By Karen Dill • Guest Writer
The weather in February can be as fickle as new love. In the mountains of North Carolina, the wind can howl through the ridges like a scorned lover or the day can be as soft and gentle as a lover’s kiss. I’ve seen snow fall nonstop for a week in February and I’ve seen daffodils and crocus pop up through the snow with fresh optimistic faces turned toward the dazzling sun. Weather prediction in February is a crap shoot. More predictable is the mountain terrain, the color of the February sky and the chill in your bones that only a bowl of hot soup can remedy.
The Februarys of my youth are bleak in my memory. The days were short; the evenings chilly; the days raw and all without the benefit of television or telephone to break the monotony. The longest month of the year, I thought, despite the shortest number of days. Yet it was in this dreary month that I experienced what seemed to be first love, or at least a serious crush.
The boy that I met at a forbidden Halloween dance (I had told my fundamental Baptist parents that it was a fall church social) liked me. He hailed from the big town of Canton and I lived in the backwoods of Bethel. He held my hand and my heart leapt. He called me at my cousin Vicky Lynn’s house for her family had a phone and I would stammer hopelessly. He sent love letters via a friend as we went to different schools and I read and reread them as I hid them under the mattress of my bed. Despite the fact that this was the first boy to take a liking to me, I was sure this would be the love of my life, my future husband. I was smitten.
Our romance lasted through Christmas and New Year’s Day. I was a sneaky and rather clever participant. I attended Bible study and went to the youth outings at both my church and my cousin’s church and it was during the attendance at my cousin’s more liberal Baptist church that I would meet up with my — dare I say it — boyfriend. My parents thought I might be headed for sainthood with all of the church activities that I was attending, but I was secretly making out with The Boy of My Dreams in the back of the church van and holding hands on the back pew of the church. As I quietly worried that this could be my ticket to Hell, I was helpless to stop the allure of first love.
When Valentine’s Day rolled around, it never occurred to me that my young suitor would present a gift, as my family rarely acknowledged the day. Being a town boy, he evidently did not know the ways of hard-core mountain men like my father who thought little of their young 14-year-old daughters having a suitor and less of young men who had the nerve to show up in the yard with a store-bought box of Valentine candy. The poor boy never made it to the door. My father met him on the porch, shotgun in hand, and told him to hit the road. He did, and to this day I don’t know became became of the box of candy.
I was crushed, embarrassed beyond words. Mad as an old wet hen, I burst into tears and stomped through our small frame house with an indignation that shock the rafters. I resolved to stay angry forever and vowed that I would never forgive my father. My mother gathered me in her arms, patted my back and suggested that we make a big pot of vegetable soup. It was a raw day outside and the bleak weather matched my mood, but I reckoned as how the chopping of raw vegetables might provide a substitute for further provoking my father.
As I chopped onions, carrots and potatoes, I sobbed hot tears of anger and humiliation. I would never have a boyfriend. I could never face my cousin or my friends. As I cried, my tears mixed with the chopped vegetables and I feared that the soup would be too salty or too bitter to the taste. My mother chatted on, ignoring my tears and angry chopping. She talked about her own adolescence and teenage humiliations, lost loves, and disappointing unions of the heart. At one point, she looked up soberly and replied, “No boy worth his salt runs away. I reckon as how they have to face up to your father or they won’t be worth a plug nickel.”
As it came to pass, my mother was right. Despite the boy’s future efforts to woo me, his cowardice in the presence of my father was unfortunately etched in my mind in a most unflattering way. Also etched in my mind was the beautiful memory of the warmth and flavor of that Valentine’s Day vegetable soup It was nectar for the bruised soul; balm for the open wound; and it warmed through the cracks of my broken heart.
From that time on, soup would be the magic elixir for hurt, disappointment and just plain sadness. Better than Prozac and Zoloft, the healing power of soup was immediate. The warm steam from the tomato and beef broth, the chunks of beef, and the hunks of vegetables dried my tears and eventually melted my frozen heart and I forgave my father. Much later in my life, another young man would bravely walk up those steps, stand up to my father and ultimately earn his respect. That young man would become my husband and would years later help me bury my father on a cold February day.
