12/11/10, Noah’s Compass and Asparagus Soup

Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.

Robert Kennedy

Monday was 8/9/10. Uncommon occurrences like this give me a little thrill.

When I told my daughter about it she was disappointed not to be in school,  where she could have somehow put it to good use. “Oh but at least we’ll have school for 12/11/1o!”, she quickly recovered.

I won’t tell her just yet that it falls on a Saturday.

A little later in the day it hit me that 12/11/10 should have been a big day of celebration in my life, beyond the descending ordinal numbers. It would have been my father’s 80th birthday.

My father was an orphan by the time he was 15. In his ninth year, he suffered silently while his mother lie dying in their small New York apartment. After my own mother passed away, he shared a poignant story with me, for the first time.

It was the day of his fourth grade play, there had been a lot of rehearsals and excitement leading up to it. His classmates were thrilled to perform for an audience. From the stage, he scanned the seats filled with beaming parents, hoping maybe someone had been able to come to watch and applaud for him. He was alone.

When he got home from school that day, he was met in front of his apartment building by an aunt who told him not to go inside.

His mother had died.

My young father took off running, aimlessly, as an uncle chased after him. When his uncle finally caught up, he took him to a relative’s apartment a few blocks away for a while. Away from the sadness.

My grandfather felt he was unable to raise his two sons on his own. He worked nights and wouldn’t be available to a 9 and 4 year old in the way they needed. The boys were split up and lived with different relatives until they were adults. For my father it was like musical homes. Times were tough and everyone was struggling financially so some family members could only keep him for a few months at a time. Some were very receptive to sharing their homes with them, others felt it was a burden. My father heard many a heated ‘discussion’ over whose home he’d live in next. He took it all in and it festered within.

My father carried it all with him always. “Children didn’t get counseling in those years when they experienced such tragedy,” he told me. He punished himself, even as an adult for the suffering he experienced, always remembering it with the pain of the child he was.

In his late twenties, he was rescued by my mom. They met at a singles weekend in the Catskills. She, the epitome of maternal caregiver, a school teacher, found the perfect fit with this man so desperately in need of nurturing. Dad won her over with his fantastic dry wit, his bag of tricks he always relied upon to get the approval of others.

Over the years Dad often spoke of regrets. He was by far the most wise and intelligent person I’ve known, but wasn’t able to go to college because he had to work from a young age. He went into his uncle’s business for practical reasons and never had the opportunity to even attempt to live out his dream of becoming an architect. He’d share this with me while doodling well crafted graphic designs next to the newspaper crossword puzzle at our kitchen table. I felt his void so deeply.

The years of stress and self punishment along with working in a business that was simply a way to pay the bills, took a serious toll on his health. As he got older, I found myself mothering him as my mom had done. He lost his mother as a child and found her in my mother and myself.

It’s appropriate that this came to mind today, the day I planned to share a book with you I recently read; Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass.

The main character in this novel is Liam Pennywell, a 61 year old divorced father of three, settling into his later years, reflecting upon a life misspent. He became a widower in his twenties when his wife died, leaving him alone to care for their infant daughter. Liam had studied philosophy in college but out of necessity went into teaching high school history. He did what was necessary and practical in his mind. He marries again and goes on to have two more children with his second wife, they later divorce.

We meet him after he has been laid off from his most recent incarnation and career setback as a fifth grade teacher at an all boys school. He has been let go due to downsizing and accepts it as the push into the last stage of his life. He moves into a smaller apartment to accommodate his new financial situation. The first night there, the apartment is burglarized and he is attacked. This leaves him with no memory from when he went to sleep that night until he wakes up in the hospital.

The next part of his journey has Liam struggling with this new great loss in his life. He meets Eunice, a significantly younger, frumpy woman, who works as an assistant and caregiver to an elderly businessman suffering from memory loss. She calls herself his “external hard drive”. Liam and Eunice are drawn together by the individual needs and voids in their lives. He, in search of a caregiver is ever so attentive to her every word and thought. She, lost and lonely and searching for the connection with someone who truly listens to and needs her.

Liam is surrounded by women in his life; his second wife and daughters, who become frustrated by his detachment and each in their own way mother him. All but his youngest daughter who on some level gets him and relates to him.

I always “got” my father in a way most didn’t. He once told me he felt I was the most like him. In many ways that’s a great thing and in some, it’s an aspect of who I am that I am working to improve and grow.

I didn’t love this book because of an exceptional story. I loved this book because of an exceptional character. A character who because of some of his similarities to my own father, allowed me to see the texture of his unshaven face and feel the sadness as he would sit alone in a room or struggled with his failed memory. I connected with Liam, not as an equal but as someone I knew in a different way. Someone I loved and someone I wish had the chance to have had more fulfillment in his own life.

There is a scene in the book where Liam and his daughter Kitty share a can of cream of asparagus soup. Kitty adds some milk and crackers to it and creates a bit of a bowl of mush. I inherited my soup loving gene from my father and we shared many a can together over the years. When I finished the book I was left with a craving for asparagus soup. I was lucky to find this recipe by Emeril which is absolutely delicious and a far cry from any canned version.


  • 3 pounds fresh asparagus, rinsed
  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup minced shallots
  • 1 cup minced leeks, whites only, well rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan, garnish


Trim the attractive top tips from the asparagus, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Cut the woody stem ends from each spear and reserve. Cut the remaining tender stalks into 1/2-inch pieces.

In a medium pot, bring the stock to a boil. Add the tough woody stems, lower the heat and simmer to infuse with asparagus flavor, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and discard, reserving the stock.

Add the decorative tips to the stock and blanch until tender, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Remove with a strainer and refresh in an ice water bath. Drain on paper towels and reserve for the garnish. Reserve the stock.

In a medium stockpot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. When foamy, add the shallots and leeks and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chopped asparagus stalks, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the reserved broth and simmer until the asparagus are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.

With a hand-immersion blender or in batches in a food processor, puree the soup until smooth. Adjust the seasoning, to taste. If serving right away, return to medium heat and add the cream and reserved asparagus tips. Cook, stirring, until the soup is warmed through, about 3 minutes.

Alternatively, if serving the soup later, do not add the cream and let cool at room temperature (or in an ice water bath). Cover and refrigerate. Before serving, add the cream and asparagus tips, and warm the soup gently over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

To serve, place the soup in a soup tureen and sprinkle with cheese. Ladle into demi-tasse cups or small coffee or tea cups, and serve.

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6 Responses to 12/11/10, Noah’s Compass and Asparagus Soup

  1. I cried after I read your story.

  2. This is beautifully written, thank you for sharing. Sounds like despite a lot of hardship, your dad rose above it and grew up to be a caring, generous person, and that’s inspiring. This makes me feel lucky for the freedom I’ve had to pursue my passions.

    • cookbookapprentice says:

      Thank you so much Louisa. He certainly did. He was the most loving, caring father, husband and grandfather. Always my inspiration on so many levels. I’m forever driven to pursue my dreams for both of us.

  3. Chef Dennis says:

    thank you for sharing so much about yourself with us, It was a very well written story about your family……. Your father sounds like he was a remarkable man.

  4. Sophie says:

    What a touching story about your family. I am so moved by it.

    That green asparagus & leek soup makes me smile!

    MMMMMMMMM,…!! Kisses from Brussels!

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