I grew up in a cold house. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Our thermostat, in the winter, was set at 53 degrees. This was the 1970s, however; this was Maine. Given the cost of fuel, the gas shortage, and the fact that Maine, during that period, attracted from beyond its borders a certain highly educated (and often, though not always, and definitely not in the case of my parents, self-hating independently wealthy) person looking for a simpler way of life, cold houses were the norm in my neighborhood. Our house, a two-family Victorian built in 1888 by a sea captain for his two daughters, sat atop a hill atop a promenade, meaning we were doubly elevated into the unprotected sky. We could stare a hundred miles across the state to New Hampshire and Mount Washington on clear days, and were, to put it mildly, exposed to wind and snow and rain and other more regularly scheduled forms of weather-like abuse. We lived under the flight path of the airplanes landing at the Portland International Jetport, so we were also exposed to the shaking caused by their passing close overhead. Hurricane-force gusts from the jet engines struck the windows that rattled maniacally even when you walked past them wearing multiple pairs of socks.
The planes’ landing gear so regularly almost touched our roof that the airport installed next to our yard a red light on a very tall pole that blinked all night and warned the pilots—cold people are sleeping here. Please do not kill them.
Instead of relying on our furnace, my parents thought they’d be so much more environmentally savvy by burning coal. Yes, coal. In their defense, we found a ton of coal in our basement when we moved into the house, and my parents thought, thriftily, since it was already out of the ground and going to waste, “let’s burn it!” So we bought a coal stove from Scandinavia, and around this stove, which was roughly two feet wide and four feet long, we huddled. I did my homework there, I read books there (sometimes tucked between the back of the stove and the wall—a space of about two feet, but always reliably very warm), and most crucially, because the house was coldest in the morning, I ate breakfast there.
Breakfast was never any big thing in our house. My mother worked, and again (the ’70s), mothers were supposed to provide breakfast. But my mother taught high school English and was often grading papers and getting her lesson plans in order. She did not have time to make us pancakes or bacon. I didn’t like cereal, or rather cereal with cold milk on a cold morning was the last thing I wanted to put in my mouth. Ditto yogurt, ditto orange juice. Toast immediately returned to room temperature (53 degrees) and became a giant crouton. I was a lover of soup, however, and I was handy with a can opener, and I could turn on the stove burner. One particularly cold morning I thought, Why not soup? I was responding not only to the temperature but also to literary nostalgia. My favorite childhood picture book was Soup for the King by Leonard Kessler. The book was about a king who loved soup. I can’t, as a 47-year-old adult, really remember what else happened in this book, so I asked a friend who had a copy to remind me. She wrote:
The king loves soup for every meal, breakfast, lunch and supper. The queen is sick of soup but the king won't give it up. So the queen bugs the royal cook, who quits. The palace holds soup auditions throughout the land. A poor tailor is sick of soup too. His wife sends their son out with their pot of soup to see if they can sell it and buy meat. Of course, the tailor's son accidentally enters the soup auditions with his mother's soup. And he wins, with his cold potato soup. So the king's men come and fetch the boy's mother, who thinks her son is in trouble, but instead they make her the royal cook. And now the king gets to eat soup every day again, and the tailor gets to eat a lot of non-soup dishes, and no one follows up on the queen, WTF Leonard Kessler.
As usual, one’s own myths never quite hold up to inspection. Cold soup won the King’s heart! Still, the point is not that the king chose cold soup. The point is that he loved soup so much he was willing to risk his marriage in order to always be eating it.
This is the kind of monomaniacal loyalty soup inspires. I also had loyalty toward soup: Campbell’s Chicken with Rice soup. No other soup was acceptable. I ate a can of Campbell’s Chicken with Rice soup every morning before school, before leaving my cold house to enter the even colder outdoors where my braids, still wet from washing, froze.
I remember, too, experiencing a little bit of shame about my breakfast. I pretended I ate “normal” breakfasts (in the same way I pretended we had a shower in our bathroom—we didn’t, only a bathtub), and when at other people’s houses for sleepovers, I would push scrambled eggs around a plate and feign happiness over the mother-cooked breakfast food. So delicious! My breakfast soup habit indicated, I feared, some deeper form of deviance or misfittedness that would only intensify over time. Who knows what kind of lonely, queen-less weirdo I’d eventually be. And though I’d long outgrown this worry by adulthood, I recall, as a twenty-something grad student in New York, stopping by a Philippine restaurant near my apartment for coffee, and looking at the menu, and seeing that they served for breakfast a dish called congee—rice porridge cooked in chicken broth. Congee is eaten all over Asia, in very hot countries, not cold ones, but still. Though I was no longer self-conscious about my morning soup habit (I no longer ate breakfast at all), I remember feeling a powerful sense of redemption. See, all you people who never actually teased me about eating soup for breakfast? There was a cultural precedence for my choice! A whole freaking continent eats what I ate!
But in Maine, in the ’70s, what did we know about Asian breakfast traditions? I am now a parent of two kids. Without any prompting from me, save that I don’t make breakfast for them, they both started eating soup in the morning when they were very young. They were early adopters. Survivalists, some would say. Eat soup or die. Our sing-songy bedtime ritual involved them yelling, after they said goodnight, LEAVE OUT SOUP! Because they were too young to open tin cans but not too young to press a button on the microwave, in which bowls of soup awaited. Soup, maybe, is not about warmth or comfort but is instead about seizing power when powerless. It’s about developing self-reliance and the ability to strongly, and even tyrannically, desire and demand what is not, in your culture, the norm. Eat soup in the morning and you are, until the bowl is empty, a king.
Heidi Julavits is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Folded Clock.