Thursday, October 11, 2007

Simple Polish Soup

A couple of days ago I got a Recipe Chain e-Letter. Don't ask me to explain how it works. It was so complicated that I was going to just delete the thing, but when I told Marty Williams that's what I was going to do, he said, "Just write out a simple recipe and send it to Tania Rochelle and be done with it."

I like Tania. She's a good person and a good poet, so I said I would.

Here's the recipe I sent her:

Hi, Tania,

I'm no good at cooking, so I can't vouch for anything I say about recipes or food or putting stuff on the table. I commuted for 8 years, was away from my wife for 2-3-4 days at a time, made my own food and everyday I ate the same thing, a micro waved veggie burger and a can of Progresso minestrone soup.

Having said that, let me say that the following is a real recipe.

Here it goes:

When my mother was in her late 70s, she couldn't cook for herself any more. Her heart and her back had both given out, and she couldn't stand for more than a minute or two. When you can't stand, you can't cook.

She started having her meals brought in by a charitable organization in Sun City, Arizona, where she lived after my dad died. This food was pretty miserable: Salisbury Steaks, tuna salad sandwiches, little cups of salad, vanilla cup cakes--stuff like that, five days a week. They would bring a white bag of this everyday around noon, and it was expected to last her through lunch and dinner. On the weekends she was on her own. She would have a friend bring her some chicken from KFC or a piece of cooked ham from the deli section at the Safeway Supermarket down the street. She would microwave this food Saturday and Sunday. Monday, she would wait for the guy from Meals on Wheels to bring her another bag of ham salad or egg salad sandwiches.

It was like this for about four years.

She didn't complain much, except about the tuna salad. She had a gallbladder problem and the onions in the tuna salad were hard on her gall bladder. She would try to pick the tiny shards of onion out of the tuna salad, but this got harder and harder as her eye sight gave out. (When she finally died, it was after a gall bladder operation. She survived the operation, but she had a stroke afterward that shut down her whole body. But that's another story.)

Anyway, when I would come to visit, she was always happy to see me because she could always talk me into cooking for her. I hate to cook and I hated to work around my mother. My mother learned discipline from the Nazi guards in the concentration camps. She expected you to follow orders and she expected you to do it right. There was no screwing up allowed around her. If you did, she would freeze you out, turn her sarcasm against you. Call you a baby or a fool. Tell you that you're a college professor and still you can't boil a stinking egg!

Like I said, I hated to work with and around her, but I cooked for her. She knew I was a fool with my hands, that I couldn't make the things she really wanted to eat like pierogi or golumpky, but she also knew that she could maybe talk me through some simple dishes. Navy Bean Soup was the one she had me make most often.

We would start making the soup the night before by putting the beans in a pot full of a couple quarts of water. This would have to soak overnight. The first time she had me make it, I asked her why I just couldn’t follow the directions on the package, and let the beans soak under boiling water for a couple hours on the day we were going to make the soup. She just looked at me.

Then the next day, the day we were actually going to make the soup, we would start early in the morning, so that the soup would be ready for lunch.

I would chop up about four good sized onions. They had to be chopped really fine because of my mother’s gallbladder problem. As I would chop, she would watch from her wheel chair. Some times she would think a chunk was too big, and she would point it out. “There, that one!” she would say. “Are you trying to kill me?” And I would chop it some more with this old, skinny bladed knife of hers that she had been honing for 30 years, just a honed wire stuck in a dirty yellow plastic handle.

Then I’d fry up the onions in about 4 tablespoons of butter. I’d fry them until they were caramelized, just a sort of hot brown jelly with an oniony smell. This would take abut an hour. Meanwhile, I would be chopping up everything else, half a pound of carrots, two or three pounds of any kind of potato, 3-4 stalks of celery. It didn’t matter how I chopped those up. My mother’s stomach had no trouble with them. It was just the onions that were a problem. So I chopped everything else pretty rough. I like big chunks of stuff in my soup.

I would take these chopped vegetables and add them to the frying onions and cook and stir all of that for about ten minutes on a low flame. Next, I would add the beans and the water they were in, along with too much pepper and salt. At this point my mother would stop watching me. She would figure that there’s no kind of damage I could do to the soup, so she would wheel her wheelchair out of that tight little kitchen and into the living room where she would turn on the TV, The Oprah Winfrey Show or the Noon News or anything else except soap operas. She hated soap operas, all that talk and people who were worried about stupid things.

I’d cook the soup for about an hour, maybe longer, and then I would carry a really large blue bowl of that hot navy bean soup to her and place it on her TV tray. She always said that she liked to eat like an American, on a TV tray So while I was finishing up in the kitchen, she would drag the TV tray up to her wheelchair, and she would ask me to put the soup right there.

I would and as soon as I did she would start crumbling saltine crackers into the soup. They were the final touch.

We would eat this soup just about twice every day I was visiting, lunch and dinner. If we ran out, I would make some more. It was better than the stuff my mom got from Meals on Wheels.


Manfred said...

When John sent me the recipe letter with instructions to send it to 20 friends, I thought, I don't have 20 friends, I'll be here all day trying to think who to send it to. As my penance, I'll try to make your Navy Bean soup one day, when I get too old to chew steak.

John Guzlowski said...

Manfred, you're kidding. I've seen you in public action--you have friends to spare!

Manfred said...

My wife loves bean soup so I copied your recipe for her. Thanks.

Marty said...

I think you could teach a class with this recipe, John. Soup as narrative!

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Marty.

You should see what I can write about taking my mother to the Super Wal-Mart, shopping in her wheelchair!

There's a narrative with more conflict and anguish than War and Peace.

Marty said...

I guess you've got your next entry (or so) then. I look forward to it.

Manfred said...

Yeah, I want to see the Wal-Mart blog!

vankbrock said...

John, I just read your recipe for Simple Polish Soup. It sounds good, but it belongs in a book of short stories, not a cookbook. Cooks could not find the patience to read all of that, or they would become addicted to reading and never cook again. All mothers would get their sons to cook for them.