David Sedaris titled an entire book of essays — “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — after a bit of fractured English he found in a Japanese hotel safety booklet. In one of those essays he writes:
Given the state of my Japanese it seems unfair to criticize some of the English I’ve been seeing. A sign outside a beauty parlor reads “Eye Rash Tint,” and instead of laughing, I should give them credit for at least coming close.
These mistranslations show up a lot on English language menus in foreign countries, and when I saw “Pea Restaurant” under the soup section of the menu at Café Savoy (a very lovely, if somewhat touristy and expensive, belle époque café in Prague) I thought to myself “What the actual fuck?” But then I saw this note:
The name “restaurant” was used for the first time in Paris in 1765. A man called Boulanger was selling soups – sheep’s legs in white sauce. He named his soups “restaurants” or “restoratives” because with them one could gain ones physical strength again.
Well, okay. My mistake. That seems legitimate. One pea restaurant, please.
Let’s talk about the fact that THERE ARE MASHED POTATOES IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS SOUP! My bowl was set down in front of me and it was empty except for a little mound of mashed potatoes with those crouton things stuck in it. Then our waiter poured a pitcher of pea soup around the mound, at which point I said “Thank you. That was beautiful.”
I love soup very much. I love soup enough that I can, off the top of my head, without giving it any prior thought, make a detailed list of my top five soup memories. So here it is, an impromptu list of my top five soup memories:
TOP FIVE SOUP MEMORIES (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
1. Eating the chicken noodle soup from Q. Cumbers buffet restaurant in Edina, Minnesota. My parents and my sister and I ate dinner here with my paternal grandparents AT LEAST once a month for a good chunk of my childhood. I always got a bowl of the chicken noodle soup, which was kind of peppery and had nice pieces of carrot and celery and onion in it. (My own chicken soup with homemade noodles is basically just an imitation of the Q. Cumbers soup.) For some reason the soup section of the buffet was next to the bakery section, where I would always get several mini chocolate muffins.
2. Eating a bowl of cream of mushroom soup at Palomino during a lunch that was a ninth (I think?) birthday present from my Aunt Lisa. Palomino was a downtown Minneapolis restaurant that closed in 2010 and was replaced by a stupid fucking Crave. This lunch was super cool because I got to invite two friends and we sat at our own table, like adults, and ordered for ourselves and Aunt Lisa had given me her credit card ahead of time so that we could pay for ourselves. We were nine! It was so cool and grown up.
3. Eating the “soup trio” or whatever it was called at Zander Cafe in St. Paul. For some reason my family insisted on calling this place Cafe Zander, which was not actually its correct name. Zander closed in 2008, and things got kind of rocky at the end there in terms of quality/consistency, but they had this great soup that was actually three soups (hence trio) in the same bowl. It was a cream of mushroom, a cream of carrot, and something green…maybe a cream of asparagus? They were served all carefully ladeled together, like a little pie chart of soup. The cream of mushroom was the best. I miss this soup every time I drive down Selby Avenue.
4. Eating the broccoli cheese soup at Jason’s Deli during my senior year of college. This is a more recent memory which lacks that childhood patina but bears mentioning regardless. My friend Caroline introduced me to Jason’s Deli, which is a Texas-based chain that she had been to in her hometown of Nashville. In 2010 the company had just started opening locations near DC, where we went to college. They now have restaurants in 29 states, including Minnesota! Caroline really liked Jason’s Deli because she’s a vegetarian and they have a massive salad bar and free soft serve ice cream. On our first trip to Jason’s Deli my then-boyfriend ordered a bowl of the broccoli cheese soup, which I wrinkled my nose at (broccoli is one of my least favorite vegetables). He forced me to try it, because he was kind of an asshole, and I immediately went up to the counter and ordered my own bowl. This soup is basically just thick liquid cheese with some green specks (hopefully broccoli) in it. Eating it is kind of like eating an entire bowl of chili con queso with a spoon. Going to Jason’s Deli was always a special treat because the only locations were in the suburbs, which you needed a car to get to. I think that I may have gotten major food poisoning eating this soup at the Timonium, Maryland location, but I still have very fond memories of it.
5. Eating my Nana’s matzo ball soup at basically every “occasion” dinner she ever had at her house. By “occasion” I don’t mean Hanukkah or Passover or Rosh Hashanah. No. Our family’s brand of reform Judaism was SO reform that Jewish holidays, if celebrated at all, fell in my (Irish Catholic convert) mother’s domain. Nana would make matzo ball soup for occasions like the Super Bowl, or Father’s Day, or maybe Labor Day. In my taste memory (is there a word for this? “Gustatory Memory” sounds so douchey) this soup is practically mythical. So, when I finally learned the recipe, I was surprised that it was basically just: fill a pot with some chicken and some water and an onion and some celery and some carrots. Cook it for a long time. Add salt until it tastes like chicken broth. Buy a box of Manischewitz matzo ball mix and follow the directions on the back. Serve.
I could easily keep going on this bent, but I’ll spare you. The point is that the “pea restaurant” from Café Savoy immediately earned itself a spot on the soup memories list. It is one of the best soups I’ve ever eaten. It was comforting and creamy and maybe slightly parmesan-y and perfect. In a few days I’ll write about how I tried to recreate it when we got home from Prague, which of course isn’t possible. But I did try.