Letter to an Old Friend
STORY BY ADRIAN HALE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARLY DIAZ
Do you remember that time I made you a big pot of lentil soup before I left for California? That was the last time we saw each other in person. There were those few letters before it all turned into a giant mess. In one, you asked how I made it, which always seemed uncharacteristic. What was it — 20 years ago? Do you still want to know?
Let me think … I kind of just threw it together, but I guess you have to start with a broken heart. And maybe you have to be young and in love and show up in a silky black dress with a crooked umbrella and a lot of dreams. You have to be stranded in Canada, visiting a man who’s in love with his roommate.
From that standpoint, all you have to do is gather some lentils, an onion, and a pot of water. It may sound simple, but that’s what you start with. Then you go stand in a lonely, late-night kitchen and fiddle with the collection of thrift-store bowls that you know — just know — they bought together on a Tuesday afternoon (their day off!), and you wonder why you’re here at all and why you follow these half-made notions of love to other countries. That’s when soup pops into your head. Well, it pops into your head right after the thought that you should probably hit the road and spend the rest of your time off in San Francisco.
You need a parting gift, a farewell feast. You need something to do to keep your hands busy and to empty your heart of the ache it’s been gathering. You take that onion and cut it the way your grandmother once taught you to do, chop it into little shards and dump it in a pot with a tablespoon or two of oil and a sprinkling of salt and let that thing cook until it starts to melt and give way to a softer side. At that point, add a clove or two of chopped garlic, two carrots cut into small pieces, and about a tablespoon of curry powder. Dump in the lentils and cover them with water.
Watch the pot, but not too closely. In fact, turn away and do something else for a few minutes. Go down the shotgun hallway into the tiny living room and find the someone you love asleep on the couch. Brush your fingers through their hair with a certain knowledge that you aren’t meant for each other. Lean over and smell their unwashed flannel shirt and get close enough to find the yeastiness of their sleeping breath. The dried-hay aroma of the lentils will start to rise, and that’s when you need to return to the kitchen and tend the pot.
Lower the heat and stir. Let the whole pot simmer for 20 minutes while you sit down and read a few pages of the Bukowski book that’s open on the counter. At a certain point, the soup will thicken. It will look less watery and start to smell like dinner. Serve with a hunk of bread from the corner bakery, like I did, which I warmed just before waking you to eat. You looked at me with endlessly brown, uncertain eyes and followed me into the kitchen. Nobody else was home. We just ate with a big wall of silence and unmet expectations. The soup was warm and spicy. That night, as I crumpled the black silk into a tiny ball and stashed it at the bottom of my suitcase, I knew nothing would ever taste the same again.
Adrian J.S. Hale is a longtime food writer with a passion for how food tells our story as we tell its story. She loves reading recipes and poetry and personal essay, and wanted to create a piece of writing that gave a nod to all three. She edits a website called Communal Table (www.communaltable.com) and much of her other writing is catalogued at www.adrianjshale.com.