I had my first cullen skink the other day.
I felt a little as dear M. Jourdain must have felt when he learned he’d been speaking prose all his life, for I’ve had many a chowder in my time that’s come within a ace of skink, had I but known it. Finnan haddie, potatoes, onions, milk or cream. But the name! A delicious mouthful all on its own. Cullen’s a town pretty much in the top right-hand corner of Scotland, and skink, well that’s a Scottish word originally for a shin of beef but later generalized to mean a soup. (It’s also a lizard and a Canadian WWII anti-aircraft armoured vehicle, neither of which is the sort of skink you want on a cold winter night.)
Soup. The very word is bound up with the notion of food and eating, which is to say “supping” or, more contemporaneously, having “supper.” And no wonder: it’s the very marriage of flavours, catholic in its contents, and open to anyone to make — and take, come to that. Soup, like wine, is an apotheosis of water.
And the Scottish skink isn’t the only soup with a name to savour as you eat it. There’s mulligatawny, for example, guaranteed to warm you up, and the soup’s spicy too. It is, after all, essentially Tamil for pepper water: miḷaku tannir [மிளகு தண்ணீர்]. Callaloo, which sounds like a call to supper, is more of a stew, perhaps, or a gravy, at least in Trinidad and Tobago, where it’s made from the leaves of the taro plant. And then there’s snert, which has my vote for the unloveliest name in the soup category. But it’s only Dutch pea soup by another name (which, I gather, can also mean “useless”), and lovely in fact.
Finally we come to my Waterloo — soupwise that is: menudo, sadly a menu-no for me. Not because of the pig’s foot. Not at all. And certainly not because of the chili paste. And all despite its reputation as a superior hangover remedy. No, it’s because of the tripe. There are two things that I, the omnivore, will balk at: bêche de mer, and tripe. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking: How could he pass up such a delicious delicacy? He can talk tripe all right but when it come to him on a plate . . .
By the way, the title of this fillip, “Soup of the evening, Beautiful Soup,” is from a song sung by the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland. And, as Alice learns, a mock turtle is what mock turtle soup is made of — that and a cow’s head (but no tripe).