Says Caroline: My mother and grandmother were both born in sod houses on the plains outside of Linton, North Dakota. All of my great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. as refugees from the Ukraine near the Crimean Peninsula when Vladimir Lenin systematically starved the ethnic Germans living there. They were recruited to North Dakota as homesteaders not long after the U.S. government systematically starved the Sioux by killing the buffalo they relied on for sustenance.
The sod house where my mother was born is 20 minutes as the crow flies from Standing Rock, but you’d have to travel 60 miles to the north or 70 miles to the south to find a bridge crossing the Missouri River. My mother remembers that in the winter, when the river froze, her father would hitch a team of horses to the sleigh and they’d cross over to Cannon Ball to trade food, blankets, and grain alcohol with the Sioux. Today, I imagine the Sioux and my distant Bismarck cousins facing off across bulldozers.
Farming was difficult in the harsh climate and rocky soil of North Dakota, and food was often scarce. While she was pregnant with my mother—born during the twin disasters of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl—my grandmother, starving and malnourished, resorted to eating fistfuls of dirt. In those days she was a subsistence cook who made thin soups from onions, potatoes, and flour.
Recipes for split pea soup (Erbsensuppe) show up in many of the self-produced cookbook collections from in and around Linton. Most involve frying (the German farmers did not sauté) onions and carrots in lard, then adding potatoes, split peas, water, and sometimes sausage. I learned to make this soup from my mother, who always made a big pot from the Easter ham. The recipe that follows is my adaptation.
½ pound thick-sliced bacon from the butcher, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
4 carrots, chopped
2 lb. split peas
5 quarts water
2 bay leaves
ham hock or bone from your Easter ham
Fry chopped bacon in a large soup pot, but don’t let it get too crisp. If the bacon is fatty, pour off some of the fat. If it is dry, you might have to add a little extra oil. (I use olive.)
Add onions and carrots to bacon and sauté until soft. (If I use olive oil I sauté; if I use lard I fry.)
Add peas, water, and bay leaves.
Simmer on very low heat for about 2 hours.
Remove bay leaves and ham bone.
Salt to taste but be careful. The ham and bacon will have already done part of the job.
1. Serve as is or puree in blender. (Add more water if the soup is too thick.)
2. Cut meat from the ham bone or hock and return it to the soup.
3. Fry additional bacon to crumble and serve on top of pureed soup.
4. Make rye croutons to serve with soup. (Toss cubes of rye in butter then bake at 375F for 15-20 minutes, tossing a time or two so they toast evenly.)
NB: If it is late at night and you have been up since dawn to make coffee for your college roommate’s husband who is a lawyer and has crashed at your house on his way to visit his client who is on death row and then you have to drive out to the suburbs for the funeral of your friend’s elderly mother and then go to work where you spend the afternoon interviewing job applicants and in the early evening you work on the finances for the non-profit board you are on so you can apply for a grant and you are very tired but have to make large quantities of soup for public consumption and you are pretty sure you’re going to doze off during the two-hour simmering period, when you set your iPhone alarm make sure you set it for midnight and not noon. Otherwise, you might simmer away all of the liquid and scorch the batch in the extra pot you borrowed from your friend’s mother and then have to carefully remove what is salvageable and spend the next day and night scraping away the black crust from the borrowed pot with vinegar, baking soda, Dutch Cleanser, and a mini crowbar from your toolbox and hope that if you need to serve this last batch of soup that the three pounds of bacon you have crumbled and the two loaves of rye bread you have made into croutons and the beer that the soup-eaters are drinking will hide the slightly extra-smokey flavor of this batch. Usually, this works.
Caroline O’Boyle has spent a lifetime orbiting the edge of creative production, occasionally tossing in a photo here, a song there, a tap dance when called for. Rarely free from the gravitational pull of those with more powerful creative impulses, O’Boyle has supported their work as audience, funder, administrator, and friend. For more than 12 years she has lived in East Garfield Park where she has hosted mah jong tournaments, bonfires, the Chicago Home Theater Festival, and a small herd of goats. Professionally, she has worked as an arts enabler with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Chicago Park District. Currently, she is the Director of Programs and Partnerships for The 606 at The Trust for Public Land.Posted: Friday Feb 3,2017 04:08 PM In Soup Recipes