. You had to calm yourself down. “Chill, nena. Breathe.”
That night, you opened your laptop and typed “When my brother died…” That’s when you felt a sledgehammer hit your chest. The thermal you were wearing suddenly felt like a straitjacket. You hadn’t moved the nebulizer from next to your bed in months. You used it four times over the next twelve hours.
Your herbalist friend told you, “Of course your asthma is exacerbated. Grief is carried in the lungs.”
You started making calderos of sopa. You were trying to unsuffocate yourself.
You would eat bowlsful with your daughter, as you sat watching the dozens of movies you had on DVD and VHS. You didn’t have cable then, and in your depression, you let the WiFi get shut off, so you settled for those movies that you watched over and over. Your favorites you watched so often you recited lines together and giggled.
Run Forrest, Run.
Luke, I am your father.
Everything you done to me, already been done to you.
Wash and season the meat with adobo, comino, ground pepper and garlic.
Remember how you used to watch your mother from your perch on the plastic covered couch in the living room, because she didn’t like anyone in her kitchen when she was cooking. So, you sat in the living room, pretending to watch TV, but instead you watched and longed for her.
You have permission to scoop some of that garlic into your mouth with one finger, like you saw mommy do.
Mix the chicken and let simmer while you open the broth. Remember how your mom used to use the Knorr chicken bouillon cubes, but this is your recipe, and you like the vegetable broth better.
Add the broth and the spices and herbs: thyme, oregano, etc. When you’re feeling more gringa, and you have some extra pennies in your bank account, get the fresh herbs like mommy did, but always keep some of the dried stuff in the cabinet, por si a caso. They’ll do just fine.
Now, peel and cut a large potato. Yes, just one. This is to thicken the broth, so cut it into pieces pa’ que se deshaga. Put it into the broth.
Make sure that flame is on high. And, yes, of course you must have a gas stove. I don’t know about the electric kind. We didn’t have those in our day. We must see the flames to know our food is cooking.
That caldero you cook your sopa in, it’s huge and old, oil and fire stained. You bought it twenty years ago when you got your first apartment. You use it to make huge batches of arroz con fideo when you have dinner parties, and of course, for your sopas. You will hand it down to your daughter when it’s time for her to make her own soups that you will teach her to make.
You remember the vianda mom used to add to her soups, but you don’t know them by name or you don’t know how to pick them, so you gave up on that idea long ago. This is just one of the many things mom never taught you. Now, you just get yucca and even that you are still learning how to pick. Is there a way to pick out a good yucca without snapping it open to see the insides? If yes, you have not found it.
You remember the day you learned to peel it so you were left with a tube the shape of the yucca. You knew then you were officially a doña.
Just remember, the yucca goes in later, before the calabaza, which goes in last because it cooks and disintegrates quickly.
By now your celery, cilantro, recao, scallions, pepper and onion should be lined up on the table, like you remember watching your mom do.
Not too much onion or it’ll take over the flavor. A half a medium sized onion should do.
A green pepper.
A red pepper.
Chill with the celery- that shit is strong. Use no more than two or three stalks, and cut them the length of your index finger.
Scallions. Two or three will do. Cut them up. Into the simmering broth they go.
Lots of cilantro. Lots! You don’t have to cut it up. Just wash it (it does grow in dirt, afterall) and throw it in asi entero. Leave some in a dish nearby so you can add some more later, when the soup is almost done.
Add some recao. You don’t have to cut it up either. Save a few leaves in the dish with the recao. This is to add at the end, when the sopa is done. That’s a pro tip, right there.
Mix. It’s bubbling, right? Smell that? Smells like home…or what used to be home.
Try it. It tastes like home too, huh? Laden with herbs and spices and deliciousness. The broth should be thickening because the potatoes are disintegrating. You can put the yucca in now. Once it starts to break apart, you can put in the calabaza. Don’t worry, it’s almost done.
You remember how mom would make sopa year round, but you especially loved it on those cold winter days when the snow piled up in the yard and you came back in soaked through and shivering.
You remember how she would beat you if you tracked any snow in, which you inevitably did. A slap wherever it landed when you passed by. A yank to the hair, so you learned early on what whiplash was though you didn’t know it by name until years later.
She never said sorry for the yank or the slap. She just served you a heaping bowl of sopa.
Are you listening to music as you make the sopa? This is part of the ritual. Put that damn speaker on.
No Juan Gabriel though. Or Camilo Sesto, José José, Emanuel, Rocio Jurado, or any of those old school cut-your-veins singers your mother used to listen to. You’ll just imagine her in her sofrito stained bata, swaying her body and dancing around the kitchen.
She stops when the music crescendos. She throws her head back, raises her arms and croons at the top of her lungs. She has that look people have when they are worshipping something. Surrendering themselves to it.
The memory will be beautiful and it will make you sob and drip snot into your soup, so no, no Spanish ballads.
Put on some salsa or some freestyle. Eddie Santiago, Frankie Ruiz, Lalo Rodriguez. Then Stevie B, Cynthia, Coro, TKA. If you want something more recent, Bomba Estereo or Ibeyi.
You must dance. This is part of the ritual.
The ritual of sopa making will teach you so many things. A new way to live. How to mother yourself. It will remind you of the many ways you’ve mothered yourself over the years even when you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
Sopa becomes your remedy, your antidote.
Sopa making will teach you the ingredients you need to learn a new way of living, without your brother, without his love and encouragement, without his voice on the line, text messages waking you up in the morning.
Your life line will become this ritual, and you will teach it to your daughter.
Your daughter who is not unmothered.
As you cook, you will learn to dance and laugh again.
You will learn to let love in.
You will learn that this idea you taught yourself, that you don’t need nobody, is a lie.
You will forgive yourself for this lie because it’s what you needed to tell yourself to get through.
But you are no longer just getting by.
You have created a beautiful, fulfilling life for yourself.
One where you are now make sopa for your family--
Your daughter and your wife.
They stand behind you sniffing at the caldero, begging for a taste.
You bring tupperwares full to your sick friends.
This is healing.
This is yet another truth that you learned from your brother.
That you got this.
That you have always had this.
That tú eres única.
And no one can take that from you.
When you sit down with a steaming bowl of your sopa,
Fight the urge to text your mother.
If she doesn’t respond it will shatter you.
If she does,
It will shatter you.
Remember: this has been your healing. This is still your healing.
And, you deserve to be well.