Soup

How Soup Saved My Life—Twice

On surviving terminal illness, sharing food with loved ones, and finding new purpose.

September 21, 2020
Photo by Caroline Wright

The part about surviving a terminal illness that no one talks about is that it’s almost as scary as being diagnosed in the first place. I survived the year I was given, only to encounter medical bills and a chorus of voices that seemed to question if I could meet a deadline, which is a grim fate for a cookbook author. A mist of pity hung in the air, its storm vanished but evident still. And I was the same through it all, having done nothing but breathed in and out every day, just in different rooms and being told different things about my body.

There is no such thing as “back to normal,” which is a phrase that I heard a lot then. I had bartered all of my favorite foods—my career, even—for more time with my two young sons. I became resolved about eating healthfully and listening to my body. I was the only cancer patient my doctors and nurses had seen who actually grew healthier and stronger during treatment. It was a miracle year, as many outsiders told me.

I arrived at the end of this miracle year, however, as a cookbook author without the promise of another project, perhaps like a singer who lost her voice. My lack of a creative outlet as a fundamentally creative person combined with the pressure to support my family was an unknown as unbearable as the one I’d faced the previous year. Only with this unknown, there wasn’t a treatment for it. The only thing I knew I was supposed to feel was gratitude for being alive. I had no bearings for this new life whatsoever; all of the structures I had to rebuild looked so foreign.

Then one day I realized surviving was just living, breathing in and out every day in different rooms and ignoring what people tell me about my body. So I very literally woke up one morning with an idea ringing in my head, inspiration as the kind of signature of my life as I’d always known it: to make soup.

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“I agree. It's one of those clubs that you never would want to belong to, but once you do, it feels like you are in on a secret of life. I'm glad you're here and that you took a look at my story. Thank you.”
— Caroline W.
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See, I had developed a strong connection to soup when I was first diagnosed. I had been writing a blog about my health updates at that point and mentioned to the void that I didn’t want to eat takeout anymore. I’d mentioned that the kind of help I wanted from someone, anyone, was to be brought homemade soup: a food that seemed perfect for a sick person, I thought, and a food for which everyone has at least one from-scratch recipe. It was a safe choice to ask of an anonymous community, I determined, so I went forward: I asked people to bring me soup.

My husband pulled our camping cooler from the attic and set it out on our lawn. For the next three months, that cooler filled up three times a day with jars and containers of all sorts, all brimming with soup. (Mostly lentil.) In those three months, as I grew strong enough to get back in the kitchen, I experienced the romantic idea I had always written about: that food is love, that food can heal. Soup had become my elixir of life.

So, this is why in the barren landscape post-survival, having only arrived there through trusting hope and instinct, all I knew was that I wanted to make soup. (And my beloved cookies.) For people who made soup for me, my community. A pile of loose thoughts heaped to form the closest thing I had to a plan.

I had the pots already, two twenty-gallon behemoths my dad had gifted me from the shelves of his garage in Florida, ones I never understood why he had them in the first place; they had been an irresistible deal, I think. He gave them to me after he suddenly uprooted his and my mom’s imminent retirement plans the very moment I told him about my cancer. He sold their house over the phone, gave away their dogs, moved to a tiny rental apartment in Seattle and gave me most of their belongings that didn’t fit in it, including those clownish pots. I pulled them from the top of my kitchen cabinets and sent a few emails to friends.

It was a safe choice to ask of an anonymous community, I determined, so I went forward: I asked people to bring me soup.

It was natural, starting what developed into my soup club. It was the only thing that had been easy or clear in a long time. I decided I was going to make vegan soup because I wanted to celebrate and explore the possibilities behind restriction, mostly for myself but for friends, too. I wanted to play, and so built my playground. Every week, I challenged myself to create a new vegan soup recipe—about 60 quarts of it!—and ladled it into jars, climbed into the car with my family, and left it on friends’ porches around town. I didn’t write them into recipes at the time.

Word spread and more friends joined. Before I knew it, my pots were overflowing and my members were sending me enthusiastic texts about soup, selfies with their soup bowls, paintings of bowls of soup. A growing community of soup enthusiasts had gathered loyally around me, hungry for the recipes I made for them.

I had spent the formative years of my career as a food editor, then cookbook author, making food for a reader that I rarely heard from. With my soup club, I was making food for people whose enthusiasm was immediate and felt deeply. Through the love I was giving them and returned in abundance, through those soups, I was fully restored. And I wanted to write another cookbook.

I met with a few of my editor friends while visiting New York; they politely asked how I was doing with a hint of deference that perhaps I wasn’t well enough to do anything at all. I attempted to explain my club, how exciting it all was to me, and how I thought I should write a cookbook about it. The former food editor in me sensed what they heard: a cookbook of vegan soup, photos of bowls filled with a substance desperately trying not to look like vomit, and a napkin and spoon so obsessed over that they would have their own team of stylists. As I talked about the book, I knew I didn’t want that. I wanted the energy of my club, the energy of my members, in its pages.

