Chop leeks, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Sauté in olive oil until soft.
I cook in our small kitchen, chopping on the butcher block cart, and looking down occasionally at the street where masked people walk on their way to the Saturday morning farmer’s market. My parents’ 58th wedding anniversary is today, and Arline and I can’t spend it with them.
The cookbook says authentic bouillabaisse, from the south of France, features scorpion fish. My cooking is anything but authentic. I have bought frozen swordfish, pre-cooked octopus, and fresh mussels. No one is likely to complain.
My parents married in Spokane the day after Christmas, poinsettias on the altar, my mother’s belly swelling discreetly with me beneath her gown. The next day they were back on the train to Columbus, Ohio, where they were attending graduate school. I imagine their giddiness at having finally married after dating for four years, their relief at being alone again on the train after the family whirlwind. Or maybe my mother felt mostly apprehensive of what awaited a pregnant graduate student. She remembers teaching with her belly pressed to the table. No one encouraged her to continue after that first year, and she knew what she had to do.
Add fish stock, tomato paste, and saffron. My stock comes from a carton. I used up the last of the saffron, bought in Spain, and never replaced it. But I’m not afraid of how the soup will taste because I have already cried into the leeks, sorry for my mother especially, who craves time with us.
Usually my brother is in town for Christmas, so the five of us go out for dinner and a movie on the anniversary. My father puts up with our love of Star Wars and hobbits. Today Matthew is probably playing a videogame at home in Portland, although he offered to visit. In early September we risked a weekend together on the Oregon Coast, spending most of it on the terrace in adirondack chairs, my brother coming only for the day. But as Covid cases have increased, we’ve all become more cautious, and now my parents don’t want to get together at all.
Arline and I joke that she cooks like a scientist, and I cook like an artist. If she were making this soup, she would strain the broth, as the recipe dictates, and make the rouille and aioli. But I skip the extras, ladle the soup into jars, and call it good. In truth, I cook less like an artist and more like the ranch wives I descend from. Use what you’ve got. Make do. Like theirs, my heart is in it.
We assemble the jar of soup, slices of Arline’s sourdough bread, and the flan she made especially for my father, his favorite. We call to make sure my parents are home and put on our coats. This is all I can do right now to show how much I love them. It’s hard not to be bitter about the leaders who failed us, the self-absorbed who have enjoyed themselves, not realizing they lengthened the lockdown for the rest of us. But this soup is not bitter. Arline’s flan is silky and sweet. We will share it at our separate tables — together.