Soup Course with Governor Michael Dukakis

Photo by Michael Piazza

I’ve always been a big rotisserie chicken soup guy,” says Michael Dukakis, even before I sit down in his ninth-floor office at Northeastern University, where a spectacular view of the city extends out the window beyond his shoulder.

I suspect the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, who has been teaching political science at Northeastern for 25 years, does not open every conversation with a reporter talking about soup. But I am here to talk about just that. Specifically, turkey soup.

Last November Boston Globe political reporter Matt Viser wrote an article about Dukakis’ habit of collecting turkey carcasses from friends after Thanksgiving to make soup. In it, the politician-turned-academic gave out his Brookline address, in case any readers were moved to deliver the remains of their own holiday birds. They were. After the story ran, Dukakis received 26 carcasses at his door, and one in the mail.

“I never got a greater response to a story,” he says. He froze about six for future use and used the rest to make soup that he brought to a senior center in Brookline and to Community Servings in Boston.

“The Globe story developed when Matt Viser… asked our oldest grandchild, who is a producer for ABC News in Washington, if we had any special customs in our family at Thanksgiving,” Dukakis wrote to me before we met. “She told him that her ‘papou’ had a habit of calling some of his friends and asking them to drop their turkey carcasses off if they weren’t going to use them because we and particularly our eight grandkids love turkey soup.”

Dukakis and his wife usually host a family Thanksgiving, he tells me in his office. With the grandchildren ranging in age from 6 to 27, not all of them make it for the holiday meal any more. But those who do still love their papou’s soup— “even the finickiest,” he says.

At the time of our meeting, Dukakis has just returned from the Democratic National Convention. At 82, he teaches a full course load of graduate and undergraduate courses at Northeastern every spring, summer and fall semester; he spends winters teaching at UCLA. In the front of his Brookline home he maintains a vegetable garden, where he grows tomatoes and cucumbers—“I like Greek salad”—and raspberries that started from rootings he got from a neighbor.

Asked whether he ever has any help making the soup—is it a communal affair, I’m wondering—he looks at me like maybe I don’t know my way around a kitchen. “You take a carcass, you stick it in a pot. You throw in an onion. [Later], you take out the bones; you throw in some rice or pasta. And you’ve got a bunch of great meals.”

The recipe, such as it is, comes from Dukakis’ mother who, he says, “was a wonderful cook.” Growing up the son of Greek immigrants, he learned never to waste food. The lesson stuck. “I’ve always hated waste,” Dukakis says. “I couldn’t stand waste in the public sector. We never throw out food. That’s a no-no.”

An accomplished cook herself, his wife, Kitty, stepped away from the kitchen after her children were grown. Faced with a choice to cook or go hungry, Dukakis chose the former. “Despite my wife’s unilateral declaration of independence, it’s been kind of fun.” Sounding like he would be pretty happy on a steady diet of soup, salad (from his garden in season) and bread, which he makes about twice a week, he rounds out the menu with pasta and stews.

“I’ve had a bread machine for 25 years and haven’t bought a loaf of bread at the store [since],” he says. He buys bread flour—$7 for 25 pounds—and yeast at Costco. “I [always] have a big sack of bread flour in my basement. Nothing’s better than a fresh loaf of bread,” he says, adding that his grandchildren love that with his soup—maybe as much as he does.

They love his pancakes and waffles, too, a Sunday morning tradition “forever… Kitty and I had two fundamental rules,” he says: “Dinner at home at 6:00 at night and no politics on Sunday.” After he made breakfast, “then we’d do something interesting as a family.”

The man known for his frugality is a “huge Costco fan. The quality as well as the price is so dramatically better. Every three weeks Kitty and I go to Costco…. Keep it simple,” he says. “Good, fresh ingredients. You can eat surprising well and economically.”

Gearing up for Thanksgiving, Dukakis is prepared for another surfeit of turkey carcasses. Feigning resignation, he smiles, “I won’t discourage them.”