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Is soup a meal?

George, Bania, and Jerry in the Seinfeld episode "The Soup"
George, Bania, and Jerry in the Seinfeld episode "The Soup"

Sean O’Neal: “Soup’s not a meal!” So says Seinfeld’s Kenny Bania, who, although annoying about a great many things, has a point in the ongoing ideological war over whether soup counts as a satisfying repast unto itself or is little more than a glorified beverage poured into a fancy bowl. It’s an argument we’ve been having for a while now here at The A.V. Club, where every week we take a Slack poll on what to order for lunch at our Thursday editorial meeting, somebody nominates Soupbox, and then we watch—some more gleefully than others—as it gets trounced by other, actual food. At least here, the popular vote still counts for something: Nobody wants to eat soup for lunch, you guys. No one here is convalescing from gallbladder surgery; none of us are 80-year-olds hiding our hot plates from the nurses. Our guts are pink and youngish. We don’t need a pre-masticated slurry to pour down them. Therefore, when it comes to soup, most of the staff sides with Bania. Soup is not a meal.

Nevertheless, the soup eaters persisted.

So let’s have this out, once and for all, right here on the lawn in front of the commenters. Soup is a course. Soup is not a meal. Even Jerry, Bania’s adversary, has to acknowledge that the soup constitutes a meal only in the conceptual sense. It’s the mere act of sitting down with him that counts. And even when Elaine attempts to play Jerry’s advocate, suggesting he could make a case for “hearty” soups like chicken gumbo or mushroom barley (soups that, by the way, are really more like stews or rice dishes), even she has to bring in crackers as a way of making it just barely qualify, much like chefs will add an entire loaf of bread cut into a bowl.

Let me just say up front that I have nothing against soup. Soup is perfectly fine; it is, often, delicious. As an accompaniment to a sandwich or as a prelude to an actual meal, it can be pretty satisfying, even. But there’s a reason soup gets its own section on the menu, quarantined from the entrees, and why it’s so blithely tossed on as a soup-or-salad addendum. Nobody wants just soup. Soup is not a meal, which is why soup will always lose. Seriously, what’s with you guys and soup?

Vichyssoise (Photo: Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

Caity PenzeyMoog: Sean, I see your second-most famous Seinfeld soup episode and raise you the first-most famous episode: “The Soup Nazi,” where Jerry asks George if he can “come with us for lunch to the soup place” (emphasis mine). Soup definitely counts as a full meal in this episode, without any crackers or bread in sight. That’s because Jerry, George, et al. understand that good soup is worth savoring, and really good soup is worth following the Soup Nazi’s draconian rules.

The reason Soupbox loses every week isn’t because it’s not a meal. It’s because we’re getting a free lunch on the company dime, and Thai food or fancy sandwiches are a more expensive indulgence. It’s a desire to take full advantage of the perk, not a dismissal of soup. And look, the fact that some restaurants serve soup as a course doesn’t have anything to do with the price of butter. Restaurants also serve comically enormous proportions and pack thousands of calories into pasta, but we don’t set our homemade meals by those outlandish standards, do we?

And if soup is only for retirees and those recovering from surgery, riddle me this: Would roast chicken served alongside a vegetable hash and noodles be considered a proper lunch? Because soup isn’t just hot water and salt. The humble chicken noodle soup combines all those separate ingredients into a dish that is more than the sum of its parts, because it melds all those flavors.

Chicken noodle soup (Photo: Robert Gauthier/Getty Images)

That’s not to mention the vegetable base (called a mirepoix) that forms the foundation of most homemade and restaurant-made soups and adds even more flavor. It’s a combination of onions, celery, and carrots, usually with herbs added in, sometimes (for meat soups) with the addition of ham or bacon. These vegetables are “sweated,” thereby drawing out their deep, delicious tastiness. The other soup base is a stock created from leftover meat scraps and bones, and this reduction is a umami-bursting marvel. And again, that’s just the base.

My point is that the surface flavors you get in soup rest on the bed of so much more additional flavor than the average dish. In our many heated discussions, Danette has argued that a soup’s components are better isolated, arguing that a tomato basil soup, for example, would be better as a caprese sandwich. But again, tomato basil soup isn’t just tomatoes, basil, and water. That would be disgusting. It is so much more—more, indeed, than a caprese sandwich could possibly hope to be.

(Just to clarify, I’m talking about homemade soup here—not the canned stuff. Canned soup is to soup what TV dinners are to turkey and mashed potatoes. It’s the instant coffee version, the space ice cream version. It’s bastardized soup, and I will never defend that overpriced, sodium-saturated crap.)

A bowl of butternut squash soup that looks like a nice lunch for a cold day (Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/Getty Images)

And while soup might lose every week here in this office, the fact is, lots of people agree with me. I worked as a sous chef for a year in a restaurant where folks would come in solely because we were serving our lobster bisque; our other daily specials included a savory butternut squash soup and a thick curried tomato soup. I also worked as a cook at a dude ranch, where I got requests for my beef and barley recipe—which was the whole lunch. My father, a chef in Milwaukee, regularly serves his mulligatawny as an entree. My brother-in-law’s new restaurant here in Chicago offers a tonkotsu ramen and a vegan ramen—the Japanese (and superior) version of America’s chicken noodle soup.

