Soups and Memories

            “Soup is good food!” I think that’s an old Campbell’s commercial, but it’s true. Nutritious, easy and tasty, why are so many new cooks, and some not-so-new cooks terrified of making soup “wrong”? I know I was, and I’ve been cooking since I was very young.

            Babička, my grandmother, served us soups at lunchtime with a hunk of bread, and as an appetizer before the main meal at suppertime. She was a 1st-generation, “just over from the Old Country” girl in 1913 when she began working for a couple, Polish/German Jews, also 1st generation, as a house-maid. Mrs. Eisenberg, since she couldn’t afford to keep a cook as well, taught Baba to cook, although Baba had been helping with the food preparation at home in Bohemia (now, the Czech Republic, Čechia) since she could walk.

            Babička was a *fantastic* cook! She took what she had learned as a girl and expanded on it, learning recipes from family, friends and the evening paper, even pestering chefs in restaurant kitchens when she ate something particularly tasty. It was a hoot to hear her, in her very broken English, talking to folks who spoke in equally broken English (Italian, Spanish, French, Greek, Egyptian, Chinese), using a lot of hand-waving and pointing, communicating perfectly well with those who spoke “food” as their first language.

            She was constantly experimenting, insisting on critiques of every dish she made, but only rarely writing things down. The recipes of hers that I make now are those she taught me to make, working together in her kitchen, rather than those in a cookery book or on recipe cards. I pestered her for a few that I wrote down as a new bride, but those are the only ones I have, since I got distracted with my new life and then she was gone.

            …and soup was the one thing she never taught me to make!

            Some of my earliest memories are of her kitchen at the Shore House in Dundalk on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and in her house on Monument Street when I lived with her for a year when I was four, since my Daddy was working in Ecuador and my mother didn’t like being alone in the house with two small children, day in and day out.

            Baba’s kitchen was always spotless and very white, furnished in the era of enamel-or-porcelain-over-steel counters and cupboards. The big white table stood in the middle of the kitchen with the “fixtures” all around, and wheeled bins of flours, sugars and other ingredients underneath, along with my bright-red step-chair that I can remember having to climb to even see the top of the table. Yes, I was *that* small, still! Potholders and towels of bright red, a few hand-painted trivets, curtains that my grandmother had hand-embroidered made it a cheerful place. She always wore a big, bibbed apron and I had a pretty yellow one that my mother had painted with mallards, to match my special cup and plate.

There was always a large pot of soup simmering on the back of the stove as Baba mixed and chopped and formed and pulled trays and pots and casseroles out of cupboards and into and out of the oven. She rinsed things that weren’t greasy immediately and set them in a drying rack and set other things to soak in her deep double sink. When she finished a dish, she would make herself a cup of coffee with lots of milk and me a cup of “calico coffee” (no, I have no idea why she called it that…..) that was just warmed milk with a couple of drops of vanilla flavoring, and we would sit and sip and rest for a few minutes, admiring both her pretty kitchen and the wonderful smells that her cooking created.

Boze, ja rad kavu!” she would say, then rinsed our cups and got back to work.

It was in that kitchen that I began to learn to cook & bake, first mixing things with a spoon, and then learning to use the rolling pin, the sifter, the egg-beater, the pie jagger and other tools. I can remember how proud I was when I first learned to separate eggs “proper”! She taught me to crack the shell against the angled edge of the top of the mixing bowl, to pull the smaller half of the shell away, holding the larger part beneath and letting the white slide out away from the yolk, and how not to break the yolk, or if you did and a bit slid into the mixing bowl, how to dig into the white with a tiny spoon and scoop the yolk back up.

I learned how to knead dough for kolački, and šveskovi knedliki and how to keep stirring the mak or the apple sauce, or the preserved pears or the pumpkin for pies with a big spoon so that it wouldn’t scorch as it cooked. I learned how to roll dough for pie and to take it up on the big rolling pin oh-so-carefully, to drape it over the pie tin and fit it to the shape, to add the filling and smooth it, to roll out the top crust and place it, crimp it first with my tiny thumbs and then with a fork that also cut off the extra. I could brush the top with melted butter and sprinkle nutmeg from the grinder and if I was being less wiggly than usual, Baba would even put a paring knife in my hand, with hers wrapped around it, to pierce the top so it wouldn’t blow up in the oven.

Even though she wouldn’t let me use a knife when I was that small, I watched how she cut up vegetables and meat with her explaining all the time why they were cut to that particular shape and size for which purpose. I learned to crumble and grind herbs and spices, “Is nelepši already ground in tin can! No fresh and tastes metal…” and how to mince garlic with the little glass garlic crusher, 2-pieces with spikes, where I put the garlic clove in and turned it, (such an effort!), and the spikes crushed it so the savory smell filled the whole kitchen.

Then I started to learn to measure, first with spoons on the spices that I was grinding and then with cups of flour and sugar. Why do you spoon flour into a measuring cup and level it with a knife? That ants will swarm any bit of spilled sugar, so measure over the bin, set the cup on the table and close the bin tightly. How do you double a recipe? …and my grandmother taught me to add and multiply fractions that young. I didn’t realize it until years later in school.

We never stopped working in the kitchen together. There was always cooking and baking to be done, and as Baba got older and I got bigger and stronger, I was the one lifting the turkey pan from the oven, or bending to snag out the cookies before they burned. She taught me to fry, to stew, to bake and how to rescue a dish when the lid came off the salt shaker.

She rarely measured in most dishes and I still use the “shake of this, ‘blork’ of that” type of measurements in the non-essentials although that still gets me in trouble with garlic and ginger…

As a young teenager I was enamored of fancy kitchen tools and developed my own likes and dislikes, always encouraged to try new things. I got my first garlic press at age 10 (…and we all reeked of garlic for weeks!) I learned to make stews and rice pudding in a crockpot that I had begged my parents for and Baba took it over, learning a new skill in her 80’s from her teen-aged granddaughter.

…but when it came to soup, Baba said, “You will learn! You will have house and babies and *then* you learn!” I didn’t get it. Why was this essential dish something that I could only watch her make?

For years after she died I only made soups from mixes and heated stuff from cans…and hated it. Those products didn’t taste right to me, when I was raised on good, nutritious, home-made soups!

Now, 50 years after she started teaching a wiggly toddler to cook, I finally get it and every time I pull out my soup pots I thank her.

No one has to *teach* you to make soup. You *learn* when you have to! When little fingers are curious enough to explore the front of the stove, so whatever you’re making is in the back, when you have small people climbing the curtains after the cat, and “It won’t flush, Mama!” is something you have up-close and personal knowledge of, there isn’t *time* to deal with the fancy sauces and roasts. When money is tight and you can’t waste a scrap of food and you have to make it stretch as far as it will go, THAT’S when you learn to make soup! She didn’t have to teach me.

What Baba gave me were all the tools, all the techniques and knowledge, so that when I needed to learn, I did. Djekuje mockrat, Babička!

Now, I pass this on to you, knowing that you’ll try recipes, get the idea and eventually have the need to learn on your own.

  • Babička – Grandmother, formal form, usually Baba (although the modern form is Babi)
  • Boze, ja rad kavu – Gods, I love coffee!
  • Kolački – a filled pastry, specialty of the Czechs
  • šveskovi knedliki – Sweet dumplings
  • nelepši –  Icky, literally “not best”
  • Djekuje mockrat – Thanks a million!

Page created and published 3/6/21 (C)M. Bartlett
Article ©M. Bartlett 2010
Last update 3/6/21