It was a family joke. On the rare Sunday my dad could be dragged to his mother’s house for dinner, we’d be stuffed full of braised beef and mashed potatoes, and when we assured Oma that we couldn’t eat another bite, she’d leap up and say, “Bolletje soep!” This meant a bowl of meatball soup with greens and vermicelli would be placed in front of each of us. The gustatory logic was unclear and may or may not have originated in Holland—none of my other immigrant friends have heard of soup as a second-to-last course.
But the soup itself is emblematic comfort food for this cohort. My mother-in-law, for example, would cook a colossal pot every Saturday and serve it for after-church dinner on Sunday. Then it would be tabled as a daily first course until mid-week, when it finally ran out. This cleverly frugal routine for filling the bellies of five growing children and minimizing weekend cooking also formed the basis for what must be some very good memories: every visit now involves groveling for a take-home Tupperware container of the stuff.
When I asked her for instructions recently, she came back from the basement freezer with two Ziplocs, labeled “soep groentjes”—soup greens—and the smaller-than-storebought key ingredient, the “bolletjes” themselves. Then she handed me a Knorr soup-mix envelope, whose Dutch ingredient label I could not decipher, and advised me to add extra noodles. I knew the greens came from her garden, but they were so minced-up and frosty I couldn’t tell which vegetables they originated from. And the meatballs, of course, already contained that top-secret blend of seasonings her son loves so much.
I made the soup with my borrowed ingredients, and it went over nearly as well as the original, I thought. But I found myself wondering why the dish’s biggest fan–its rightful heir, as it were–wasn’t cooking the dish himself. It would indeed be wonderful to come downstairs on a wintry Saturday afternoon to a steaming bowl of bolletje soep, maybe some warm, crusty rolls slathered in butter—wonderful especially, it dawned on me, to be the one called down for dinner. Aha! Could it be that playing the role of fed rather than feeder is integral to the walk down memory lane?
And anyhow there’s a more practical problem: I can’t very well keep poaching Mom’s harvest and hand-rolled hamburger to fill the bellies of my own growing children. Without the recipe, I am like the indigent nation receiving aid not training: doomed to long-term dependence.
Leave well enough alone, Sarah (a familiar refrain in Sarah’s head). Probably I have enough on my plate without aiming to translate a first-generation, postwar staple into a second-generation nostalgia experience. Probably there is nothing all that special in the soup itself to begin with. Probably the exchange of repurposed yogurt tubs and the “Thanks, Mom” hug at the door is a value-added ritual I’d be wrong to supplant.
More proof that the proof is not so much in the pudding as in the people who spoon it out to you when you’re young. . .