Thomas Swearing satisfies appetites with soup
A warm fix for hunger or sickness, soup is traditionally made on a Saturday night but can be enjoyed any day of the week as an appetizer or main course for lunch or dinner.
With every pot signature to each culinary maker, the custom has been passed on from generation to generation, with cups, bowls, and pots of this delicious delight crossing paths in households on special occasions like birthdays, weddings, and funerals or at food stands on specific street corners.
I made a stop on Arnold Road in the early afternoon at one the most famous soup stands in Kingston. My objective: get a cup of much-needed soup.
The truth is, I was no stranger to this pot’s incredible taste, but I usually made visits in the night while in the company of others who did all the ordering on my behalf. I, however, had no idea who the chef was. As I attempted to cross the street, one side and then the other, as is the rubric in the city, I was met with the shocking sounds of a ‘yeng yeng’ bike that appeared out of nowhere, racing down the road in my direction. I stopped dead in my tracks, only to hear the echoes of a man cursing on the sidewalk for the biker to stop and let the woman cross. It didn’t. He then went on to say that he had no clue what was going on in the minds of these young boys today but that this was not a good look, and if he had ever hit me, he would’ve learned that he could never ride by here again. He then walked towards me, asked if I was okay, and offered his assistance, as others in agreement, chided the biker.
I wasn’t sure what impressed me more: escaping this accident in a matter of seconds or seeing the great defence from those in the community on amazing display. Leading the charge in gallantry and chivalry, I later discovered, was the soup man I was looking for.
FIFTY YEARS MAKING SOUP
Thomas Swearing, who goes by the name ‘Real Life’, has been making soup for almost 50 years. He attributes this successful milestone in the business to his genuine love for food and seeing the joy on people’s faces when they begin looking at the world as a ‘cupful’. He explained how his culinary journey began: “While working back in the day, my boss fell in bankruptcy. I was paid off and had nothing to do. One day, while in bed, the idea came to me that I should sell soup.”
From there, the dream became a vibrant reality of him setting up shop at various places and events over the years. He made mention of House of Leo, Student Union at The University of the West Indies, Mona campus, Harbour View, Ray Town, Mirage, Tiffany, and Sovereign Centre, among others. Today, he is the ‘King of Soups’ on Arnold Road. “When you come pon Arnold Road, you affi get a Real Life soup,” he shared with great pride.
Living a mere stone’s throw away from his stand, this pillar of the community rises from 4 a.m. and gets his pot ready for the road either half an hour or an hour later. The secret, however, lies within prepping from the night before. He washes the meat with vinegar and salt and seasonings beforehand. He is out and about by mid-morning to catch the early lunchtime crowd.
The supporting roles of Irish potato, yam, breadfruit, dumpling, turnip, carrot, scallion, thyme, and sometimes squash, working in creative harmony with the leading meats, makes Real Life’s soup more than just a bellyful. It becomes a moment, a story told with each sip or spoonful, or for those who pull up to the curb and indulge then and there, an opportunity to unwind, have a conversation, and create memories.
The chef offers an impressive line of menu offerings, ranging from cow cod with cow skin soup, cow skin with beef and red peas soup to mannish water and fish tea. He also has his culinary way with roast fish, jerk chicken, and curried goat, which he prepares either on the weekends or on special occasions. He serves what he calls ‘walk foot’ customers as well as drivers from just about everywhere. “Is mostly police and soldiers support me. They love the soup bad! Man all leave from August Town to come here and buy soup, saying him sticking to the evil weh him know. I even see people come here and throw away the soups that they carry with them just to buy from Real Life,” he said.
Foreigners have visited him regularly, requesting filled igloos of his soup and are willing to pay his price for the boiling goodness. And they weren’t fooling around, and I can see why. The rich flavours and comfort of a home-cooked meal all in one cup of soup? The proof is truly in the taste.
Since the global COVID-19 pandemic, he has seen a decrease in soup sales and was faced with no choice but to cut back on his usual cooking amount, “I have to start cooking half of the pot because things have been slow. People working from home and schoolers and teachers aren’t out like they used to be,” Real Life confessed. But he is still receiving support, especially from those in the community. For this, he is grateful.
I watched as Real Life delivered on the many specific orders made, creating his own drive-through and ‘pick up window’, and effortlessly diffusing the crowd. His greeting was as warm as the soup his customers were receiving. Nothing, however, topped the surrounding energy — the tooting of horns and calls of ‘Real Life’ from passers-by were always answered with “Inna Real life!” and a vibrant smile to match from the man himself. That was it for me.
So if you’re ever on Arnold Road, you have to grab a cup of Real Life Soup. Your tastebuds will thank you.