Magazine | November 25, 2019, Issue

This Soup for You

An employee prepares a soup in the “Green Cuisine” vegetarian restaurant in Minsk, Belarus, February 1, 2018. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

It’s the time of the year when the sun wanes and the temps decline and something in your soul wishes for the liquid benediction of soup. But capitalism has ruined soup! Well, not exactly, but capitalism has complicated soup, just as it complicates everything. If only we could adopt the Cuban Soup Model.

A youngish-type person wrote a piece about the pleasures of the grocery store, and as you can imagine, it was conflicted. On one hand, all that bounty, all that clean bright produce, the bounteous shelves. On the other hand, ewww, capitalism, right? It’s so unfair that the worst economic system evah produced this, somehow. (The details are unclear.) How do we come to terms with this soul-
searing conflict between liking food and hating the system that brought it to us?

For starters, we can ask whether we really need all that soup. The author took a swipe at a blogger who’d been to the egalitarian wonderland of Cuba. It seems their supermarkets are barren and depressing, and so the conservative pounced:

“Recently, Benny Johnson, a pro-Trump, right-wing troll, tweeted a photograph of himself at a supermarket in Havana, Cuba, standing in front of a wall of canned goods, all displaying the same brand. ‘What would your supermarket look like on socialism? This is the fanciest “supermarket” in Havana. Notice anything odd?’ he wrote. ‘Aisles are filled with goods having NO VARIETY AT ALL. No competition. No choice. No hope.’

“. . . But his photographs of the ordered shelves of the Havana supermarket are oddly beautiful and strangely calming; he was simply visiting a culture that doesn’t value excessive choice like we do in the United States. (And when you think about it, do we really need 100 different brands of canned soup? How did we come to expect that, anyway?)”

I don’t know! But she’s right! 

I cannot tell you how many times I have been unmanned by the overwhelming choices of the dreaded Soup Aisle — my hands start to moisten as I push my cart around the corner, my heart begins to gallop, my kneecaps seem to jellify at the very thought of it. But I remember gallant ancestors who fought at Gettysburg and in New Guinea, and perhaps call out silently to a second cousin who endured the time when it seemed like there were eight, nine different varieties of Cap’n Crunch, and I push on.

There is the Campbell’s-brand block, to use the industry jargon; everything has a comforting cohesion. Okay, okay, you can do this. Red-and-white labels, focus on that. Find the Chicken Noodle . . . there. Oh no: choice. Low sodium? Chicken and stars? Chicken bisque? What the blazes is bisque? Some tarted-up French-soup trollops with baguette chunks and snail broth? No! There! There, chicken noodle, on the bottom shelf. Focus.

But — but the other options on the shelf press in, making their claims. This one is hearty! That one is chunky! There are six soups whose labels proclaim both heartiness and chunkitude, and the font choices on the label suggest they are meant to handle a man’s appetite, because the typeface resembles a branding iron. Am I man enough for these soups? Should I reject these gender norms and find a soup that does not suggest the infliction of pain on domesticated animals to assert ownership? 

Perhaps GQ’s latest issue, about redefining masculinity, gives some help about parsing the heteronormative messages of soup-choosing. Maybe there’s a piece by a gender-fluid comedian who addresses the problematic implications of the branding iron. Would the fluid be condensed? Chunky? Hearty?

Perhaps there’s still a copy at the checkout counter . . . no. No, I got this. I whisper to myself:

“I reject the phallocentric soups whose labels have sirloin segments with black lines to indicate the meat has been thrown on a fiery grill, the whole patriarchal suburban BBQ trope with its overtones of sexual violence emblazoned on aprons — ‘Kiss the cook,’ indeed. I want a soup that makes a positive case for consent.”

Then it comes to me, as a revelation; I almost expect the supermarket roof to part and trumpets to blare. There are 100 kinds of soup because people — you know, the masses, that pullulating abstraction that’s never wrong when Uncle Marx is gesticulating on its behalf — people want 100 kinds of soup. Maybe they really want only 20, but they like to know there are 100. Maybe 17 kinds will disappear in the next year, replaced by 32. 

The good socialist will frown: The time and resources that go into developing new theoretically popular soups could be turned to eliminating student debt. Of course it won’t be, because Big Soup doesn’t care, and our weak, pathetic, toothless government would never consider requiring companies to divert needless soup-development funds to help struggling students!

Hold on, wait a minute — if young people are poor because they have student loans, then they can’t afford expensive meals, which means they have to eat . . . soup. 

When you realize the corruption and cruelty cooked right into capitalism, it takes your breath away.

I don’t really think like that, which is why I am generally happy and wave to strangers and sleep well. But consider this: When you go to a big variety retailer, you don’t find 50 varieties of clothes hangers. Maybe we don’t want that. 

We do want more soup. We don’t want the Ministry of Soup determining what our neighborhood store will get this month. By the way, do you know what happens when the state takes control of soup production, and it plummets, and only ten cans hit the shelves each day?

People pounce! On the cans, that is.

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