Jessie Raymond: Cozy winter meal fails to satisfy

When I made soup on a recent frigid Sunday, I wasn’t just making dinner. I was turning the kitchen into a beckoning space of warmth and flavor, a treat for all the senses, to fend off the bitterly cold weather.
I take my food pretty seriously.
I started by setting a cast iron Dutch oven on the top of our wood cook stove. I could have used the Kenmore range, but I maintain that nothing combats winter like a hearty meal simmering over a wood fire, even if people do call me Ma Ingalls behind my back.
Hours later, while a fragrant loaf of homemade buttermilk oatmeal bread cooled on the counter — it’s winter, and I am not messing around — I stirred what had now become a soup of onions, garlic, broth, celery, carrots, tomatoes, some leftover beef, seasonings and a few handfuls of chopped kale (the wood cook stove says “throwback,” but the kale says “cares about her riboflavin requirements”).
For the final ingredient, I scooped cooked barley from a saucepan and mixed it thoroughly into the soup.
My mouth watered as I envisioned that first spoonful of hot, nourishing yumminess, accompanied by a thick slab of oatmeal bread slathered with butter. Let the north winds blow. This was going to be good.
Here, however, is where my story turns tragic. Or at least gross.
As I brought the saucepan to the sink, my glance landed on something horrific: three pale little worm bodies, not three quarters of an inch long, floating in the remaining barley water. Their day had not turned out as expected.
My day suddenly wasn’t going so well either.
The worms’ dismay at getting boiled alive in a pot of barley was nothing compared to my dismay at knowing that a number of their compatriots had probably made it into a beautiful beef barley vegetable soup in a cast iron Dutch oven on a wood cook stove on a cold winter’s day.
I tried to convince myself that these three represented the entire worm delegation. “I bet that’s all of them,” I said, stifling a gag. “What are the odds that any others made it into the soup?”
Silly question. If the odds were any greater than “absolutely zero,” soup was off the menu.
Still, I poked around in the pot with a wooden spoon, as if a cursory stroll through the barley and veggies and suspiciously wormlike pieces of onion would be enough to prove that the soup was WW (Without Worms).
Having spent hours looking forward to a meal that would ward off the winter chill, I had to accept the truth: I would not be able to stomach this soup now, WW or not.
But what were we supposed to eat instead? Grilled cheese sandwiches? That did not fit the vintage postcard image (“A Cozy Sunday Afternoon on the Homestead, ca. 1908”) I was going for.
Bereft at the thought of giving up the gustatory experience I had spent all day waiting for, I tried to rationalize the situation.
“People all over the world eat worms,” I told my husband. “In some countries, they’re a delicacy.”
Mark, his faced tinged a pale gray-green, glared at me.
“They’re high in protein,” I said, grimacing. “Protein is good. It … helps you feel full longer.”
He wasn’t buying it, and, frankly, neither was I.
Plus, it got me thinking: Had I ever accidentally ingested worms?
I know once in the summer of 1997 I had come close to eating a fat, well-camouflaged one hiding in a spear of cooked broccoli. Months passed before I could eat any cruciferous vegetable without first dissecting it into tiny, certified worm-free bits.
But let’s face it: Over the course of a lifetime, we’ve all likely eaten bugs. And rat droppings. And spider legs. And beetle eggs.
In fact, maybe it was a bad sign that this was only the second time I had caught sight of a worm before eating it. Imagine all the times I hadn’t noticed.
Maybe I was overreacting. I had to conquer my squeamishness. I couldn’t let a harmless worm or two ruin a day’s worth of preparation and anticipation.
“Mark,” I said, swallowing hard. “We are not wasting this whole pot of soup. Let’s just eat it. Carefully.”
So we did.
(Just kidding. We totally had grilled cheese sandwiches.)

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