My Grandma nourished me. When she passed away seven years ago, she left a hole in my world; and much like the hole left in Haida Gwaii’s Cathedral Forest when its giant Golden Spruce was tragically removed, a space nonetheless remains even while on its verges new growth finds space. I have survived, even thrived, since she left my present day … but a hole in the clearing of my heart still remains.
My grandmother nourished me. She nourished me with her love. She saw my essence and she encouraged that part of me to grow. She was not loath to scold me when I detoured too far from the path that she knew I was destined to walk, even when I couldn’t see it. Through most of my childhood, I saw her every other weekend and more often during the summer. The visits weren’t always long; sometimes I was with my parents and sister; sometimes with other family; sometimes alone. Most of our visits were spent in talking, with my grandmother telling me about my larger family tree, her youth, her experiences, the things she learned, and the things she wanted to share. Whatever the topic, I devoured her words and took in everything I heard. She’d bring a bushel of books from the library every few weeks and plow through them and there is no question that my love of reading was fueled by her directly. I still remember reading my first book with her: The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I remember getting phone calls from her throughout my childhood as she instructed me to look things up in my family’s edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, things she sometimes knew or could easily have looked up herself. If she did not instill in me a love of knowledge and learning, then she at least cultivated that which was innate to my being. But more than anything, she loved me for who I was, no matter what mischief I undertook, or misdeeds I committed, or mistakes I made. She was always there, sometimes helping me learn from what I did, but never did she fail in her support.
My grandmother had five children, thirteen grandchildren, more extended family than I can count and god knows how many dear friends and acquaintances. Everyone made time to visit her and I believe they all in their own way felt that same love and support that I knew. I think each of my cousins felt, like me, that when they were with her, they were the most important grandchild in the world. We all had our rituals and traditions when visiting her, but there were a few that were common to all. We all were given permission to reach our hands in her jade-coloured cookie jar made of some creamy “milk glass” from the ’50s and if you asked any one of her children or grandchildren which of Grandma’s meals they remember most, it would be hamburger soup.
My grandmother’s hamburger soup nourished our growing bodies as her love fed our hearts. I can’t tell you the number of people who sat and ate with her at her butterfly kitchen table … the table where she spent so much of her time either looking out the window at her pear tree, the hummingbirds, or whatever other life was either in bloom or moving through her yard. It was where she had her morning coffee and breakfast, where she composed the reams of letters that travelled the world, including the shoebox full that I acquired over the course of my own travels. It’s where she spent years of her life playing solitaire and watching baseball on her tiny screen. And it’s where she had lunch with me.
The soup was never the same way twice … but yet it was never different. It was always served in a piece of mismatched china with one of her silver spoons. There was always butter with crackers, saltines or Ryvita, or a piece of toast or crusty bread to dip into the hot broth. Always it was served with powdered Parmesan to sprinkle over top … yes, the stuff you get from Kraft.
When I was child, hamburger soup was served. When I was a young adult, hamburger soup was something each grandchild in turn asked to have served.
I swear my grandmother’s large chest-freezer was mostly full of hamburger soup and the “vegetable water” she used to create it. That was the one ingredient, her so-called “secret” that I knew that went into it. Every time she boiled broccoli or beans or any vegetables as part of her meat and potatoes diet, she painstakingly saved this thin vegetable water in old margarine containers and froze it ….. This was her ‘stock.’
Over the years as we each in turn went to university or moved away, each connected grandchild would ask her for her recipe. I don’t think that any of us were particularly successful in getting any recipe from her. More likely we each got vague lists of ingredients that centred around a pound of hamburger, some vegetables, and the “secret” … her vegetable water. My sister and I independently tried to reconstruct it and I remember saying to my sister one time, “My hamburger soup just doesn’t taste right. What does she put in it? There is something missing in my batches.” My sister contended that it was a package or two of Lipton Onion Soup mix. I couldn’t in my heart believe it – everything about that soup tasted “homemade” and everything about my grandmother, the woman who had lived through the depression and had sewn flour sacks into dresses, said that she always made things from scratch. One day, I called my grandmother and confronted her about it and she unapologetically admitted to it. I have to say, it was a bit like learning that the tooth fairy didn’t exist.
Real or imagined, though, my grandmother’s soup remains one of the most cherished dishes of my life and certainly of my childhood. That soup, like her love, provided me nourishment in a life that was at times emotionally malnourished.
When my grandmother died, the active part of her love disappeared along with future days of eating hamburger soup with her at her table. Most of her children and grandchildren continue to try to reproduce that recipe. And each of us is successful in our own way of recreating it, though, in truth none of us has come close to reproducing “Grandma’s soup.” Throughout my young adulthood, I always had a batch in my own freezer. Whenever I needed a reassuring hug, I’d pull out a margarine container and heat it up. And, in those spoonfuls of nourishment that followed, I’d once again be at her table looking out at her pear tree … and, in those moments, everything would be okay again.
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Postscript and Recipe: As I prepared this article, I knew that Valerie Lugonja (the force behind this project and the challenges) also expected that I post a recipe. A challenge, to be sure, to create something that never existed. And a bigger challenge knowing that I couldn’t post a recipe that included Lipton Onion Soup or Bovril as an ingredient. While I did buy a high-quality vegetable broth to substitute for her vegetable water, I am extremely proud to report that I I believe I was able to reproduce not only the comforting memory of my grandmother’s soup and but was able to reproduce it from scratch, without the aid of Lipton’s package. I’m happy to share the recipe for My Grandma’s Hamburger Soup (De/Re-constructed) here.
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.