I found it. For over two years, I’ve been searching for soup. A specific soup. A watercress soup I ate maybe a handful of times spread out over a handful of weeks in the spring of 2015. I’d just moved to New York to be with a woman who would break my heart. Those words sound too soft for what she did. It was more like grating my heart against a mandoline, slow, fine slices. But before that, there was this soup at this restaurant she managed in the West Village. A restaurant I’d eat at over a hundred times before the slicing. Dozens more times during the slicing even. In fact, the restaurant is a main character in our story, especially its ending.
Anyway, the soup! THE SOUP. The goddamn watercress soup. It wasn’t the best thing I ate there, and it wasn’t the worst. It was a lovely swirl of colors. It was different. It was good. It was good and then it was gone.
If I’d known the watercress soup would be leaving the menu, maybe I’d have ordered it more. That was the thing about that restaurant—The Restaurant, as I called it for years and sometimes still do—the menu was constantly changing. On that New American seasonal shit, you know? But if I remember correctly—and that’s a big if, because the biggest obstacle in this quest for the watercress soup is that I keep doubting my own memories—this time the dish’s disappearance was because of a change of hands in the kitchen. The head chef was replaced with someone new, and the menu was wiped clean and reconfigured. The watercress soup went away. Later, I went away, too. I left The Restaurant one day and never went back, and I couldn’t have known for sure it’d be my last time ever, but it did feel like a farewell. The Restaurant had become a haunted place for me, and I’m always the one jokingly yelling @ horror movie characters on screen to JUST LEAVE the haunted house. I needed to take my own advice.
There are so many dishes I miss, but most of them I remember in detail, could reconstruct them easily. The cocktails, too, like a bright red spicy beet margarita I drank a million of, staining my insides. I could definitely make that shit at home. But the watercress soup is my weird white whale, seared in my memory but also elusive. Do I even remember how it tastes? It sits in my gut, but I’ve forgotten some of its parts. To be completely honest with you, I can’t even say for sure whether it was served hot or chilled. I know—there’s a big difference. My memories are mucked up. Sliced maybe.
I remember the color, a summery green. I remember a crunch factor. Some sort of nut perhaps? I remember a touch of sweetness. I remember the special treat in its center, a small brick of humboldt fog, forever one of my favorite cheeses, and the first time I had it, it was in this soup. My love of this mold-ripened goat milk cheese with a strip of edible white ash down its middle isn’t enough to explain why the watercress soup has stuck with me. It’s probably a combination of reasons, a soup of them if you will, like maybe because of that specific transitional time in my life or because nothing bad had happened yet or because I was only just starting to get to know The Restaurant. The Restaurant and I were in our honeymoon phase. But I also keep coming back to this: It was good and then it was gone. It’s as simple as that. A quiet, insignificant, easy ending—no drama. The opposite of my ending with The Restaurant.
I started searching for the soup though, because I started to doubt its existence. This was long after I left The Restaurant one day and never went back. I googled “RESTAURANT NAME” + “watercress soup” to no avail. I googled “RESTAURANT NAME” + “humboldt fog” which inexplicably brings up porn? It’s hard to stop me when I get going like this, when I want to find something, and when I want to find something related to food in particular. So I took drastic measures. I pulled up The Restaurant’s menu—in constant flux, remember? So not particularly useful to figure out something from 2015. I ran it through the Wayback Machine, an internet archiving resource that can no doubt be used for more urgent matters. I could pull up old menus for the months around the approximate time the watercress soup would have been served, but that specific chunk of the Watercress Soup Era had no stored data.
I texted a friend: did you ever eat the watercress soup at The Restaurant? She hadn’t. On Instagram, I still follow a couple people who worked at The Restaurant, maybe even still do, but they feel like strangers now, and I’m desperate to find the soup but not to go back in time. This isn’t so much about reminiscing on the soup so much as proving to myself it existed in the first place. Do you know that feeling? Of knowing something is real but also having no proof?
You already know the ending, because I told you: I found it. I gave up for a year and then returned to my quest and did what maybe should have obvious. I went to the food archive itself, which is to say I went to Instagram. I checked The Restaurant’s tagged photos and scrolled back to the spring of 2015. There it was. In a post with 25 likes.
Only one person ever posted a photo of the watercress soup, and it’s a slightly out-of-focus, jarringly lit one. The soup looks pretty ugly, but I like ugly food pics, especially on Instagram. The caption includes the main ingredients: watercress, truffle, honey, edible flowers, toasted walnuts, and humboldt fog. That’s more than enough info for me to recreate the soup, but that was never really the point. I just wanted some shred of evidence that the soup existed outside of my memories.
A stranger’s social media post isn’t exactly something I can hold in my hands. It still feels distant and slippery. But it’s proof, isn’t it? That at one point there was a watercress soup at a restaurant on a corner of a neighborhood I wandered around so often. That it was something other people ate, too. It’s hard to know what was real from back then. What friendships, what relationships, what words, what feelings. The watercress soup though. That was real.
Wild Cravings is a biweekly series by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about food and memory.