A Soffritto Story
I hate food, is the biggest lie I could ever tell. No, never. I really just hate the costs of food. I’m a full-time student, a part-time worker, and a new “adult” with all the responsibilities that come with the title. Being fully independent for the first time in my life this year, I’m confronted with the realities of budgeting. If I’m being honest, I’ve managed my spreadsheets poorly. Not at all really. With the measly 24 hours we get in a day, sitting down to update my budgeting seems trivial. This avoidance, de-prioritization might just be a mask for my true fear of discovering an overarching and blatantly obvious truth: I don’t have any money.
A tight timeline and an even tighter budget have elicited a number of visits to the free student food pantry for me. On top of the one allotted protein, canned item, and grain per person, the pantry offers a myriad of grocery ‘freebies’. These items are supplied by supermarket donations consisting of imperfect foods and items on the verge of expiration that can no longer be sold in store. Food waste is turned to food assurance for those facing insecurity. For this reason, I am grateful for the byproduct of a perfection-driven capitalistic food culture that has mercifully filled my fridge.
Among the unpredictable variety of produce and fare I receive at the food pantry, there are always three constants: onions, carrots, and celery. This culinary combination is disguised under different aliases: mirepoix, soffritto, sofrito, suppengrün, pinçage, and I’m sure, many more. As an amateur, self-taught cook, I had no idea what mirepoix was. I did, however, know what dishes like Bolognese, Japanese mince-meat curry, mixed vegetable soup, Japanese fried-rice, and Jambalaya were. The same could be said about the millions of chefs-in-their-own-right that are out there in the world, knowing the dishes but not the name of their culinary foundation. It took a year of living away from home, hours of Pinterest scrolling, and multiple visits to the student food pantry for me to realize that the most delicious and familiar dishes are all thanks to the mirepoix. These three humble vegetables-turned soffritto are the base of various exquisite and ethnic dishes that span all cultures and economic classes. With a multicultural background and both experiences of economic security and insecurity, the mirepoix has been subconsciously, and now consciously, a core of my life.
So, here, I wanted to impart to you my mirepoix memoir, a soffritto story.
My lower back aches from the hours at my desk on Zoom classes and ankles and knees are sore from a 6-hour shift. Nonetheless, my body is unwavered in the brace of my electric stove top. I’m overcome with exhaustion and hunger, but mostly a looming sensation of anxious nausea. Out of all the things I have to do in a day, I try not to make cooking another task. Easier said than done. But the truth is simple—tired work anxiety can’t really be negotiated these days, but hunger is always curable with a home-cooked meal.
So, time to cook. I’m making my mom’s Bolognese meat sauce, vegetarian version.
I peer into my fridge, the yellow light illuminating our unusually full array of foods. Methodically, I grab the large stalk of celery, some broken carrots rods, and the pack of Beyond ground meat I splurged $10 on at Trader Joe’s. Taking a few steps to the pantry cupboard, I quickly grab some cans of diced tomatoes, a couple onions, and spices. I spend at least 20 minutes finely mincing first the celery, then the peeled carrots, and finally the onions. I miss my mom’s food processor. Switching back and forth between standing on my left and right foot, I mindlessly pop my knees one after the other to relieve the pressure. The mincing is oddly a moment of serenity—a mundane task with no thoughts, only the sounds of the crunching vegetables to keep me company.
Food prep finished, I start sautéing the onions, and add the carrots and celery. I’m mesmerized by the glowing swirls of orange, green, and white. The pot is a pixelated abstract painting, bursting with complimentary colors. Just as quickly as the art show came together, the vegetables released their cool, aromatic steam that consumes my kitchen. Although standing in my compact, dim-lit apartment, the scent instantly transports me to my parents’ house. I don’t feel my sore body. Rather, I feel myself moseying out of my bedroom and creaking up the stairs, the smell of food drawing me out of my comfortable room. The same warming scent of onion, carrots, and celery fill the halls. “Mmmmm, it smells good, what’s for dinner?” is my usual catch phrase. Judging by the smell, the final dish could be any one of my mom’s signatures: Bolognese, Japanese mince-meat curry, tomato vegetable soup, or Japanese fried rice. Any answer was a good answer. For me, soffritto invites curiosity and invokes eagerness for an unknown meal with certain satisfaction.
Before my mom can reply, my mind returns to reality. I nearly stir the bright colors to muddled caramel brown, not typically desired in mirepoix. I hurriedly place the mixture aside in a separate bowl and reheat the pot to start browning the meat. Aware of the time left in the night to complete assignments, send emails, and finish readings, I don’t linger on the other steps. I know this recipe like the back of my hand, somehow picking it up naturally over the months and years of my mom making it. The ingredients have never been measured for me either; it’s just a feeling. I quickly mix together the rest of the ingredients and start to let the sauce simmer.
Waiting for the sauce to thicken, I try to sit back at my desk for work. My mind drifts with the lingering soffritto aroma. My work anxiety dissipates, replaced by pride in my Bolognese recreation. I’m hungry for pasta and continue to contemplate my magic mirepoix moment that brought me back home. It was a soffritto epiphany that reminded me that the best and most diverse dishes are derived from the same three humble ingredients. Suddenly, I can imagine of all the royal cooks, home-chefs, and foodies before me who must have experienced the same enveloping soffritto aroma. Alone with the inescapable smell of home, I am simultaneously surrounded by all the dishes and all the people connected to the mirepoix. Onion, celery, and carrots are ingredients not subject to change in smell, taste, or texture—they are eternal constants in our culinary world. The mirepoix connects generations, economic class, and global cultures. Now, the mirepoix connects me to the present, a singular Bolognese moment. It also connects me to my mom, my past, and all of our home meals. And it also connects me to the diverse, versatile world of historical and cultural cuisine. Mirepoix is the epitome of food’s connective capacity. The taste and smell of onions, celery, and carrots mean the same thing across all languages—food is love.
Tonight, I already knew what I was making, but the scent of the soffritto is still reminiscent of endless possibility. No matter what you make out of the threesome, no matter how the recipes change, the base will always stay the same. And, proudly holding my plate of rigatoni Bolognese, I smile in the peace and power of the culinary arsenal that my mom gifted to me.
This is my mirepoix memoir, but really, the soffritto story will forever and always be ours.
I have included two recipes (Joyce’s Meat Sauce Bolognese and Joyce’s Japanese Mince Meat Curry) that are very special to me. I hope the smells of soffritto remind you of something or someone, if not, then simply the joys of heartwarming food.
Grace Miyoshi (she/her)
Grace is a student at the University of Oregon, studying in the School of Journalism and Communication, and an aspiring blog writer, documenting the connective powers of food and fashion. Her first love was and is food; she will continue to spread the joys and love of food through cooking, writing, and connecting.