On an August afternoon a few years ago, I ate five bowls of tomato soup one after another on the train from Prague to Berlin. I sat with Brendan in the dining car at a small table with a bottle in an ice bucket, set with real cutlery, china, and cloth napkins. As I finished each bowl, I deliberated for a moment, hoping the intense desirous urge had passed, and then, unable to control myself, I asked the waiter, an expert and upright professional with thick, wavy chestnut hair and a thrust-forward pigeon chest, for yet another bowl of tomato soup. I made these successive requests sheepishly, half laughing, but also firmly: I wanted another one, dammit. He brought each new bowl with deepening solemnity, refusing to engage in this American frivolity, my self-mocking bemusement at my own gluttony.
We had traveled in the opposite direction a few days earlier to meet Brendan’s father in Prague, and now we were headed back to Berlin, where we were spending the month. Our train route today was along the same tracks, but in reverse, that had once carried trains filled with Jews, transporting them from Germany to Eastern European concentration camps. After lunch, hunched in two pull-down seats in the cramped crowded train passageway between compartments, we looked out the window at the landscape flashing by, empty farmland, dark woods, and blue, placid rivers, and we said aloud to each other, softly so no one else could hear, “This is probably almost exactly what they saw from the cracks in the cattle cars.” We felt a terrible shiver each time we thought about it. It felt inconceivable that after that funny, rollicking lunch, during which we’d drunk cold dry German white wine and laughed at my tomato soup addiction and left a big tip to placate the waiter, we were lucky enough to huddle together in these jump seats, free travelers, when just decades before, other travelers on these same tracks…
I was sleepy, but I couldn’t nap. The historical disjunction was too troubling. The landscape was so blank and unassuming. I felt as if we were passing through ghostly long-ago echoes and imprints on the air of human terror and horror. I could tell that Brendan felt it, too. We absorbed as much of it as we could, staring out the window. It felt like a sworn pact, something those long-ago passengers deserved from us, lucky as we were, carefree in our own time in political history, secure in our own privileged identities. At least, for now, we were, but you never know what waits for you. There was no assurance that something like this would never happen to us.
Of course the waiter had no way of knowing that my hunger, or maybe it was thirst, for tomato soup was uncontrollable but pure. Tomato soup has a complex quality, familiar and comforting and seductive: warm, salty, sweet, creamy, bright, acidic, childlike, full of umami, with a taste of seawater, and something animal too, a metallic hint of beef blood, a profound amalgam of nostalgia and life and brine and warmth. Being on that train on a bright summer day, on vacation with the person I loved most in the world, I felt the possibility of loss and danger, and so I retreated to the dining car and glutted myself with liquid food that returned me to my childhood, when my mother would open a Campbell’s can and dump the cylinder of quivering orange-pink into a pot and add a canful of milk and stir it until it was warm enough to put into a bowl and spoon up and dip my grilled-cheese sandwich into. That ubiquitous soup formed the template of expectations that I bring to every bowl I eat. Its recipe, or maybe I should say formula, was generated and precisely calibrated by our food industry, that uniquely American mechanism that simultaneously slakes and creates hunger.
The other day, I made myself a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and opened a box of tomato soup and heated it while my sandwich browned in butter in a cast iron skillet. I sat down with my sandwich, cut on the diagonal, and an enormous bowl full of soup. Between bites of the sandwich, I spooned soup steadily into my mouth with increasing greed until I’d eaten it all, then I refilled my bowl and ate that one the same way.
I had another box of tomato soup in the cupboard, but I didn’t open it. I saved it for another day. That day is now: my craving has caught up with me again. In a few minutes, I’m going to pour the soup into a pot and heat it and make a grilled turkey and cheese sandwich, and I’ll repeat the debacle I performed the other day, a heedless tomato-soup gluttony. Once I start eating that stuff, I cannot stop. My craving generates more craving. Each bite demands another. Sometimes I lift the bowl to my mouth and gulp it slowly. When my bowl is finally empty, I need another one. All the tastes wash over my tongue in various combinations to create an unending loop of desire. When the soup is gone, I walk away from the table as filled with longing and curiosity as I was before.
No other dish has this effect on me; no other food brings me into that state of weird cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous apprehension of childhood comfort and the complexity of human existence. I’m too overwhelmed by these untenable parallels to ever get a complete grasp of it all while being simultaneously awestruck by the perfect deliciousness of the thing itself, so I have to fill my stomach to its bursting point, hoping to achieve a Zen state in which past, present, and future melt away and it’s just me and my bowl of tomato soup. Something tells me that this will never happen. But I can’t stop trying.