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August 26, 2014
So here's the farm, Gordon says, beaming with pride. He opens the padlock and shows us through the gate, where we walk admiringly along the rows of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, beans,parsnips, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, kale, summer squashes of all kinds. There are flowers, too at the ends rows: dahlias, snap dragons, rudbeckia, seven-foot sunflower plants.

There are tubs of herbs. Some of them I know well, and have in our own garden: mint, basil, sage, parsley, rosemary, lavender. Some of them are not as familiar -- a pot of lovage, for instance, and three big pots of sorrel. I stopped short when I saw it.

Sorrel! It was 1979, maybe 1982, I'm not sure when it was, but I was either still in seminary or a new priest, just out of the box. It was the Feast of St Mary the Virgin and we were at Holy Cross Monastery. There would be a special meal to mark the day. I no longer remember all the delicious foods that delighted us; I only remember one.

The sorrel soup we had that day was lemony and creamy. I had never tasted anything like it. It was beautiful to behold, a lovely pale jade color. The flavor of sorrel is unlike any other -- "lemony" comes closest, but is inadequate. A taste you remember for thirty years. It was a gracious taste that would speak forever after of monastic welcome and the Blessed Mother's delight.

Mary's delight! In high summer, when the garden's bounty fills the roadside vegetable stands and then our dinner plates: the principal Marian feast arrives. Jesus' mother was a gardener, of that we can be sure -- any woman with a family to feed would have needed to grow whatever she could. This young woman would have learned from early childhood how to use what soil and seed provided, ways of preparing it that drew intoxicating flavors from everything that grew, even sorrel, a plant that looks like a common weed and grows like one. She would have worked every day with what her little plot of land yielded, savoring the deep peace of knowing her children would have enough to eat.

We brought some sorrel home, and I set about finding recipes for the soup. One of them included a story about a French grandmother who moved her children from Paris to a village in the country after the war because she thought it would be easier to find food there. I read through her recipe and thought of her children, growing thin and pale in the city, thin and pale enough that it seemed prudent to pack up everything they owned and leave Paris for good. "Weed Soup," her children called it, and loved it, and she made it all the time, taking them out to forage with her for the bright green leaves. I pictured her in her garden, in her kitchen, her life so different from the life she probably thought she would live when she was younger: a hard life, her husband gone, the weight of raising and feeding a family fallen on her shoulders alone.

She put more wood on the stove and got the old copper skillet down off the shelf. When it was hot, she melted some butter -- butter again! -- and sautéed an onion. She turned the bowl of bright green sorrel leaves all at once into the pot. Immediately they lost their brightness, becoming the color of an American soldier's uniform. Everything was still in ruins. People were still displaced. Men were still missing in action, which must certainly -- by now -- mean that they were never coming home. She stirred the mixture and salted it, and the bright smell of sorrel in butter filled the kitchen. She boiled a diced potato in some water. There was half a squash, and she put that in. It boiled for fifteen minutes while her daughter set the table. Then the sorrel mixture slid into the pot and the soup cooked for a minute or two longer. She stirred it, remembering Paris before the war, their apartment, her husband coming up the stairs from work, the way he used to inhale the aroma of her cooking and pretend to faint with pleasure, how the children laughed at him. Remembering the way he looked when he did that, clutching his chest theatrically -- it seemed now to her that he was foretelling his own death. She ladled the soup into bowls. It was time for supper.


Wash the sorrel -- several huge handfuls, about four cups -- and carefully remove stems and veins. You use only the leaves, as the stems are bitter.

Boil a large peeled and diced potato in a quart of water in a large pot. Add other vegetables you may have: some summer squash, perhaps, or some spinach or chard. A handful each, about a cup, to total three cups. Cook together for about fifteen minutes, or until everything is soft.

Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and sauté a chopped onion in it. Sliced leeks are even better. Or both. Add the sorrel and stir, inhaling deeply. Add salt and pepper. Cook a few more minutes.

Slide the sorrel mixture into the pot and cook for a couple more minutes. Ready to serve. Serve hot or cool to room temperature, swirling some cream into the soup just before serving.

Should serve four people.
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