Also, I’m not sure where you’re drawing the line between soup and stew. I think of stews as larger chunks of meat and potatoes, with the liquid reduced to a thick sauce—but still, that’s on the thick end of the soup spectrum. And if you’re okay with stews as meals unto themselves, but soup is incomplete, then why does stew also come with bread? I submit that it’s because soup (and stew) enhances the bread, not the other way around. Bread is just a sponge to soak up the soup—a bowl-to-mouth delivery device, but not a crucial component.

An appetizing bowl of pho (Photo: Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Danette, you’re always on Sean’s side in The A.V. Club’s great soup debate. What have you got against soup? How did soup hurt you? Have you ever had a steaming bowl of pho on a cold Chicago day or ordered vichyssoise when it’s sweltering outside?

Danette Chavez: I grew up in a “clean your plate” household, so I first have to acknowledge how incredibly lucky I am now to be so picky about just what constitutes a satisfying meal, let alone a tasty one. (That could be why I’m always prepared to splurge when it comes to the staff lunch.) I feel guilty about deriding any meals. And I would feel that way about soup, if it were one.

Caity, you and I have often debated food in the break room, and as a former chef, you have every right to sneer at my own culinary skills. Even I admit that my own cuisine is mostly made up of what could charitably be described as “pregnancy cravings”: tomatoes on peanut butter, mustard on anything, and—if we’re not already full on Seinfeld references—dip for dinner. I always know what flavors I’m in the mood for, but I don’t have much of a game plan. I just kind of throw things together in a MacGyver fashion and hope for the best. In my eyes, this is how soups are made—just throwing a bunch of things into a pot—and it’s probably why I don’t have much respect for them. My serrano ham on cinnamon raisin toast works as convenient filler, but I wouldn’t call it a meal.

You can also throw ham on soup! (Photo: Chris So/Getty Images)

I know, I know. There’s more thought that goes into it than that. And yeah, yeah, stews and pho—even sancocho—are a lot more complex and filling, though I feel like arguing over what constitutes a ”soup” is a separate debate. All I know is that if most restaurants are going to hedge their bets on soup by having a half sandwich or bread basket at the ready, then I’m going to mirror that attitude and agree with Sean. Soup is fine, but it’s a course or a side. And it’s not something I want to tuck into at lunch.

Kevin, you’re our food editor, so you’re probably the most qualified to weigh in on this. What are your expert opinions on soup?

Kevin Pang: My stance on soup is shaped by my worldview about food at large. I’ve been lucky to eat my way around the globe, and many of my fondest food memories involve some damn delicious bowls of soups. And I think that the debate over what, exactly, constitutes soup is actually a pertinent one. Would gumbo be considered soup? What about wonton soup? How about pho or ramen? (And if you argue that ramen isn’t soup because of its inclusion of noodles—something I’ve heard you say, Sean—then what of chicken noodle soup?) Personally, my definition of soup is rather broad: Any liquid-based dish that’s consumed with a spoon I’d consider to be soup.

Hey, that tortilla soup looks good. (Photo: Charlotte Observer/Getty Images)

Under those parameters, yes, soup is a meal—and a filling one at that. Even traditional, no-doubt-about-it soups—chicken wild rice, clam chowder, tomato bisque—are worthy enough to stand alone. One of my favorite things to do with a rotisserie chicken carcass is to throw it in a stock pot of water with carrots, celeries, and onions. Three hours later, I get chicken broth that’s leagues better than the canned stuff. (Same idea with Thanksgiving; I’d rather have the turkey carcass than the actual bird.) At home, we always have at least a half-dozen quarts of homemade chicken broth in the freezer, ready to be turned into soup at a moment’s notice.

Sean and Danette, I’m not suggesting that you’ve never had really good soup, but just so you know, with this homemade broth, we can make killer chicken tortilla, Greek chicken-lemon soup, cream of mushroom… the list goes on. They’re so rich and satisfying that we invariably return for second and third bowls, and then we’re too full for anything else. So I’ll agree that maybe mediocre soups don’t make a proper meal. But with truly great soups, I’d happily have it for dinner every night.

Sean: All right, you’ve all made salient, occasionally incorrect points (the Soup Nazi absolutely does serve bread, Caity—except to those who annoy him, because he recognizes its absence as a slight). But overall, you’ve convinced me. I will concede that there are certain varieties of soup—generally the kind laden with chunks of meat and grains—that can, perhaps, be just as satisfying as a dish where those components are laid out in non-slurry form, provided you eat enough servings of it and also maybe have some crackers or a sourdough loaf on the side.

So if you want to suggest it for lunch again next week, who knows. Perhaps your words here today will have touched the hearts of the anti-soup bloc, and your votes will finally carry! Unless, of course, it’s up against literally anything else.