How not to make tortilla soup.

A few days ago, I was planning to make tortilla soup for a friend who was coming over. I had just gotten home with five bags full of ingredients from my neighborhood Mexican supermarket. I’d hit traffic, my stomach was empty, and the idea of making this soup was stressing me out in a way I couldn’t understand. I felt like I didn’t know how to cook. I’d always been scared to cook, for reasons I wrote off as being too busy, or prioritizing other things in life, but this seemed like something deeper. What if my friend hated the soup? How did I know I was even making it right? I once dated someone whose family equated careful food preparation with love; as such, I always felt judged by him about how I prepared and regarded food. Did the fact that I’d forgotten the avocado, or that I wasn’t going to hand-roast the garlic, mean that I loved my friend less?

I actually started crying, right into the broth, and didn’t stop for fifteen minutes. During which I realized why: I’d never had a mother who was able to show me how to cook. Never mind that, according to my older siblings, her cooking had never been earth-shattering; or that my father cooked more during my upbringing because Mom was sick. But I never learned from him, either, because he was busy taking care of Mom and I was busy being a teenager. We ate a lot of meals that friends brought over. Dad thanked them each by name in Mom’s eulogy.

I started adding ingredients and texted my friend so he wouldn’t worry when he opened the door to find me all puffy-eyed. He was lovely about it. It felt good to talk about it. And the soup turned out to be amazing, actually. But when I want to communicate to others what it’s like to grow up without a Mom, I want to point to this, and say: see, this, here. This is what it’s like. Sometimes, just out of the blue, you suddenly doubt that you have any ability or license to function as a normal human being. “No one showed me how.”

6 Comments on “How not to make tortilla soup.”

  1. Christina says:

    I hope you can make cooking something of your own, in whatever way you want it to be, for whatever you want it to mean in your life. I am surprised at the many successes I have had with cooking – and I only really started after I got married (when sauteed chicken and steamed veggies every night wasn’t going to cut it!). I had a different situation – I had an older sibling who was very good at cooking and she and I were opposites. So naturally, I assumed I would suck. When I “started my own life”, I started with some very basic cook books. Realizing that I didn’t have to sacrifice good taste for simplicity, I moved on to TV and Internet. I started watching A LOT of Food Network. I watched every chef at least once and decided on my favorites. The best thing is searching for recipes on You can search any way you want – by ingredients, chef, ease, whatever. I always searched by ratings because I could get a recipe that multiple people have tried, deemed really good, AND I could read all of the comments with the tips to make it turn out right.

    To this day, I struggle with making a really good baked potato (whatever) but I made my own recipe from a few for an excellent Braised Lamb Shank. How is that for irony?

    Lastly, something that made me really appreciate food and the process of creating it was Jacques Pepin’s autobiography “The Apprentice – My life in the kitchen”. It is not an earth-shattering book but I listened to it on CD, driving long trips with my dad. It made me a little star-struck of the man, amazed at his very full life. The narrator made it sound a bit magical with his french accent. Anyway – you may get a completely different interpretation if you ever listen to it – which I recommend.

    Hope you are doing well – you sound great!

    • Oooh, I just bought it for my Kindle, Christina! Thank you for the recommendation! Yes, there’s something about cooking, however it was “treated” in one’s family, that makes for a complicated relationship with it when you’re grown. I’m so glad you’ve turned it into your own creation. I think I can do that too…I have to give myself permission, like any artist has to.

      Thank you for sharing, and I hope you’re well too 🙂

  2. Lorma says:

    I can’t wait to cook for you upon my return.

  3. […] “clueless with food,” as I’ve always said about myself and came to a head in the tortilla soup incident, but that I might even be inherently good with it—food is a creative medium like any […]

  4. Sialia says:

    Like anything else you ever learned to do, the desire always precedes the ability, and you learn by trying and making mistakes and trying again and getting better slowly.

    You probably don’t remember learning to walk, but if you watch any baby mammal try to roll over or move or stand up for the first time–it’s all fail. Until, suddenly it isn’t.

    Give yourself permission to want & permission to fail. Be curious. Experiment. Ask for help. Fail in private before failing in public. Try again. Win the game level with one star before trying to win it with three. Go for five stars when you feel ready. Feel proud of winning four.

    Praise yourself for every small victory. Praise yourself just for trying.

    All the rest will follow.

    And thank you for sharing because you write beautifully, and you made me see something I never saw before. I was just looking for a soup recipe. I never thought about how or why I surf food blogs. I have a house full of cookbooks. But with blogs, I get more than recipes and techniques. I find reasons to cook.

    Sharing food with someone is an act of love–but love isn’t defined by how good you are at the cooking. It’s about showing you care enough to put effort in to the relationship. To take care of someone lovingly. That’s all. Buying someone a sandwich can totally count.

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