There's a lot to learn from making the same recipe over and over (and over and over....)
Last month I read a lovely account of how Reid Branson, a nurse manager in Seattle, has eaten the same homemade soup every day at work for the last 17 years. The recipe, Greek Lentil and Spinach Soup With Lemon, comes from the 1992 book “Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread,” written by Crescent Dragonwagon, who has been described as "the Alice Waters of the Ozarks." It is a fairly simple recipe, but filled with a beautiful combination of both bright and savory ingredients – it's no wonder it is so eminently edible. As writer Joe Ronan describes it in the The Washington Post, the soup is "hearty and thick, with lentils as the base, bulked up by potatoes and butternut squash, and a flavor enlivened by a heavy dose of aromatic spices – plus a pop of fresh lemon juice."
The story of Branson and his daily routine struck me when I read it, and I keep thinking about it. Why? Because within the short write-up leading to the recipe, I saw some lessons that I deem valuable and worth sharing. Consider the following.
Routine doesn't have to mean a rutBranson prepares enough soup every other Saturday to last for two weeks' worth of workdays. While some may say that variety is the spice of life, for Branson, there is much to be said for routine.
“I’m a vegetarian, and getting a reliable source of protein every day at lunch is important to me,” Branson told Ronan.
While nutritionists generally say that eating a variety of foods helps people eat a nutritionally adequate diet, within the soup recipe itself is a wonderful mix of healthy ingredients, including legumes, bright winter squash, leafy greens and other vegetables, peppers, alliums, citrus, and spices. If someone were to eat the same thing everyday, I can hardly imagine something healthier. And if it means Branson is eating a beautiful, healthy, pleasing meal everyday, rather than scrambling for a less healthy alternative, then I'd say this is a great routine to have.
The beauty of mastering a mealBranson says that the soup is "fun to make. It’s got a rhythm to it. And at this point, I can do it without looking at the recipe.” Some of us are naturally comfortable in the kitchen and thrive on recipe-free pantry challenges; others of us are lost without ingredient lists and step-by-step instructions. But regardless, there is something empowering about knowing a recipe by heart. It's a primal comfort, and if you haven't already mastered the making of a meal, it's never too late to start.
Embracing the variability of a recipe is a valuable skillI have developed more recipes for publication than I can count, and there's always a struggle in codifying ingredient amounts. Why? Well for one reason, fresh ingredients are inconsistent. For example, as I wrote in Improve your cooking by using all 5 senses: "my jalapeno might be insipid while yours might elicit screams and gasps."
And here, Branson proves my point. Although he always uses the same ingredients, he says that “the soup never really tastes the same. It’s always a little bit of a surprise: The onion came out strongly this time, or that’s a really good butternut squash. If I hadn’t made it as often as I had, I’d never have noticed that.”
It's valuable to understand that your kitchen isn't McDonald's and that the same recipe may come out a bit differently each time you make it. And beyond that, once you learn to pay more attention to ingredients and see how variations affect the outcome, you can start to have some agency in tweaking recipes to your taste.
There's power in knowing your refrigeratorI think the thing that surprised me the most, even more than someone eating the same soup for 17 years, was something I found after some further sleuthing. I uncovered a wonderful telling of Branson's story on Crescent Dragonwagon's website. Dragonwagon shares a correspondence between the two and it is pretty heartwarming. But here's what really stood out to me, I had assumed Branson was freezing his two-weeks' worth of soup, but no. As he told Dragonwagon a few years ago, he found that freezing it made the butternut mealy, adding:
"The soup seems to keep just fine in the refrigerator for that long. I know the Health Department would not approve, but as I use a vegetable-based broth and there are therefore no meat products in it at all, I don’t worry about it too much. And, if challenged, I have the ultimate defense: I mean…15 years, right?"
Now of course nobody wants to get sick (or worse) from eating food that has passed its prime (and you can read more from the CDC on that), but there is something to be said for knowing your food and fridge well enough to be able to push the envelope a bit. Food waste is expensive and – and reducing it is "one of the most important things we can do to help slow down the climate crisis," says Chad Frischmann, the vice president and research director at Project Drawdown.
I'm not necessarily saying we should all store our soup in the fridge for two weeks, but getting familiar with what lasts and what does not is a great way to prioritize what to eat when in order to minimize food waste. And if you discover that you can keep a big batch of soup in the fridge until it's finished, who knows, maybe you'll end up eating it for the next 17 years.
For a straightforward copy of the recipe, see The Washington Post. For an embellished version with swaps and recommendations (and photos!), see the correspondence between Branson and Dragonwagon here.