Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There's No Taste Like Home

Most people believe that their mothers are the best cooks on earth. Unfortunately for them, this is not true because of one simple fact – my mother holds that well deserved title.

We, the fortunate members of her clan, all have our favorite recipes – be it the prize winning chili (yes, it actually won first place in a chili cook-off) that she makes for Super Bowl Sunday, the meatloaf that made my father fall in love with her (it was the first meal that she ever cooked for him. After eating it, he decided that he had better marry her – “After all, if she could do that with meatloaf, then just think what else she could do!”), or her ever popular, original concoction known as “hamburger gravy” which taught us as children that looks can be deceiving (it looks like a plate of slop, but tastes like pure bliss). Yes, all of these recipes are great. Some are divine. But, if there is one dish that I would call her signature, it is the soup that she makes every year for Thanksgiving.

The soup is a traditional Italian dish which is often referred to as Wedding Soup. This is not because it is actually served at weddings, but the result of mistranslation. The soup combines greens with meat (usually meatballs). When two things go well together, the direct translation in Italian is that they are “well married.” There are probably as many variations on this soup as there are Italian families. Some use spinach, others endive. Some add pasta, others do not. A Google search for “Italian Wedding Soup Recipe” yields over 80 pages of results.

My mother’s version consists of sautéed escarole, carrots, bites of shredded chicken, and mini meatballs floating harmoniously in a rich, golden chicken broth. We top it off with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese which coaxes out some of the subtle, savory undertones of the broth and the meatballs. It sounds simple, but believe me when I tell you that it is anything but.

Growing up, I had no idea that it was a variation on a common dish. My family simply called it Mom’s (or RoRo’s, if she was your aunt) Escarole Soup. In fact, I didn’t learn of its traditional roots and nuptial name until my freshman year at college. I was reveling in the memory of thanksgivings past, describing it to my roommate when she said, blithely, “Oh, yeah, Italian Wedding Soup.” After a pause she added, “It’s ok.”

What did she mean? Other people had made my mother’s soup? My roommate had tasted it before and only thought it OK? In a flash, my world was turned upside down.

Perhaps she did not understand me, I consoled myself. After all, I, too, had confused the soup when I was younger. Our pantry was often filled with canned soup for quick and easy meals that we kids could make on our own if Mom and Dad were out for a night on the town. One such evening, I was thrilled to find a can of Progresso Escarole Soup on the shelf. What a treat - escarole soup even though it was no where near Thanksgiving! I opened the can to find a slimy nest of grey, overcooked escarole steeped in flavorless green broth. Disappointment and revulsion filled my tiny body. I would have been less upset to learn the truth about Santa Claus. This was the first piece of evidence that my mother’s soup was something special, something that I would not find anywhere other than her kitchen.

For the past 30 or so years, my mother has cooked the bulk of Thanksgiving dinner, which is no small feat since we are a large family of hungry Italians. A typical holiday gathering consists of at least 30 people who have the appetites of 60. This meal requires an enormous amount of preparation. I do not know of anyone other than my mother who starts cooking for that glorious day of gluttony as early as September.

Well before the first whisper of autumn is upon us, while the leaves on the trees are still deep green, my mother has already made 18 quarts of chicken stock. Roasting up sometimes as many as six chickens - feet and all - she then slaves away in front of an impossibly large stockpot (it is actually army issued, to give you an idea of the vast quantity we are talking about) as she sautés several pounds of carrots, celery, and onions for the base of her stock.

Once completed, the broth goes into the freezer (technically, a collection of freezers – most goes into one of the 3 freezers at my parents’ house, the rest scattered between the freezers of my three sisters who live nearby), waiting patiently for the moment when it will be reunited in all of its glory.

A few weeks later, it is time to make the mini-meatballs. When I was younger, it was my job to roll them. Every year it seemed that meatball duty would sneak up on me and instead of going out to play with my friends, I had to spend the day rolling hundreds of meatballs the size of a dime. It was a long day filled with cold, ground meat and messy hands. I hated it, especially since Mom had a great eye for quality control – if the meatballs were even the slightest bit larger than dime sized, she deemed them unacceptable and gave them back to me to roll again. She always taught me that if you were going to do something, do it so that you could proudly sign your name to it like an artist signing their masterpiece, meatballs being no exception.

I rolled as she cooked them, counting each one so that she always knew how many went into the soup. This obsession of hers probably developed from years of people complaining that there were not enough meatballs (more likely a result of certain family members hogging them than actual lack of meatballs). Every year without fail, someone asks how many meatballs are in this batch, and every year she has the exact count. Even though I hated rolling them, my heart always filled with pride when she revealed the insanely large number of meatballs that I had helped make. I still remember the first year that we broke a thousand. I spent the entire holiday crowing about my accomplishment, oblivious to the reality that though they may be the star of the soup, rolling the meatballs is just one small step.

On the morning of Thanksgiving, it is time to join all of the ingredients together to form the mystical mélange that is the fruit of months of labor. This is physically demanding, as she is dealing with impossibly large quantities of ingredients that must be lifted, poured and combined. Eight heads of escarole are sautéed and drained - the final addition to the soup. The enormous pot simmers for hours, blending the fragrances and flavors together until it is the familiar, steaming brew of my mother’s love that we all hunger for and too often take for granted.

My mother is getting on in years and we have all been worried that, in addition to other mounting health problems, she has been wracked with mysterious pain in her back and legs that often makes it impossible for her to walk. Yet, this year, like every other, she went through the many arduous steps of making her signature soup. Shortcuts, such as using canned stock or bouillon cubes, never even entered the realm of possibility. She and my father rolled the 1,100 meatballs without my help. Five gallons of soup were ready and waiting for my family on Thanksgiving Day.

As an adult, I have adopted the philosophy of “Food is Love”, which is no surprise given the environment in which I was raised. This Thanksgiving, as I savored my escarole soup, I could taste every ounce of my mother’s devotion to her family, her unwillingness to let anyone down, and her sense of pride and joy at being able to provide such wonders. I was more aware than ever of how much of my mother’s soul goes into that soup and equally aware that though there may be many versions of it in the world, none will ever hold a candle to hers. Even if her recipe was followed to the letter (an impossible task because my mother never writes down her recipes - each year the formula is adjusted based on her well developed sense of taste), it would never be the same if made by anyone other than her. My mother’s soup lives only as long as she is able to make it.

This year, we again were blessed with its presence on our holiday table. For that, I am extremely thankful.

1 comment:

Laurel said...

over 1,000 meatballs? wow. i'm speechless. except to say:
what a sweet post this is!