Soupe Au Pistou Is Elegant But Easy Enough For Dinner Tonight

March 5, 2024

There are several Souths in my life: South Jamaica, New York, where I was born; the American South, where I write and research; and the South of France. Whenever the latter comes to mind, I always think of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin and my first meal at his house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, an ancient village that became a haven for artists.

When I spent a week at his home in the 1970s, I was in my twenties, a terribly naive young guest of a friend and way out of my depth in the stellar crowd that I met there. I recall dropping my suitcase in my appointed bedroom and heading out for lunch at a place under tall cypress trees. Baldwin called this alfresco dining spot his “Welcome Table” in reference to the traditional spiritual.

The first meal I had at Baldwin’s house was simple: loaves of crusty French bread, a wine from the region, and a tureen filled with a hearty soupe au pistou. Baldwin ate, chatted, and then vanished. I was too nervous to properly appreciate the light yet filling vegetable soup that seemed like a French garden in a bowl, but it has remained in my memory all these years.

I would later learn that soupe au pistou is a true Provençal specialty that is thought to date back to the 18th century. It may have originated in Italy and is clearly a close cousin of that country’s . Prepared with pasta and a potager’s worth of fresh vegetables, it’s an ideal dish for springtime and late summer in the American South, when carrots, potatoes, and fava beans make their appearance at farmers’ markets. It is finished with a slurry of garlic, basil, and olive oil that is called a Provençal pistou—a simpler take on Italy’s . As it doesn’t have the pine nuts (or other nuts) found in the Italian kind, it’s the perfect sauce for those with nut allergies. Some versions, like this one, also include a grated hard cheese such as Parmesan—I always save some to sprinkle over each bowl at the table.

When served with a crusty baguette and a chilled Provençal rosé, it is a delicious introduction to the simple, hearty food of this region. You’ll have to sample it without the incandescence of Baldwin himself, but you, too, will become a fan of the satisfying, uncomplicated dish that he appreciated.

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