WEDDED TO THIS SOUP
Five dozen quarter-sized frozen meatballs thawed out slowly, exhaling their juices into a metal bowl on the counter. Sweat beaded around the bowl’s exterior, probably from the knowledge it contained such precious cargo. Another bowl, this one a ceramic, dough-mixing bowl, stood on alert nearby. Inside that one, pillowy cheese squares flecked with parsley tumbled over one another like newborn pups. These ingredients would soon be conjoined with my mother’s bone broth coaxed out of the previous Thanksgiving’s turkey, unified in the traditional wedding soup my mother served at holidays and on special occasions.
But not yet.
Not until one kid snuck down the sherbet green, carpeted stairs early morning when Mom wasn’t around, lifted the plastic wrap off the bowl rims, (if you crinkle it, you’ll give yourself away), and plucked a meatball or cheese square from obscurity. In a sacrifice to the gods the meatball or crouton were swallowed whole.
Such was our desire and devotion to my mother’s wedding soup.
The phrase “wedding soup” comes from the Italian language phrase, “minestra maritata” (married soup), meaning the flavors of greens and meat are married with one another. A variation of minestra maritata was made popular in Spain long before pasta was affordable. Also, the old Spanish form contained more meats than the meatballs of modern Italian American versions.
In our family, “wedding soup” was code to risking entry into the kitchen we were often barred from, and exalting, once and for all, my mother’s prowess in her place.
The soup was not so much a recipe, but an inventory of ingredients highlighting meatballs made from the same recipe accompanying spaghetti night. The balls for the soup were smaller, the size of a dime, uniformly rolled. As I tap and slap them around in my palms now, I slip into meditation and conjure images of Mom as she removes her wedding ring, the only time she was not bonded to the cause of matrimony. I see Mom dip her right fingers in water, pat the inside of her left hand with the liquid, scoop a blob of ground meat mixture with her right hand and roll until the surface is smooth.
Like in her attempts to create a happy marriage, my mother tried out various methods of cooking or baking the little balls. In a skillet, she braised them in a layer of oil. Or she plopped them onto a baking sheet covered in foil, inserted the pan in the oven for twenty minutes, but testing for doneness every five. Regardless, they were rounded to perfection. I’ve estimated she prepped wedding soup four times per year over the course of fifty years of my life, with a rough count of sixty meatballs per batch. My guess is she rounded out 12,000 meatballs. To become an expert, Malcolm Gladwell claims one must put in 10,000 hours. My mother earned her chops. I’ve closed in on half of that, spewing forth frustration in my inability to match her goodness—in food and life. I’ll most likely never become a connoisseur, except in taste.
Following her dementia diagnosis and of course, after her death, I assumed the duty of preparing the wedding soup for Christmastime and sharing in the tradition with my in-laws and children. I’ve written the vows for both my marriages and in them, swore to uphold my traditions for better or worse, in sickness and in health. In 2020, I was forced to make good upon those vows.
Due to the pandemic’s cancellation of Christmas gatherings, I risked salmonella and shipped plastic bags containing frozen soup ingredients to my sister in Cleveland and delivered wedding soup packages, like Santa coming down the chimney, to my in-laws’ homes for an added remembrance of our long-time traditions of coming together at Christmas. It was eerily reminiscent of my mother toting a lasagne casserole in flight when I was a young mother in need. In 2021, post-vaccination but still in pandemic times, my baby sister Jeanne arrived to celebrate Christmas. Bottlers of bourbon call the last drop in the barrel the devil’s cut. Jeanne went for the angel’s cut of soup components, the first pickings of meatballs and those cheese squares specially made from a piquant Romano cheese and a sprinkling of baking soda to give it a rise. In my mother’s instructions, parsley was included to offer that hope of spring in the soup bowls and a little extra crunch on the tongue.
Rounding out the ingredients, Mom added frozen French toast, cubed to match the size of the cheese squares, adding a sweet, continental flair to her ceramic tureen. There is no reference for the origin of this surprising addition. But not one of us complained about the soup unless she added strands of spinach or a crunch of celery that had more to do with leftovers or nutritional value than anything she did intentionally. When French toast was not at her disposal or she ran out of time to make it, she strewn in pastini to give our incisors solid place to land.
Amongst my non-Italian family and friends, it’s important to dispel the myth that wedding soup was always served at weddings. For certain my parents’ total wedding reception bill at the Italian Mutual Hall amounted to $466, including the bar costs. There’s no mention of soup on the menu. My mother would have been horrified to slurp it up during her own nuptials for fear of spilling or watch as broth dribbled out the mouths of her guests. As my son made plans for his marriage ceremony, he texted, “Will we have wedding soup at the reception?” I couldn’t stop laughing. How would I do that? I would have to try to cook in a kitchen not my own. One in Utah, where altitude affects all kinds baking and time zone changes impacts my mood. “Davis,” I wrote back, “The soup is named for how it comes together,” and not for the function in which it was served. Besides, we could eat it, but no one ever said we had to share.
What I am about to confess, he also knew. Wedding soup is the one item I will order on a restaurant menu so I might say, “It’s not as good as Mom’s.” Certainly, I wouldn’t have ordered it catered at his wedding either. The satisfaction and comfort gained from this knowledge is worth every penny spent and spoonfuls of soup consumed.
This past holiday, I cleaned the kitchen following Christmas dinner and discovered the contents of the soup fixings bowl wanting. My heart fell. There was hardly a devil’s cut left behind, maybe Satan’s tail. Those who helped serve the soup, my sisters Beth and Jeanne, had overdelivered on the promise of ingredients. I never filled a guest’s soup bowl completely with meatballs, cheese and sweet squares, and vegetables for one perfectly logical and acceptable reason, having nothing to do with whether I expected them to like it or not.
After the guests are gone, the kids returned to their homes, the wrapping paper stored, it’s my time. For the entire week that follows Christmas, I’ll heat the broth and soup stuffers, and seated alone on my kitchen stool, sop up the last squishy crumb of a holiday that uniquely melded my mother’s whimsy with her ancestry. Satisfied the flavors of minestrone maritata blended brilliantly, I’ll lap up the last dewy drop of my mother’s tradition that united she and I one more time.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, teacher, public speaker, and author of two memoirs on love and loss, I’ll Be in the Car and I’ll Have Some of Yours (2019). A combination of Italian roots, small-town footholds, and urban living, her award-winning writings have appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, Movers and Makers, Belt Magazine, Still Point Arts, nextavenue.com, 3rd Act, while spanning the arts, women’s issues, cities, aging and memory. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.