There are twenty food outlets in the Leiria Shopping Centre on Portugal’s Silver Coast. Nineteen of them sell food. One sells soup. When I was there the other day the soup place was the only one getting any action.
I can’t say it was fun action. A queue of maybe two dozen elegantly dressed women was waiting to buy the stuff. They had pale and wan faces and a look of vague hunger in their eyes like they knew their appetites were unlikely to be satisfied in this lifetime. Their demand was demure but intense and I could see the soup caddies working up a sweat as they ladled the slop out into shallow white bowls.
Next door at the Leitão com Pão (suckling pig with bread) things were moving at a more convivial pace. Two men in tan-coloured jackets leaned comfortably on the counter while a large and jovial woman poured them beers. She had a ruddy country look on her as if she had spent a lifetime slapping pig cheeks and tossing hay bales about before going indoors to rule over farmhouse ovens stuffed with hot bread and golden meat pies.
Of course it is just as likely that she lives alone in a tower block with a limp poinsettia left over from last Christmas, but I prefer my version. She looked like the kind of person I would put in charge of my food any day, someone who understands that most men don’t ask for much more than a slab of meat in a piece of bread and a cold beer to wash the whole thing down. Chuck in a bit of chilli sauce and easy access to the remote and we’re pretty much sorted.
At the Leiria soup counter there was not much palpable contentment going on. The ladies that sip lunch were forking out €5.80 for a tray of soup, crêpe and a salad. I have no idea where the crêpe fits in with this particular meal concept but it was there, not creamed, not topped, not sugared, just there. I can’t even speak about the insanity of the side order of salad without reaching for my horse sedative.
It’s not soup itself I have a problem with. Soup, like bed socks, is an ugly but inevitable thing and I guess our time with it will come. It is the stuff we turn to when our bodies will take nothing else, stuff that is handed out to those who have nothing else, and stuff that is drunk by those who are determined to eat nothing else until they have shifted a few pounds. Soup is there to be endured, not sold.
The faces on those elegant ladies said it all – to be slim and elegant is to eat soup and know pain. Personally I’d choose to spend my lunch break burning off some calories in as pleasurable a way as is legal for that time of day and then to slam down a beer and steak sandwich in the ten minutes I have left. But that’s just me. I do soup because it gets the five-a-day out of the way and leaves me guilt-free to eat whatever I want the rest of the day. It has to have been a bad, bad night the night before for me to drink it for any other reason.
My time with the soup will come, I know, and then it will just be me and the soup and a vague memory of elegant ladies and lunchtime pleasures while people push trolleys down the hall outside. Until then I’m sticking with the meat and beer.