story a week


Posted in Fiction by clachnit on February 8, 2010

My mother left me photographs, her wedding ring, some poetry—a typed collection of rhymed couplets that imagines my cousin and I were corresponding when we were both in utero—and a lot of memories. Most of those are good, but quite a few are bad.

I think the only thing I have from her that’s in her own handwriting is a recipe for pea soup. It’s on an unlined index card, and it’s written in fine-tip felt pen. My mother had beautiful Palmer-perfect handwriting with swooping capitals—the “P” of  “Pea” looks like a full sail that’s sliding gracefully towards the home port  of the “S” in Soup. It’s clear that I’ve consulted it during a cooking session; the ink is smudged from my damp hands.  I keep it in a plastic sleeve now.

The recipe itself is simple. You could make it tonight, if you wanted to. Despite what my mother said, you don’t need to soak the peas overnight:

Pea Soup

1 Pkg gr. split peas (14 oz size)

Cover with water; soak overnight

Bring to boil uncovered (foams up) skim.

Add chopped: Celery, onion, ham hock, small amt of salt, oregano and parsley.

And there you have it. Only one thing is measured. If you want to know how many ham hocks, or how much celery or onion, you would need to consult a proper cookbook. (I recommend two ham hocks. You could substitute regular ham, but it won’t be as good. Or if you’re feeling fancy, you could use prosciutto. But I don’t think it has enough heft.)

My mother’s recipe card doesn’t even say how long the soup is supposed to cook. She might have just shrugged and suggested that you cook it until it is done. Obviously.

I can tell you from personal experience that it gets pretty thick. And if you are inclined to put some of it in a Thermos that’s decorated with submarines and take it to school on a rainy Tuesday, you will find that it has sealed–and I mean hot-wax sealed—the Thermos’ screw-on top. The substitute teacher will not be able to get it open. You will not get lunch, and you’ll be horribly embarrassed in front of your entire fourth-grade class. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Stick with something less assertive, if you’re using a Thermos. Maybe a nice watery Campbell chicken noodle soup; it certainly isn’t thick enough to seal your fate in a steamy classroom.

My mother’s other staples were the New England boiled dinner (corned beef, cabbage, potatoes); liver and onions; fried pork chops; ham accompanied by cottage cheese and chunks of canned pineapple; wilted lettuce salad. The salad is actually quite good, if not exactly healthy. You fry some bacon, chop it, and drizzle the bacon and its fat over torn iceberg lettuce. Toss with a little red-wine vinegar.

And there is one other thing my mother made really well: Boston baked beans. I don’t have her recipe for that. I’m sure I must have asked her for it, but I’ve looked, and can’t find any trace of it written down anywhere.

I’ve approximated the recipe, thanks to a Betty Crocker version that dates from the 1960s. That was a rough decade for my mother: her parents died within a couple years of each other and she went crazy. She  was institutionalized for three months.  Martin Luther King was killed just before she went in. Bobby Kennedy was killed when she was there.  I don’t remember ever talking about those events with her. I remember her telling me that whatever had she had done, it wasn’t her. She hadn’t been herself.  I knew what she meant, but the crazy woman had certainly looked like her. Sounded like her, too.

I make the Boston baked beans every Fourth of July, when my husband and our friends stack fireworks on a stepladder in the street and shoot them off all at once. The beans always take more molasses and brown sugar than Betty’s recipe calls for. I haven’t tried to measure how much more, though. I just know when they’re right. And they are incredibly good with hot dogs and beer.

I make my mother’s pea soup a couple times every winter. If you make it, I’ll warn you that ham hocks can be hard to find. Don’t even try to find them in a chichi supermarket. Better to stick to a Ralphs, and look for them next to the bacon and the XLNT tamales.

And to tell the truth, it’s not my favorite soup. There’s a cream of tomato that I prefer. It’s kind of a pain in the ass to make, but it’s delicious. And there’s French onion, with its sweetness and its textures of smooth broth and crisped bread and the scalding goo of the Gruyere.

But sometimes only the split pea will do. I don’t make it as a ritual, or to pay tribute to my mother’s memory—not consciously, anyway. I just make it. I don’t follow her recipe to the letter. I don’t soak the peas. I skip the parsley. I add thyme. But as I cook, I like to take out that card, and read it, and remember the times when my mother—who was, after all, more often in her right mind than out of it—made a soup that nourished me.

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