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.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Poet Gabor Zsille Asks, What's Up?

I got a letter a few days ago from Gabor Zsille, a fine Hungarian poet and translator living in Budapest, and he asked me if there was something wrong. He hadn't heard from me in a long time.

Here's a photo of Gabor, and the letter I wrote back to him. I thought it would serve as a sort of explanation of what I have and haven't been doing this month.

Dear Gabor, I apologize for not writing sooner.

Three weeks ago I started doing a series of poetry readings across three states: Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois.

I drove approximately 1800 miles (3000 kilometers?). I read my poems about my parents, and I talked about their lives. It was a very good experience but that kind of travel is always harder than I want it to be. Sometimes I stayed with friends, sometimes I stayed in hotels. Always I was eating sweet heavy food that I shouldn't have been eating and drinking too much coffee and -- promise not to tell anyone -- even smoking a cigarette. Plus, I was seeing old friends who I've known for 30 years but haven't seen in 3 since I retired and moved down to south Georgia.

On top of all that I was not getting my usual exercise, no running or biking or walking or pilates or yoga. I gained 15 pounds over the summer while I was helping care for my wife's dying Uncle Charlie, and that weight sits heavy between me and the laptop on my knees.

On top of all of that I was reading poems aloud about my parents in front of groups large (300 people at the Women's and Gender Studies reading at Valdosta State University) and small (15 students in a class room on the fourth floor of Cherry Hall at Western Kentucky University), reading poems about all of that 20th century sadness, the kingdom of death, the slave labor camps, the concentrations camps, the sisters ripping their legs apart on broken glass as they fled the Germans, gypsy girls burning up like straw, all of that bad chemistry at the heart of the last century.

I got back home last Saturday night after a 14 hour, 800 mile drive. Since then I've been trying to get back to normal. I'm teaching an online creative writing class and had to catch up with all of students and their poetry projects. Teaching an online class gives both teachers and students a certain degree of freedom, but finally work has to be done, suggestions made, stanzas lengthened!

In addition, I have chores to do that you wouldn't believe. We live in a house that's 115 years old, and something is always falling down or falling apart and needing to be hammered back up! (I'm not going to tell you about my work on our swimming pool pumping system because you'll think I'm too middle-class, too bourgeois. Also, please don't mention the falling down part. We're trying to sell the house.)

And today, I volunteered to leave behind my students, my exercise, and my chores to drive with her to a meeting she has to attend in Macon, Georgia--home of Little Richard.

(Do you know Little Richard? He's the man. Here's a you tube of him singing "Tutti Frutti." Have you read his autobiography? It's amazing. A black gay man growing up in the middle of straight, disapproving Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s!)

My wife Linda’s an administrator at Valdosta State University in south Georgia, and she has to periodically attend these meetings. And when she does I like to drive her. She's a fine driver, but I just like to drive. In fact, she's a terrific driver. She taught me how to drive (and how to swim) the first year we were married. She said, "Honey, I don't want to be married to a man who can't swim and drive!"

So while she goes to her boring meetings that determine nothing (I didn't say that) but do give the administrators an excuse to get out of town and eat some bad food and probably smoke cigarettes and drink a little white wine over dinner, I wander around these cities, poking my long Polish nose into alleys and side streets, sniffing like a blind man for some historical spot that will bring all of that crazy Georgia past to me like some kind of Proustian madelaine.

And how are you, my friend Gabor?

The weather here is dreadful. 90 degrees in the day. Steamy. The sun nailed in the sky.

And the nights?

Don't ask.


PS: did you receive the books I sent?