Why I Love: Re-reading Books. And a recipe for Jane Austen’s White Soup

Cover by Edward Gorey

When everything shut down for the pandemic, I was reading The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s fascinating, brilliant, even very funny. I’ll read it some day, probably soon. But as the pandemic spread and quarantine became inevitable (but still always of uncertain duration), I set it aside. I started re-reading every book by Joan Aiken I could find. She doesn’t really fit in the boxes we assign literature these days. They say she writes for young readers, but her work is often dark, very dark, and her language is never simple. I think the important thing was that I’d read it all before, and madly loved it all. As dark and frightening as things got in the stories (which is very) they all (mostly) came out right in the end. With every news report of the pandemic telling us “two more weeks…two more weeks…” and news about how to protect ourselves and what to expect changing every two minutes, I think I needed to know how something ends.

To me, re-reading a story you’ve loved, after a distance of a few years or even decades, is delicious. It’s actually one of my favorite feelings. I understand that life is short and there are millions of beautiful books to be read, and we shouldn’t waste our time rereading what we have read before. But according to my research (on the internet, so we know it’s true) studies show that rewatching shows and rereading books is a good way to deal with stress and anxiety. And I think about when my boys were little, and they wanted us to read them the same book every night, in the same way, and they protested when you missed a bit or got a sentence wrong. It goes beyond the comfort of knowing how it’s going to end. It’s hoarding the treasure of beautiful words and phrases, which linger pleasantly in your head. I have a trove, A TROVE of bits of novels and stories and poems in my head, combinations of words that made me happy when I read them, and make me happier still when I encounter them again, like an old friend on an unexpected ramble on a path I used to take.

It goes beyond the comfort of knowing how it’s going to end. It’s hoarding the treasure of beautiful words and phrases, which linger pleasantly in your head.

It’s getting to be two years of re-reading for me. Probably that’s too much. Probably the mental health professionals would say, “that’s enough, now, on to something new!” And I am slowly starting on new stories and novels, but I still go back to the old ones every so often if I’m feeling more stressed than usual. I’ve moved on from Joan Aiken to Jane Austen and Dickens (and then back to Joan Aiken). And I’ve realized that one of the joys of re-reading is that dreamlike memory of loving something in the first place. When I read Hard Times (for these times), which is the first Dickens I read many many years ago, I remembered the crush I had on that dark vision, that circumlocutious but entirely perfect language, the humor and the pathos. Re-reading something you loved passionately at another stage in your life helps you to remember why you read or wrote in the first place, which honestly has been hard for me to conjure lately. I’m slowly recapturing that feeling, it’s coming back like feeling to cold toes.

And a perpetual re-reading favorite is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Knowing how it’s going to end doesn’t make Elizabeth any less sharp and funny, you just feel that you know her better and you’re happier to see her end up happy. One of the mysteries of Pride and Prejudice to me was the mention of “white soup.” As everybody knows, Mr. Bingley! (his name has to be followed by an exclamation mark – by law!) couldn’t hold a ball at Netherfield until his cook had made enough white soup. I’ve always been mildly curious about the nature of white soup. After a bit of research, I was excited to discover that this white soup is not dissimilar to a tarator sauce, comprised, as it is, of nuts and bread soaked in water. This one has almonds in it, which help to give it the lovely ivory color. The original version also had capon or gamon or something, but obviously I’m having none of that! I decided to use cauliflower, because it’s white, and it makes such a tasty puree. And I decided to use white beans. Can you guess why? That’s right! They’re white! And delicious. 

I had read that white soup was traditionally garnished with pomegranate seeds and pistachio kernals. Red and green! On a beautiful, creamy pale soup!

I have to admit that I was mostly playing around with this recipe. But it turned out to be exceptionally good to eat, too! It’s creamy and smooth, but there isn’t a jot of cream in it. In fact, if you omit the dollop of butter it would be vegan. And how did it taste? Mrs Bennet is quoted as saying, “Mr Bingley! This soup is mother-flipping delicious!!”

3/4 cups blanched almonds, flaked or slivered
1 piece of white country bread or baguette (1/2 a cup, maybe? Maybe a little less) de-crusted and soaked in water
2 T olive oil
1/2 a head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 can (15 ounces) small white beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup white wine
2 bay leaves
2 small shallots – finely diced
2 cloves garlic – finely diced
1/2 t. sage
1/2 t. thyme
1 t. rosemary
1 t. basil
red pepper flakes
1/2 t. mustard powder
dollop of butter or splash of olive oil
dash of white wine vinegar or lemon

pomegranate seeds and pistachio kernals for garnish.

1. Warm the olive oil in a large soup pan. Add the shallots, then the garlic, then the herbs. When everything starts to brown slightly, add the mustard powder, the pepper flakes and the white wine. Stir and cook till it’s syrupy and the pan starts to dry out again.

2. In a blender, combine the almonds, the bread (which has been squeezed dryish) and 2 1/2 cups water. Blend for quite a while till it’s pretty smooth.

3. Add the cauliflower – stir to coat and cook till it starts to brown. Add the beans. Stir and cook for a few minutes.

4. Pour the almond/bread mixture over the veg and beans. Add 1/2 t. salt. Stir and cook. Add enough water to make sure everything is covered with liquid, and it’s not too thick. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer about 20 minutes, till the cauliflower is just soft.

5. Add a dollop of butter or olive oil and a dash of vinegar or lemon.

6. Remove the bay leaves, and blend the soup till it’s velvety smooth.

7. Return to the pot. Add enough water to make everything the consistency of heavy cream. (or however thick you like it)

8. Serve with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and roughly chopped pistachio kernals.

Categories: featured, food, literature

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