I believe in small comforts

Paul - Centreville, Virginia
Entered on December 9, 2008

I recently joined the exploding number of Americans who have lost their jobs due to the economic meltdown. The big question on everyone’s mind: where is the bottom? “Indeed, the economy is unraveling so fast as to defy analysis through the usual statistical models,” a reporter for the Washington Post dryly noted in the paper’s front section on December 6th.

I worked for a small lunch café in a big office building. Every day I made the soup. The building’s tenants are prestigious legal and tech firms, and many of the people there came to like me. I had lots of job responsibilities, but the thing people knew me for was my soup.

Most of my soups were of the rich, stick-to-your-ribs, comfort food variety – chowders, stews, chiles, jambalayas — anything that, served with a little fresh bread, could easily substitute for a big lunch and not leave you feeling hungry. Over time, I developed a repertoire of soups, like a baseball manager configuring a devastating pitching rotation.

If I was feeling cocky I’d try to dazzle, with an impromptu orchestration of leftovers, like my smoky potato chipotle pepper, or to evoke a faraway locale, with my Moroccan beef or Cuban black bean and ham. When I was in a generous mood I’d treat them to a crowd pleaser like my chicken tortilla. If my back was against the wall I’d rely on tried and true classics like split pea, or clam chowder.

People starting making requests, and asking me for recipes. During the lunch rush I worked the cash register, and I had a knack for chatting and joking around with our customers. I was building a small but satisfying reputation, and having fun too.

Then came the stock market plunge, financial giants going broke, the government bailouts. Bad news for the economy was bad news for the café. Soon we would be closing, I was told – sales were down; tenants were leaving the building. Our employees started looking for new jobs, and we started cutting down our food orders.

So when the chef came in one Friday morning, and told me, tearfully, that I was being let go, I wasn’t too surprised. The writing had been on the wall for some time. Nor was I especially frightened or distressed by my layoff — as long as people need to eat I’ll find work again. I am, however, struggling to comprehend just how bad all this is, and to find some meaning in it. Like many people, I’ve relied upon televised and Internet news, following the story with the same kind of morbid fascination that causes people to slow down to look at car crashes.

I’ve heard more than one economist refer to recession itself as “soup.” “We’re in the soup now,” said one talking head recently on a nightly news program. “We’re all in the same soup,” said another.

I can’t help but take some offense at this mildly pejoriative reference to my specialty, and the irony provides little comfort. But then, a little comfort is exactly what soup is all about. Yes, you will find gourmet soups made from exotic ingredients on the menus of the most expensive fine-dining establishments, if you still have a job and can afford to eat at such places. But I believe life’s simple pleasures, and small comforts, are where we find the most meaning, in troubled times.