The 100 lucky winners of the Sun-Times Night at the Opera contest had a wonderful time Tuesday at Lyric Opera of Chicago — the voices were tremendous, the music thrilling, the staging … umm … made us appreciate all the more the voices and music, and savor other well-executed aspects of the evening. At the pre-show party, waiters passed around crab cakes and lamb burgers — thank YOU Jewell Events Catering — and little cups of tomato soup with cubes of grilled cheese sandwich.
The soup was really, really good, which made me feel really, really guilty.
Why? Because January is come and gone. January was National Soup Month. And February was cold, a good time to talk about hearty fare. Yet here March is flying by and I haven’t found a moment to share my thoughts on tomato soup. Every time I try to, Donald Trump, flailing in his high chair, gets his hands on another cherished aspect of democracy and smears strained carrots all over it.
But we seem at a lull in the chaos. So let me whip this in the paper and be done with it.
I really like tomato soup, particularly this time of year. Not because it’s the best, most sublime foodstuff. I wouldn’t even argue it’s the best sort of soup. I just like it. A lot. If I visit a restaurant, and they have tomato soup, I’m almost compelled to order it.
Why? Curiosity, mostly. Tomato soup is the measure of food at a restaurant. If they can’t do that, they can’t do anything. Some places nail it — Petterino’s, RL. I was having lunch at the Kitchen with owner Kimbal Musk, and launched into my spiel about tomato soup.
“Some places make it taste like spaghetti sauce,” I said. Their soup is quite good, and Musk called the chef out to talk about the recipe and draw a promise that their tomato soup will never change.
Sometimes I order it when I don’t even want it. Because it’s there. I was meeting … drawing the veil … a certain grand lady of my acquaintance, a blue blood benefactress, at the Farmhouse in Evanston so we could trade cruel political gossip, and noticed they have tomato soup. With it, we split a grilled cheese sandwich — grilled cheese goes with tomato soup the way milk goes with cookies.
Why is that? What affinity binds tomato soup with grilled cheese?
“It’s gotta be the American cheese,” said Karl Bader, whose Karl’s Craft Soups sells an excellent tomato with roasted fennel. “Think richness. Everybody does grilled cheese with Gruyere and Swiss. But I think good old fashioned white bread, American cheese is a super rich comfort zone. Tomato soup is usually a little sweeter, and combine that with hot gooey unctuous deliciousness.”
“It’s the combination,” said Sarah Rice, corporate archivist at Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, N.J. “Getting to dunk your grilled cheese sandwich in your food. The combination of buttery with the slight acid of the tomato.”
You don’t get Campbell’s Soup on the line too often, so while I had Rice, I asked how Campbell’s got into the tomato soup business anyway.
“We have been known for our celebrated, famous, Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, from seeds specially planted and grown in South Jersey,” she said. “It’s one of our icons for a reason.
We don’t even like changing the label.”
I suggested that the sweetness of tomato soup probably makes it more appealing to children than, say, beef and barley.
“I’m sure that probably plays a role in it,” she said. “It’s an easy one for kids. Soup is fun to eat. You have that wholesomeness — it goes back to your parent serving it to you. Usually enjoyed together, with parent or family, getting to dunk your grilled cheese sandwich in your food.”
Does it ever. I’m not bristling with memories of kindergarten. But it was a half day, in the morning, and I distinctly recall coming home, freed from the stress of singing songs about the colors, climbing atop a stool in our kitchen, sitting across a gold-flecked Formica counter from my mother, who set Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a grilled cheese sandwich in front of me and listened attentively about my day.
“Soup is the ultimate comfort food,” said Bader. “There’s no better sort of cultural comfort than soup.”
“Astronauts on the International Space Station ask for it,” said Rice. “It’s really great, to them, a great taste of home. It’s on our minds because we’re looking for comfort, in good times and bad.”
Aha! Maybe that’s it. That’s why tomato soup, always a staple, is now vital. From whence does our comfort come? From the mystic chords of memory, binding us to warm, sweet, tangy tomato soup. A balm against what’s happening in the cold, unsavory larger world, and to give us strength to make the changes that need to be made, changes that will bring more substantial comfort.