A few years ago, on a hot summer day in Nashville, Tim and I were walking out of church hand in hand, me in a bright yellow A-line dress and him in a collared shirt and jeans, when an older man with a cowboy hat approached us. “Hola!” he shouted, smiling, reaching out his hand. A camera was around his neck. A woman was a few feet behind. I don’t remember his next few words, only that they necessitated our explaining, no, we’re not from another country; no, we’re don’t speak other languages; no, actually, we live here, yes, that’s right, here, in this city, in Nashville, Tennessee. He asked to take our picture. Yes, to take our picture. We laughed retelling the story to friends over the next few weeks. I would laugh if I told it to you now. A complete stranger singled us out in a parking lot, misunderstood who we were and then deemed us novel enough to photograph us like an attraction at the zoo. But every now and then I still think about him, wonder about him, try to imagine what he did with that photograph and why.
He gave us a few minutes of awkward attention; I’ll give him and his story replay for the next years and decades of my life. I think of it every time I try to explain to someone that, hey, here’s a good example, people are always trying to tell you who you are and where you come from, but: that doesn’t mean that they’re right.
Days after Rocco was born, one of the sea of pediatricians who visited our hospital room commented on the large soft spots on the back of his head; four or five months later, we realized his little head was growing in all places except those. We asked more questions, saw more doctors and, in January, watched a therapist fit a little baby helmet for our little baby’s head. Firm, inflexible, molded the way football player helmets or bicyclist helmets tend to be, this little helmet was exactly what it sounds like and as simple to take on and off as it is to change a diaper or a set of clothes. It’s no big deal. It’s just like any other helmet—football, bicycle, etc.—but instead of protecting against injuries on the field or on the street, it’s helping his head grow in the places where it didn’t want to but should. It’s really nothing. And if my sweet-natured nine-month-old had any awareness of what was going on, this is what I’d say.
Yet, nonetheless, I’d also have to tell him, reality isn’t always easy for people around you to see. So just like they can look at your olive skin and see foreigner, they can look at your helmet and gasp, asking what sort of accident you’ve been in. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything. The truth is the truth. And, in fact, my son, life lesson: people are always going to try to tell you who you are, they’re always going to try to put an image on you and say it defines. (We do it to other people, too.) But an image, like a reflection, is just that: it’s a perception, a way of looking at something, a side of the story. Perception is not identity. You can spend your whole life seeing yourself in other people’s eyes and trying to like what they tell you, but, trust me I know, it’s a waste of time.
When I woke up a few Sundays ago with a scratchy sore throat, panicking that a full-on cold would follow, the most wonderful consolation was the ability to open the freezer door, pull out some chicken leg bones I’d saved from recent dinners and, in minutes, set them on the stove with water and vegetable scraps in a stockpot to cook. An hour or so later, I removed the vegetables, but the bones remained. As I slept, watched TV and downed immunity-boosting supplements, the pot simmered away, filling the house with a chickeny smell that Julia Child would love, its waters deepening to a dark caramel hue. Every now and then Tim or I would add water to replenish the pot’s supply, as mindlessly as we’d refill our own water glasses, and by dinnertime all we needed to do was strain the bones and add vegetables. You can add any vegetables you like, but that particular Sunday’s remaining food supply included carrots, celery, onions and cabbage. We let those and some seasonings cook a bit, and then eagerly ate bowl by bowl of the steaming results.
Fragrant and hot, soup, even homemade chicken soup, is, at superficial glance, pretty ordinary. It’s normal. It’s routine. We’ve all had hot soup of some kind. Maybe we have a sense it’s good for us, whether or not we know why. Maybe it evokes nostalgia, the way it does for me, when I smell the savory, meaty smell in the air and remember other weekends when I’ve felt sick. But, let’s be honest, basic broth is not impressive, not a showpiece. If I have you over for a special dinner, I won’t normally think broth and nothing else is what we should eat.
