A Recipe for a Simple Polish Soup
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.
So she started having her meals brought in by a charitable organization in Sun City, Arizona, where she lived after my dad died. This food wasn’t much to speak of even though it didn’t cost her more than a couple dollars a day: 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 just before noon, and it was expected to last her through lunch and dinner. On the weekends she was on her own. Sometimes, she would try to prepare something simple for herself, a bagel sandwich with cheese or a bowl of cereal. She didn’t like to impose on people, but sometimes she would ask a friend to 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 or egg or tuna salad sandwiches.
It was like this for about four years.
She didn't complain much. My mom had spent two and a half years in a German concentration camp and that kind of punishment teaches you something about complaining. But she did complain about one thing when it came to those meals: 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.)
When I would come to visit her four or five times a year, she was always happy to see me because she could invariably talk me into cooking for her. This was no small feat. I hate to cook, and I hated to work around my mother. Like I mentioned, my mother had spent two and a half years in a Nazi concentration camp, and she used to joke that what she knew about discipline she learned from the Nazi guards in the camps. She expected you to follow orders, and she expected you to do it right the first time. 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 even though you were a college professor, you still couldn’t boil a stinking egg!
Like I said, I hated to work with and around her, but I cooked for her when I came down to visit. What choice did I have?
My mom knew I was a fool with my hands, that I couldn't make the things she really wanted to eat, those Polish staples that she grew up with in the old country like pierogi (dumplings stuffed with cabbage) or golumpky (cabbage leaves wrapped around meat and rice), but she also knew that she could talk me through some simple dishes. Navy Bean Soup was the one she had me make most often. Not even a fool could ruin it.
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 and shook her head.
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 I chopped 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 that she had been honing for 30 years until it was just a honed wire stuck in a dirty yellow plastic handle.
Then I’d fry up the onions in about four tablespoons of butter. I’d fry them until they were caramelized, a sort of hot brown jelly with an oniony smell. This would take about an hour. Meanwhile, I would be chopping up everything else, a half 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. Personally, 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. Salt and pepper were the only spices my mom ever used, but she liked them in abundance.
At this point my mother would stop watching me. She would figure that there was no kind of damage I could do to the soup, so she would wheel her wheelchair out of the 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.
She never said that, of course. My mom wasn’t the kind of person to hand out compliments. I guess that was something else the Nazi guards taught her in the concentration camps, but I knew she liked that soup because of the way she ate it. She never complained about anything while she was eating, not about the onions or her gallbladder or the spices.
The only thing I heard from her as she spooned the soup was an occasion whispered “mmm.”
It was thanks enough.