Super soup is reward for long wait in the cold

March 18, 1998|By Donna Lee | Donna Lee,Providence Journal-Bulletin

NEW YORK -- I don't know whether the ascendancy of soup began with a "Seinfeld" episode about soup so remarkable that Jerry would do anything to avoid antagonizing the terrible-tempered chef he secretly referred to as the Soup Nazi.

But it made me eager for a taste at the real-life Soup Kitchen International in Manhattan.

Had the TV writers exaggerated? Is Al Yeganeh's soup really wonderful? Would I have to grovel to get it?

It was pouring rain on a January day when my husband and I stood in line ("on line," as they say in New York). The icy dampness infiltrated my clutched-tight coat. Runoff from rooftops splashed on my head and ran inside my collar. I needed hot soup.

The line stretched half a block. A young woman behind me said, "This must be very good soup." She hadn't eaten there and hadn't watched "Seinfeld," but decided that any line that long must be worth joining.

We shivered for 30 minutes. There was no place to come in from the cold. Soup Kitchen International is the chest-high counter of an open-to-the-ceiling storefront. At the counter, grim-faced Yeganeh, ladle in hand, takes the money and fills cardboard cartons with steaming soup. In the small kitchen behind him, three cooks work quickly and silently.

"In 'Seinfeld,' customers stand inside," said my husband. "Here, we have to stand on the sidewalk. How can we eat soup in the rain?"

It's advisable to heed Yeganeh's sign: "For most efficient and fastest service, the line must be kept moving. Please have money ready, pick up the soup of your choice and move to the extreme left."

Customers behaved like cowed inmates, covertly eyeing the man with the ladle. They moved forward meekly, then crisply side-stepped to the left after placing the order.

I wanted to ask questions. But what if Yeganeh shouted, "No soup for you!" as his TV counterpart did to George.

I wanted soup more than I wanted conversation.

My husband ordered and paid. Yeganeh placed the change at the far left of the counter, then pointed toward it, enforcing the side-step. I dawdled a step behind. Yeganeh glared at me and pointed to the left more emphatically. We didn't peek into the big white shopping bag handed to us. It seemed impertinent.

Now, where could we eat? We walked until we saw a fast-food restaurant, bought sodas and huddled behind them at a table, hoping no one would notice our smuggled soup.

Our $20 bought us two big containers of soup, rolls and a virtual produce counter of fresh fruit ... a big orange, an apple, three bananas and a big carton of grapes and fresh strawberries.

A co-worker who used to live near the soup kitchen and often bought soup there said that Yeganeh sometimes adds a piece of chocolate for good customers. (She got chocolate.) Those who misbehaved, she said, he ordered to the back of the line. Some he refused soup entirely.

Our soup was wonderful, with deep, complex flavors. The thick seafood bisque was full of fresh-tasting shrimp, mussels, big chunks of lobster and scallops. My perfectly seasoned lentil soup was chunky with fine-cut fresh zucchini, summer squash, tomato and spinach.

Who needs a cordial counterman to say "Have a nice day"? If it's a choice between a smile and soup as extraordinary as this, I'll take the soup.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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