Yesterday afternoon I made a batch of what we (and by we I mean my mother and my great-grandfather) call taco soup. It’s an affront, probably, to the very concept of a taco. It was raining and I was in my grandmother’s house and I dumped a roughly chopped onion into a pot with a bag of Walmart brand taco seasoning and sautéed the onion in it. The house smelt of wet fiberboard, the expanding of the old wood wall paneling with moisture, the onion and taco seasoning, and the faint smell of my grandmother’s dogs, who like to sit on her screened-in porch and watch the rain. It wasn’t altogether an unspent smell. It was familiar and crisp and also warm, like the smell of fall in this house. Like many beginnings of fall that I’ve lived through in this house.
My grandmother, I discovered, had a different way of preparing the soup than me and she insisted I dump some vegetable stock in for “moisture.” I said I liked to use the liquid in the cans of green chilies and the beans I was about to dump in. This was how my mother taught me. But her father had invented the soup, she said. And this was how he did it. So I did something like deglazing with the vegetable stock, used only a tiny bit of it, to appease her. After I dumped all my beans into the pot (this is a recipe of dumping canned things into a pot and letting them mush there together) she said corn goes in, and I said no golden hominy goes in and dumped the hominy in with the black beans and the chili beans. I covered the soup and put the burner on low and left it on the stove. She went to the Dollar General to buy various packets of generic cheese shreds.
While the soup was cooking, I spent about two hours on a Zoom call with my thesis advisor. We discussed Marxist theory and my plans for my thesis and how I had gotten the citation styles all mixed up on my annotated bibliography and how the books I was looking at parallel each other and how artifice in the women’s homes manifested in the books, the apartments they had put together in Boston or New York or some other place like that. That artifice was a kind of performance of class for themselves, we decided. They used it to distance themselves from their childhood homes, which felt broken but somehow more real.
And while I was listening to my advisor discuss various things that my grandmother would have neither the desire nor the patience to listen to, I kept thinking of my pot of soup. How strange, I thought, that I had put on that soup. That I had dumped the cans into a pot. That I had made something like that, been the person who makes that sort of thing, only a few minutes ago. And now I was talking to my professor, in my grandmother’s old office, with her antique furniture as my backdrop, with the smell of the musty carpet beneath me, being the person that I am at Wesleyan, which is a different person entirely from the person who makes soup.
When I got out of my meeting the soup was done. It was still raining. My grandmother had come home with all of her cheeses and she had dumped the remainder of the vegetable stock into the pot. The kitchen smelled good and familiar, even though the soup was different. I scooped the taco soup into a bowl and crunched a handful of Doritos over it (a culinary sin, I’m sure) and squirted it with lime juice, and ate it like a man possessed.
This oscillation between these two places is jarring. My grandmother’s house, where I cook different types of bean soup, and Wesleyan, where I wore button-down shirts and wireframe glasses and ate cold marinated tofu and discussed Marx and Hegel. At Wesleyan, home is a memory. It’s a place to be recanted and traced over and theorized about. The way people live “back there.” It is a place fixed in time. My grandmother’s house, the wood paneling, the smell of fall, the way one makes the taco soup are all immovable points, necessary and true as though they were written down in one of the books I’m thinking over for my thesis. The me that I am here, old me (as I think about her) is also fixed in time.
Now that I am here, now that I am moving constantly between the two spaces and exist perpetually between them, I must approach this house again as a fluid thing. I must come in contact again with the person I am here, and reconcile her to the person I am when I sit down at a Zoom meeting. The recipe for taco soup is not a fixed point. It is changing. Just the way that my grandmother’s house has changed. The way she has changed. The way I have changed.
I expect that, for remote students, the problem that I am facing now, of being two people at once, of coming in contact with an old self, one who I thought that I had left behind, back “home” is not altogether unfamiliar. Some of the discomfort of being a Wesleyan student from home is that when you are there, in those old and important-looking buildings, you feel as though you belong there. Belonging there is also what takes you away from your old self. Perhaps it is even what makes you better than your old self, and the people and places you’ve separated yourself from. Staying home during the semester means existing in that grey area, between two spaces, two versions of yourself. It is unsettling sometimes. Unnerving and difficult. But it can also be a good thing. It can give you the opportunity to improve your recipe for taco soup.
Katie Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.