Thick black clouds of smoke mixed with the smell of sweet red peppers roasting in their skins fill our nostrils and drift over the fence towards my neighbour, Mike’s yard. I am in my garden with my friend, Laurie and we are doing our annual fall preserves.
“What you’re making?” Mike asks in his thick Croatian accent, his arms resting on the fence; “Roasting pepper is good for eating? Try some of my beans – so sweet and tasty.”
He is cooking white beans, and putting them into little clear packages and storing them for soups in the winter. The winter months are stretching before us when the yard we are standing in will be covered in snow, the garden a hard frozen place where the crocuses sleep in the deep, waiting for the first breath of spring.
Early in our marriage when we lived out in the countryside, the garden grew in long neat rows. The stalks of corn would all be gone by now, picked by greedy fingers and gobbled up by hungry mouths dripping with butter. The carrots would be yanked out of the earth, cleaned and laid into their cold sandy beds in the basement, hidden from the cat that sometimes mistook the basket for kitty litter.
The potatoes would be uprooted from their little mounds, sorted and stored; tomatoes, sauced and canned; raspberries, frozen in yogurt containers and clear glass jars; peas and beans in layers in the freezer and the giant zucchini vine composting silently beside the Japanese maple tree that we planted in the spring.
There was such a sense of satisfaction then, as if the hard work of the summer was rewarded and there was comfort in the knowledge that we’d be well stocked with food for the winter months.
It would be lonely in the garden now, only a few turnips waiting to be uprooted and popped into vats of liquid paraffin, the hot clear stuff hardening into little pools around my rubber boots. It’s the last chore to be done and my neighbour Venetta struts across the road to give me a hand.
“It’s a long cold winter and you can never have too many turnips,” she says with a flip of her wrist as she dunks the severed head of the large root vegetable into the vat of molten wax. She rubs her hands against the sides of her dirty dungarees and laughs.
“The garden is how I make it through the winter,” she says; “A good vegetable soup will go a long way towards taking the chill out of old weary bones.” She laughs and rubs her hands together and tells me about when she was a little girl and how they learned to ‘make do’ and ‘go without’ to make the food stretch through the long winter months.
“Do you have a good recipe for vegetable soup?” I ask Venetta, as I wipe the dirt off my hands onto the legs of my jeans, the wax bubbling and hot in the pot between us. The sun is sinking low in the sky; the warmth of the afternoon starts to evaporate and a chill begins to grow in the dusky light. I imagine mounds and mounds of thick hot soup: potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, zucchini and tomatoes swimming in a sea of chicken stock.
Soup was often a first course at our Hungarian dinner table when I was growing up. These soups were almost a meal on their own and sometimes, much to my delight, we would skip the main course and go straight to desert.
My grandmother’s kitchen was a sacred place where she produced the daily family meal. It might be a hearty bableves or bean stew, a thick mixture of navy beans stewed with a meaty ham hock or there might be hearty goulash with lots of onions, root vegetables and tender beef peppered with paprika and simmered all day on the stove. There was chicken soup when we were feeling poorly and krumplileves or potato soup, served with a generous dollop of sour cream on top. Soup was the heart of my grandmother’s kitchen; it was how she poured her dearness into us before the bitterness of a life of disappointment took it away.
Venetta wanders over to a clump of dirt in the garden and gives it a sharp kick with the heel of her boot. “I thought I saw something sticking up over there,” she says, producing a perfect carrot. She rubs the dirt from the carrot and takes an enormous bite waving it at me like a long bony finger.
“There’s nothing sweeter than the taste of carrots fresh from your own garden, don’t you think?”
Back in my city garden, the barbecue sizzles with sweet red pepper juice dripping onto the hot coals. Once blackened, the peppers will then be dunked into cold water and their outer skins will peel off. The remaining peppers will be put into zip lock bags and frozen. It takes Laurie and me most of the afternoon, working in shifts at the barbecue and in the kitchen but it’s satisfying work. We will have plenty of sweet peppers for our soup this winter and maybe even a side dish for our Thanksgiving dinner.
Before the turkey and the cranberry sauce, before the new potatoes roasted in their skins, before the stuffing smothered in rivers of steaming gravy, before the turnips mashed with heaping spoonsful of butter, before the Brussels sprouts wrapped in crispy bacon, before the pumpkin pie slathered with heaping helpings of whipped cream, the sun rose dutifully as always but with a surprise.
I stagger into the kitchen and reach for my first cup of coffee and then my trusty recipe book where bits and pieces of handwritten, photocopied and torn-out-from-magazines recipes are nestled. I am looking for my now famous stuffing recipe that I know by heart but like to check before gathering all of my ingredients. As I flip through the pages, a tiny hand-written slip of paper falls to the ground. It’s been stuck to the back of a recipe card for Tanya’s special chicken curry and the handwriting is tiny and neat.
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup tomato juice
1 cup water
1 large potato, diced
2 carrots, sliced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1 small jar chopped tomatoes
a handful of frozen peas
½ cup frozen sweetcorn
a small turnip, chopped in squares
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
It’s Venetta’s No Fail Vegetable Soup recipe; it had gone missing years ago. Reunited I make a silent plan to resurrect it this winter with the addition of those peppers that we enjoyed roasting and freezing. I notice that there is a small post-script at the bottom of the piece of paper and I have to bring it into the light to read the tiny words at the bottom.
Don’t forget, the most important ingredient of all, no matter what you’re cooking, love.
When not in her hiking boots Julia Abelsohn is likely sitting at her computer musing, dreaming and writing. She spent over 25 years as a journalist, editor and corporate writer and now she’s letting herself become unleashed. She loves being a grandmother and is pondering writing a children’s book someday.