I don’t remember Babcia Veronika ever coming down a cold. She also made her own elderberry or black-currant wine – it was considered a potent medicine (this has been confirmed by modern research).
Soup was also a staple for John Guzlowski’s mother, as he describes in this vivid prose piece.
MY MOTHER’S 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.
She started having her meals brought in by a charitable organization in
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.)
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 about 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.
After reading this, what can you do except start soaking the beans for tomorrow’s soup? Mine are already soaking – I like to give them 24 hours. My babcia would finish the cooking process by adding a generous dollop of country-fresh sour cream to any soup she made.
When it comes to czarnina (black soup), we are in a more sinister territory, though the soup itself was sweet and marvelously nutritious. A word of explanation: the belief is that the goose (or duck) has to be completely calm, or the blood will be bitter.
Linda Nemec-Foster is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Baba Yaga Poems (Ridgeway Press, 1992) and Amber Necklace from Gdańsk (Louisiana State University Press, 2001 – a finalist for the Ohio Book Award in Poetry).