The power of soup was a lesson that I had learned early on and one that I passed on to my children. When tears of frustration and sobs of hurt from teenage angst filled the kitchen, I would pull out the pots and hand over the knives to my children. Zach became a pro at chopping vegetables (later buying me a beautiful set of good knives) and Anna learned how to blend basil with tomatoes for a delectable tomato basil soup. We would talk and as tears fell into the broths, life would begin to look better and the soups were once again seasoned from the heart. The savory broths were never too salty or bitter.
There were very few problems that a good bowl of soup and a wedge of cornbread or sour dough bread could not solve. When my husband, Tom, returned home from the hospital last year after a mild heart attack, he healed with steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup that my Cherokee friends had brought to us. During a blizzard a few years back, I was able to heat soup over an open fire in our old fireplace and we were able to survive the lack of electricity for four days.
As the February winds howl, I pull out the pots and remember the past. I smile at the memory of a young girl sobbing tears of sadness for a first love. The young girl, now a woman of indeterminable age, knows that soup is a far more powerful gift than a cheap heart-shaped box of Valentine candy. I still cook soup most Valentine’s Day accompanied by a loaf of bread or cake of cornbread. Because I’m still somewhat of a romantic at heart, I also open a bottle of wine and slice a wedge of good cheese with a salad of mixed greens. I also make a dessert that is often sweet and tart — much like the kind of love I’ve experienced over the years.
My meal this year will be lentil soup with ham, sour cream cornbread, a smoked cheddar cheese and for dessert, a blackberry upside down cake with vanilla ice cream. Lentil soup is strong sturdy fare and it symbolizes the kind of love that I share with Tom. I have decided to serve a favorite salad that I created from a combination of my favorite ingredients. In years past, I have experimented with various soups throughout the seasons. I have tried a seafood stew, borscht, split pea soup, potato soup, and many varieties of vegetable soup but it is a thick savory soup that I will serve this Valentine’s Day. And though hopefully no tears will flavor the broth, I will throw in an extra pinch of salt for the memories.
The preparation of the soup is relatively simple. Lentils do not need soaking, only a rinse or two before boiling in water mixed with chicken stock. I add a ham bone from the freezer that I’ve saved from the Christmas baked ham. As the lentils cook slowly and the smell of smoked ham permeates the air, I sauté onions, celery, carrots, and some garlic (actually a lot as we are garlic lovers) in olive oil. I will add the mix of sautéed vegetables to the soup along with a couple of bay leaves, a pinch of oregano and basil, some crushed tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. As the soup simmers for an hour or so, I bake the cornbread and prepare the salad. During the last few minutes of cooking, I will add some fresh spinach to the soup and cook until it wilts.
The salad consists of a bed of mixed greens topped with a sauté of sliced Asian pears and English walnuts in butter, brown sugar and a few sprinkles of ginger. The mixture is served warm over the greens and topped with a raspberry vinaigrette (slightly heated in the microwave), a few dried cranberries and crumbled Stilton cheese. The tart vinaigrette and the sharp cheese blend wonderfully with the sweet fruit mixture. This particular evolved through several salad experiments and has become one of my family’s favorite.
As I prepare the finishing touches on this particular Valentine dinner, I am reminded that recipes (like love) require time to evolve. Each new rendering provides another opportunity to improve or add an extra element. For the soup, I decide to top it with some shaved Parmesan cheese. I mix butter and cream cheese to spread over the cornbread instead of the usual margarine. The dessert takes a turn when I find some beautiful raspberries and blueberries as well as the blackberries for the blackberry upside down cake. It seems that the cake will have spontaneous additions and will take on a new dimension with the vanilla ice cream.
Cooking (like love) requires some planning but its beauty is in the intuitiveness and spontaneousness of its actions. It is an act of abandon; a dance of joy. Creativity trumps rules and with a dash of this and a dash of that, a dish (and a relationship) takes on life and spirit. It is reflective of the soul of the chef or the lover. Every sweet, tart, and fiery taste comes together in a beautiful dance. Even tears add flavor and essence.