So, when it was soup season again, I began to actually develop the recipes from the loose notes I took from the previous year. I took on interns. I asked my friends who had flirted with doodles of soup and beautiful phrases if they would trade soup for their art—paintings and haiku, respectively. I asked a new friend, a photographer neighbor, if he would be willing to shoot the book in exchange for soup. He hesitated, he told me he wasn’t a food photographer. “Good!” I said, “there won’t be a picture of a bowl of soup in the whole thing.” With the help from a few trusted friends, I spent the following year figuring out how to put this cookbook together.

My kitchen churned out soup daily: I made recipes on some days, then my interns tested them, then I made soup again. Eventually, between bowls of soup, together we made what I consider in many ways to be my dream project: a book that blends good food and art unapologetically, and focuses on the food itself as being a narrative for the lives that surround it.

My favorite part of making the cookbook, one I may have never otherwise seen as the book’s author, was planning and attending the photo shoots. The photographs in the book are black and white portraits of my members, the medium itself chosen to highlight the emotions of the people and disregard the food almost entirely. (The soups, instead, are represented in colorful paintings which, to me, convey the feeling of eating the soups; that’s traditionally what the “hero” photo in an article or cookbook is supposed to do, anyway.)

The photos are of real people, my people, bringing soup into their homes and the unique ways that soup affects their lives. Each of their relationships to soup inevitably looked different than mine did when it was dropped off in the cooler on my front lawn years ago, but it still seemed to bring each of my members to life in different ways.

Soup was my elixir of life, but it turned out to be theirs too.

Advance copies of Caroline Wright’s newest cookbook, Soup Club, are available for purchase on the book's Kickstarter campaign that went live on Sept. 21, 2020.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Before her diagnosis, Caroline wrote a book on cakes called Cake Magic!. She started developing a birthday cake using her gluten-free mix found in that book. Check out other recipes she’s developing for her new life—and the stories behind them—on her blog, The Wright Recipes. Her next book, Soup Club, is a collection of recipes she made for her underground soup club of vegan and grain-free soups she delivers every week to friends throughout Seattle's rainy winter. (Available February 2021.)

12 Comments

Susan D. September 27, 2020
Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m glad you are on the road to recovery. Soup is definitely a healer, I can remember as a child being sick and my mom or grandmother making chicken soup from scratch...and as I do now when any one of us isn’t feeling great. If fills the house with a lovely aroma, that came bring even my sick husband (when stuck in bed with the flu) up and out to the kitchen looking for nourishment. And now I’ve been experimenting with new recipes too like curried coconut carrot and potato leek soups. I look forward to when your cookbook comes out! I love trying out new recipes on my family.
 
EileenK September 27, 2020
Soup has always been my elixir of life. If I'm sick, I make soup. If it's winter and cold, I make soup. If it's summer, I make cold soup. I make pots of it and eat some every day until the next batch. My love of soup comes from my mother and grandmother who both thought soup was always just what you needed to be happy. I save every bone from every chicken or meat I cook to use in stock. I do the same with vegetable peels. I usually create from what I have, or what I'm in the mood for, without a real recipe, but I love to look for recipes to try and I always tweak them as I go along. I'm happy you are recovering, and happy you have found the comfort of soup.
 
Uptownfunk123 September 27, 2020
I have been diagnosed with cancer also. At first, I just wanted fried chicken, French fries, and fried fish....not quite the anti-inflammatory diet recommended. I wanted to reward myself for living through the awful treatments. I also have tried to change my orientation with food. I love and adore making soup...I wind up giving a lot of it away, my stomach has a difficult time tolerating some soups...but it is the act of making the dish, and the love that goes into the chopping, stirring, pouring that is so comforting and nourishing.
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. September 27, 2020
I am impressed when I hear of someone (else) who makes food they don't really eat for the comfort of it. I rarely make foods for my family to suit their cravings that I don't eat. (Generally I make foods we can all share.) I'm sorry to hear of your cancer, though encouraged to hear that you are finding your way through it with food and taking care of yourself. I definitely found that focusing on my diet affected the way I felt during treatment. Sending you lots of love.
 
kendraaronson September 23, 2020
You're the best, Caroline! So proud of you and this project! Sending you s(o)uper amounts of high fives right now :)
 
ChefThunder September 22, 2020
This reminds me of the origin story of The Chicken Soup Brigade in Seattle. They were an early AIDS service organization that delivered meals to people with HIV and AIDS.
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. September 27, 2020
I'm honored by the comparison. Thank you, ChefThunder. Soup is deeply healing.
 
ChefThunder September 27, 2020
It is really a beautiful story. A group of people came together and asked a friend who was I'll what they could do to help him. He said "All I really want it's some chicken soup" and an organization was born that ended up serving 1,000s of meals to people in need.
 
Stephanie G. September 21, 2020
What a wonderful story.
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. September 21, 2020
Thank you so much, Stephanie, for reading it.
 
Jackie D. September 21, 2020
What amazing courage! Thanks for sharing your story. It's wonderful how you turned your illness and all its consequences into a reason to keep on going and flourishing into a great project. I, too, have had my battle.....it makes you a better person.
 
Author Comment
Caroline W. September 21, 2020
I agree. It's one of those clubs that you never would want to belong to, but once you do, it feels like you are in on a secret of life. I'm glad you're here and that you took a look at my story. Thank you.