Saturday, May 8, 2010


André Gide proclaimed, “The art of the soup has been lost.” My Babcia (grandmother) Veronika would have been astonished to hear that. She cooked soup every day. I suspect that the superior health of this formidable babcia, an Auschwitz survivor, was due to all the phytonutrients from the vegetables, especially in her favorite beet soup (although in traditional Polish cuisine, practically anything could be turned into soup. During wartime family, some people survived by eating nettle soup.)
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).
But the first step to being healthy was home-made soup. Not a “cup of soup,” not even a “bowl of soup” – we are talking about an extra-large soup bowl with its own saucer.
Soup was also a staple for John Guzlowski’s mother, as he describes in this vivid prose piece.
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 Sun City, Arizona, where she lived after my dad died. This food was pretty miserable: 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 around noon, and it was expected to last her through lunch and dinner. On the weekends she was on her own. She would have a friend 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 salad or egg salad sandwiches.
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.)
Anyway, when I would come to visit, she was always happy to see me because she could always talk me into cooking for her. I hate to cook and I hated to work around my mother. My mother had spent more than two years in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and I often joked that she learned discipline from the Nazi guards there. She expected you to follow orders, and she expected you to do it right. 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 you're a college professor and still you can't boil a stinking egg!
Like I said, I hated to work with her or around her, but I cooked for her. She knew I was a fool with my hands, that I couldn't make the things she really wanted to eat like pierogi (dumplings stuffed with saurerkraut) or golombky (stuffed cabbage), but she also knew that she could maybe talk me through some simple dishes. Navy Bean Soup was the one she had me make most often.
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.
~ John Guzlowski
For more of John Guzlowski’s writing, go to
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.


My grandmother, a goose in her lap,
strokes the white bird,
strokes the long neck,
and when the goose is calm,

she calmly cuts its throat,
drains the blood into a washbasin.
She makes the sweet, heavy
black soup. Apple slices
float, half-moons.

Her wide sleeves winnow
the feathered air.
woopoo-tzoopoo, she sings.
She pokes my arm

as if testing a cake:
This child is too skinny, she sighs.
I sit on top of her feet,
telling her to walk,
to take me somewhere.

skins of baked apples crack,
ooze tears of sugary sap.
Rosaries of mushrooms
dry over the stove,
wrinkling and shrinking
into pieces of dark wing.

~ Oriana


Linda Nemec-Foster has a marvelous sestina on this dark aspect of Polish cuisine.


I am four years old and the air is sweat,
the basement walls dripping. I hold her hand
and go down the steps, down, my eyes
wide in my head. I see the edge of the knife
as it gleams, as she caresses and strokes
my hair. “Only a woman

can do this,” she says to the woman
in me. I can feel myself sweat
the victim looks at me. Feathers I stroke
smooth in the dark, soft in a small hand
that doesn’t forget. But Grandma knows the knife
will jump, has seen this day with eyes

has felt it for years before my eyes
left the body of her son’s woman.
This day I am old enough to see the knife
dance on the throat, a duck’s sweat
the perfect soup that hands
pray over. “You must stroke

its neck gently, gently as if each stroke
was a kiss,” Grandma looks calm, eyes
far away in Europe, remembering a hand
on her neck, her blouse. Only a woman
can do this, can cut so clean that sweat
becomes air, a lover. The knife

she holds will talk in my dreams. “Knife
dance with me, dance.” The strokes
the blade again, again until sweat
dulls it. I stare and al the babies’ eyes
deep within me, stare. Every woman
can draw blood slow, can fill her hands.

“Grandma, I love you, I love your hands,”
the duck’s throat pumps the words. Knife
inherits the blood, all the sad women
who drown in it. Their wild strokes
embrace the walls, their eyes
crazy songs wide with sweat.

Only a woman can do this, can stroke
so gentle. Her hands for thirty years knife
her eyes almost silent. They listen. Sweat.

~ Linda Nemec Foster
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).

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Oriana, thank you for placing my soup piece in such good company. Your black soup poem captures my mother's kitchen--especially the rosary of mushrooms.