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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

It’s at times like these when I’m rattling around the house that the urge to purge hits me. In truth, it’s probably my mind that is in need of the waste removal, but the curious contents dwelling in the back of my fridge should also be excavated and the two processes seem to work hand in hand. It’s perhaps why making soup is such a meditative process. It’s a remedial decluttering. I can even get a bit nostalgic as I survey if the celery has had its day, but with a great zuppa in the offing, I need to keep at it.

Sitting down to a potage is just the remedy for all that ails, especially if it can be shared. By its very nature, soup is not a solo experience. The measurements are never for one. Much more likely for a crowd. Ah, but right now, that poses challenges. However, what better way to reach out than by providing a container of your soup for a soul in need. It’s truly a recipe for two-directional therapy – giving and receiving.

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Friendships are a lot like soups. They comfort our aching heads, soothe our lost voice, nourish our gnawing bellies. They can excite us, inspire us, fulfill us. And we always learn from them, from the path they lead us, what elements enrich or reduce the experience. Of course, there are scribed recipes for their creation but a perfect outcome is never guaranteed. There are simply too many variables, too many unforeseeables. One bad onion, a tablespoon confused for a teaspoon or a timing misstep can be fatal to the outcome.

Friendships and soups are ever-evolving, often being a bit unremarkable or even formulaic at the start, but over time begin to take on the influences of the players contributing to the pot, layer by layer reaching greater depths of flavour. After a while, you can’t break out the individual elements, they are so intertwined into a singular entity. You may never recall the exact ingredients or specific quantities that went into them, the intangibles – a smidgen of this, a bunch of that, some leftover such-and-such. A chance action or decision, a last-minute substitution that proved to be the impetus to go from agreeable to life-altering. We are, however, usually able to identify what makes it work for us, those elements that have us returning to it over and over again, satisfying deep into our soul.

At times both are unpredictable, pleasantly surprising or crushingly failing us. Some require constant attention, while others can be left to happily simmer quietly on the back burner with only a sporadic stir. Some are labour-intensive and others effortless. Interestingly both types might be equally gratifying, each just needing a different kind of love.

Typically though the best ones need some degree of time and a certain level of commitment. Something a bit special that gives them their uniqueness. Take the addition of saffron for example. Expensive even in small amounts, requiring patience to draw out its lovely sweet earthiness but so worth it in the long run. Like most things in life, you get out what you put in. Left unattended or more aptly, uncared for, soups and friendships often remain bland or worse burn, forever leaving that nasty lingering impression. And sadly sometimes despite our best efforts, the cacophony of flavours simply don’t meld together – an overzealous splash of vinegar and it all goes sour on the tongue. Frustrated, disappointed or infuriated, we toss it.

I once tried making a multistep Thai noodle soup to serve friends at a dinner party. It all sounded so easy, but the more I fiddled and faddled, the further the flavours drifted away. As the guests patiently waited, I became more frantic trying to find the sweet, salty citrus balance. In the end, I had overworked the thing and it was unsalvageable. Scrapping it, I asked my hubby to uncork a Rioja and declared the night was actually a surprise tapas affair. The beautiful thing about both friendships and soups is that they are so often forgiving. Tapas night instead of Thai went off just as well.

When the will is there, soups and friendships can be resurrected or reinvented. There are methods of placating the bitterness or simply refreshing them. Restoring the umami. A bit of zest and it’s suddenly alive again. Perhaps we just need to put more stock in them.

And then there are the ones that rise above all, that will always be constant and true, just what we need. Time does not diminish their reliability or chemistry.

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A bouillabaisse shared by a group of some of the best people in my life comes to mind. It was a surprise celebration of a wedding anniversary. As the cook quietly chopped and sautéed and stirred, friends arrived and the house got noisier, filling with laughter and the sounds of clinking glasses amid the aromas of a beautiful fish broth. Finally, we crammed around a table with steaming bowls and crusty bread. The boisterous noise faded to a murmur as we set to the task at hand. In this reflective pause, this meditation, we peered into one another’s eyes over each brimming spoonful, almost purring. Yes, the bouillabaisse was divine but what gave it real magic was that it was being shared elbow to elbow by irreplaceable friends. Most of us had travelled at some time, effort and expense to be there, but in that instance, we all knew why we had done so.

Knowing this feeling is what might await me when I flick on the gas range gets me through the tempests of life. It is the fix I crave in my friends’ absence.

Nancy Burden lives in Edmonton and Canmore, Alta.

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