On New Year’s Day, I didn’t eat a salad, I didn’t hop on a treadmill, I didn’t write the annual letter to myself that I’ve been writing since I read about doing that in some magazine half a decade ago. This year, I grabbed the giant stock pot that sits on top of my oven and put it on the stove. Out of the freezer I pulled a bag of chicken backs that I cut off of chickens in 2015 and dumped them into the humongous vessel along with a whole onion, a whole carrot, a head of garlic cut in half, some bay leaves, peppercorns, and a handful of parsley leaves. I filled it all the way up with water (at least two gallons), turned the heat up to medium, waited for it all to come to a simmer, then turned it to low. Every so often, I’d skim, but for the next eight hours, I just let the chicken stock perk away.
Meanwhile, I took giant white beans from Rancho Gordo (which I’d been soaking since the night before: yes, I thought to do that before going out on New Year’s Eve), drained them, and added them to a separate pot with a carrot, half a yellow onion, a garlic clove, a bay leaf, and enough cold water to cover. Up the heat went, then down to a simmer, and suddenly my kitchen was a regular soup factory: enough stock to make soup for weeks, and enough beans to make several different kinds of soup.
Soup’s been on my mind ever since I heard the news last week that celebrated pastry chef Gina DePalma had passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 49. I met Gina more than five years ago when she agreed to cook with me for my cookbook. She invited me and my photographer, Elizabeth Leitzell, up to her apartment near the Cloisters and greeted us like old friends, immediately offering us iced tea and sitting down with us for a long chat before we even started cooking.
She quickly opened up about her cancer, which she’d been battling ever since returning from Rome just after winning her James Beard Award in 2009. With a finger, she drew a line down her chest, showing us how they’d cut her open to remove an enormous tumor, telling us how she spent most of her time recovering watching old Lidia Bastianich episodes on TV while eating soup that her mother made for her–a soup that she then eagerly taught me how to make.
That soup, which I often cite as my favorite recipe in a book of over 150 recipes, was a Lentil Soup with Sausage and Chard (blogged by Smitten Kitchen) that doesn’t sound like much when you look at the ingredients–sausage, onions, garlic, celery, lentils–but which Gina, channeling her mother, coaxed into such a flavorful concoction, it’s a casebook study in what it means to cook with love. I know that’s cliché, but here’s what that really means in the non-clichéd sense: it means that, at the beginning, Gina sorted through the dried lentils, making sure there weren’t any stones in there. It means that she seasoned at every step, used good quality tomatoes, diced things carefully so they’d look nice when the soup was done. It means that instead of just serving the soup as it was, Gina took the extra step at the end of sautéing sliced garlic in olive oil and stirring that into the hot soup so that it all got infused with garlic flavor. And, as a final gesture, it meant grating really good Pecorino on top of the soup just before serving it. These aren’t the moves of someone who wanted you to have a “just OK” soup experience; these are the moves of someone who wanted you to have an experience that you’d always remember. These are the moves of someone who wanted to hug you with soup.
And hugged with soup is how I felt with Gina in my life. After the cookbook came out, we stayed in touch. Two trips to New York ago, we had coffee and pastries at Bosie Tea Parlor in the West Village. She talked about continuing her chemo, leaving her job at Babbo, the second cookbook that she had just finished. There was hope in her voice, but also trepidation. She really didn’t know how things were going to go with her cancer. But she was so full of life, there at that little table, gossiping about people in the restaurant industry (sorry, my lips are sealed) and just having a grand old time. It was impossible to think of her as anything other than alive.
And, maybe because of that, I didn’t follow up with Gina as much as I should have, after that visit. We, of course, Tweeted back and forth with each other. Every so often we’d exchange a quick e-mail. But I never thought to really check in with her, to see how she was doing, especially when she got so quiet towards the end. But it’s a testament to Gina’s character that when I got myself into trouble last March with a cookbook review that offended quite a few people, she took the time to write me this in an e-mail:
I want to say that I just adore you. You have so much integrity, and are such a GOOD person. You always make me laugh, or at least smile widely. You’ve always made this food world that is twisting me into knots lately, a brighter and more thoughtful place….It seemed the right time to say this. So there you go.
Imagine a person going through what Gina was going through taking the time to reach out to a person who was going through the most minor of minor incidents (and one that he pretty much brought on to himself). Needless to say, that gesture meant so much; it boosted me in a moment when I needed boosting. Like a good bowl of soup.
Which is why, on New Year’s Day, I made soup. A whole lot of it. I have several Tupperware containers of chicken broth in my freezer right now, and a whole batch of pasta fagioli leftover in the fridge. We ate soup, on the first day of 2016, and I thought about Gina, about the legacy that she leaves behind: iconic recipes on the Babbo dessert menu, an essential Italian dessert cookbook that everyone should have in their kitchen, and, most importantly, a legacy of spirit–one that picked people up when they were down and nourished them until they felt like themselves again. The fact that you can do that with food, made lovingly, is a lesson that I’ll always credit to Gina DePalma.