Split Green Pea Soup

Two weekends ago, the husband and I were lucky enough to see a Giants playoff game, and tonight the Giants play the Cardinals.  As many of you know, I am a Cubs fan first and a Giants fan second; however, I am torn.  My grandmother Alice was a White Sox fan and, thus, a Cardinals fan by default, for her allegiance to the South Side of Chicago meant that any affection for that ursine team located in Boys Town was unspeakable.  She actively rooted for any team that played against the Cubs, and given that the Cardinals were their biggest rivals, she became their biggest fan.

Alice cooked; she had a huge, fenced-in garden in the backyard with green beans and tomatoes with smooth, glossy skin.  My mother, however, was the first woman I knew who didn't like to cook.  My mother opened boxes, boiled water, poured milk and called it a meal.  Alice, on the other hand, cooked for her Catholic children on no money, no college education, and three husbands who drank too much.

Growing up, I thought Easter Sunday was the thrilling opportunity to wear a hat in church and then drive to Alice's house where she would inexplicably have a basted ham already in the oven even though she left church at the same time we did.  My favorite cousin Tina and I would play dress up in Alice's old dresses--the faded lace and the torn hems--while my mother and her sisters and their husbands sat in the basement kitchen smoking and exchanging news.  My grandmother had two kitchens, the sweet luxury of an additional room devoted to something as mysterious as cooking.  When it came time to line up for the buffet, my mother would instruct me to take a little of everything, including the dreaded lima beans, because that was polite and my grandmother had worked so hard.  Thus plated, I would take my place with my youngest cousins at the kids' table, aware that I would never be old enough in our large family to sit at the grown-ups' table--with our family's robust hearts and lack of debilitating disease, vacancies were rate.

And in the fall, in that basement kitchen, my grandmother and aunt canned beans, tomatoes, peas, carrots, beets—the whole weight of her backyard garden.  As usual, my mother made herself absent on these days to go places I still don’t even know, but I loved to ride Grandma’s stationary bicycle that she set up at the far end of the basement kitchen counter.  In her old church dresses and slingbacks, I had to wrestle to keep from getting myself tangled in the wheel, but I would look up to watch while my aunt and she moved in silence, each of them knowing exactly what the other was doing—boiling water, measuring the headspace between the jar rim and the hot liquid, fitting the two-piece metal lids, listening for that familiar “ping” when the jars were cool, and writing the contents and date on the jar in a Sharpie marker.  They moved through the kitchen, wiping the sweat from the backs of their necks, and I peddled and peddled, keeping time on the steady bike.  Sometime after they finished and were sharing a cigarette at the kitchen table, my mother would arrive, all vigor and celerity. She would take a puff or two, direct me to change back into my clothes, and we would head off to the car empty handed.

Much later, on Sundays my mother would take dinner to my grandmother, who, well into her nineties, left that home with the big backyward and the view of the railroad tracks.  She declined as a widow from her third and final husband in a ground-floor apartment with one small, decaying kitchen and no stairs to speak of.  My mother would arrive with a pre-made split pea and ham soup to warm on the stove and some potato rolls from Hy-Vee to find my grandmother on the couch, a White Sox or a Cardinals game on television and a crossword puzzle tucked by her side.  When my grandmother died a few years ago, I found that I missed her cooking and her garden the most.  But I think my mother misses those Sundays with the sounds of a baseball game in the background even more.


Split Green Pea Soup

from The Best Soups In the World

4 Servings

1 1/2 cups split green peas (3/4 pound)
1/4 cup salted pork, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 large garlic close, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 allspice berries
1 bay leaf
6 cups water or chicken stock
1 tablespoon butter

1. Place the peas in the pot with the salted pork, onion, celery, carrot, garlic, thyme, allspice, and bay leaves.  Cover with the water or stock and bring to a near boil over high heat, skimming any foam that appears on the surface.  Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until the peas are tender, about 2 hours.

2.  Remove the allspice berries and bay leaves.  Transfer the soup in batches to a blender and blend until a smooth puree.

3.  Return the soup to a clean pot, season with salt and pepper, and reheat over medium heat.  Stir in butter.


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