Yet beneath its commonplace façade, homemade bone-broth soup, in truth, is one of the most healing foods you can eat. It’s what I asked for when I was in the hospital, being offered a blood transfusion. It’s what I start making whenever I feel the beginnings of a sore throat. Homemade chicken soup, with a base of bone broth, has been dubbed the #1 thing you can consume to treat leaky gut, overcome food intolerances, improve joint health and boost immunity, says Dr. Axe. It’s high in protein, minerals, things like glycine that support detoxification and things like gelatin that support digestive health, says Jenny McGruther at Nourished Kitchen. As those simple bones boil, especially in water that’s been made slightly acidic with the addition of a little raw apple cider vinegar, they start releasing nutrients into the broth. They lend their calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. It doesn’t matter if you understand what they’re doing as they do it; bones cooking down in water are bones preparing to do you some major good.
A friend told me recently that people always think they know her; they meet her and see she’s pretty talkative, so they get a sense for what she talks about and figure that’s who she is. But what they don’t know is that her immediate vulnerability is a mask, she told me, and that she intentionally shares enough personal detail to make people think they know her, all while keeping the stuff she doesn’t want to share close to her chest. When she said this, I realized I’d been doing it to her, too. I’d been listening to her stories and opinions and thinking, okay, yeah, I get you. And yet there was more to her. There’s more to all of us. We are all, always, so much more than a few sound bytes or conversations or words.
“People are deep waters,” I say to Tim sometimes, usually when someone surprises us with something that seems out-of-character or strange. There are so many layers to everybody, so much more beneath the surface of everything we see. If it’s true of the food we eat—just a bowl of soup, right? Just a basic, ho-hum broth?—how much more true of the souls sitting next to us who are more than their appearances, more than their job descriptions, more, even, than the things they say.
Maybe it’s a great struggle of life to receive information, make decisions with it and yet, all the while, recognize there is always still more we don’t see. It’s humbling to admit we don’t understand each other in full. It’s humbling, but it’s true.
Homemade Bone Broth for Chicken Soup
Makes as much broth as your pot can hold; I tend to use a 4.5-quart stock pot
I’ve posted versions of this broth method before, from a look at perpetual beef broth to another post about homemade chicken soup. I’m revisiting it for a few reasons, though. (1) I’ve recently been turned on to chicken drumsticks, the cheapest and most flavorful meat option I know, and making it a habit to cut our meat off the bones instead of eating with our hands has meant we can save the leg bones in the freezer for any time I want to make stock and (2) I want to make a note here that using cabbage in the vegetable soup you make from the broth is my new favorite way to use cabbage. So soft! So wilty! So flavorful! Tim would add, too, that if you use red cabbage, the broth turns a wonderful purple color that’s hard not to love.
Bones (roasted bones are nice, which is why leftover bones that you haven’t eaten off of directly work perfectly—and economically!)
vegetable scraps (this is optional, but I tend to throw scraps of onion, carrot, pepper, etc., that I would otherwise have thrown away into big bags in the freezer so I can draw out their nutrients whenever I make another pot of soup)
Filtered or distilled water
Splash of raw apple cider vinegar
In a large stockpot, set bones, and vegetable scraps, if using. Cover with water and a splash of apple cider vinegar, and heat over medium-high heat until boiling. Reduce to simmer. Continue as long as you can, removing the vegetables after about an hour and replenishing the water whenever it runs low. If you only go for three or four hours, you make a stock—high in gelatin and rich in nutrients. If you go longer than that, say a whole day, you make what’s traditionally known as bone broth. The bones will eventually disintegrate and crumble, having given up all they can to the stock.
Either way, you then strain the liquids and use them as you would broth in any soup. Or, for the purposes of a quick chicken soup, heat that stock (diluting it with water if you like to save half for later and make it last longer for two pots) and add fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic or whatever you have on hand. Also, if you have leftover chicken, that works well, too. Cook until vegetables are soft, add seasonings to taste, and enjoy!