Pease Porridge Hot: In praise of good plain food






Thomas W. Lackner


May 9, 2005

Pease Porridge Hot:

In praise of good plain food


Thomas W. Lackner

May 9, 2005


Amazing soup! (how sweet the taste!)

That fill’d a wretch like me!

I once did hunger, now am sate;

Did thirst, am now replete.[1]


The winter of 1978 was cold and wet, at least in Central Australia.  I was teaching at Ti Tree at the time, a six-pack, for so distances are measured in that part of the world, north of Alice Springs.  That year I frequently wore my down jacket, usually reserved for the coldest nights, all day, and we had a resident black swan on the semipermanent waterhole which was normally the school’s front weed patch.  I soon learned that on Friday nights the roadhouse served ham and cheese jaffles – a close relative of toasted sandwiches, but with sealed edges – and a thick, rich split pea soup.  Slogging through the mud on the unpaved streets, waving to the locals because the din of Slim Dusty on the jukebox made conversation impossible, and patiently waiting for my turn at the bar, I would order dinner: pea soup, a ham-and-cheese jaffle, and, of course, a beer.  One of the reasons I came to Northern Exposure late and left early was that I had already lived it.  Just think of mud instead of snow and cattle instead of moose.

Many Americans would list hamburgers or fried chicken as their “comfort food.”  Australians who find themselves overseas will go to any lengths to obtain Vegemite, a ghastly yeast extract with approximately the salt content of the Dead Sea.  Despite the decline of cod, the English cling to their fish and chips, preferably drenched in vinegar.  An informal survey of restaurants indicates that the Viennese devour schnitzel with artery-clogging delight; even at six o’clock, only late afternoon by Austrian tummy time, the line at Figlmüller is out the door and down the block.  But for me, soup defines comfort, and in particular soups involving legumes: chili and black bean soup are good, but the best of all on a wintry night is split pea soup in any of its glorious permutations.

Peas are legumes, one of the wonders of the plant kingdom.  The legumes are famous for their ability to fix nitrogen.  Of course, it isn’t actually the legume which does the fixing.  Rather, the legume provides a home to one of the Rhizobium bacteria.  It is actually the bacterial colonies which transform nitrogen in the soil into the ammonia which the plant is able to use.  This alone would be a reason to plant legumes, even if only soybeans, which have many useful functions although tofu is not one of them.  In addition to soybeans, legumes include not only such offenses to the palate as wax beans and black-eyed peas but also culinary delights like lima beans and the hero of this story, the split pea.

The split pea, Pisum sativum, is the same creature as that infamous canned mystery vegetable served to generations of American schoolchildren and politicians on the rubber chicken circuit as well as the subject of Gregor Mendel’s famous experiments.  The field pea, the variety used for soup, was bred to be dried and stored for long periods.  When soaked, simmered with a ham hock, bay leaf, and carrots, however, the humble split pea becomes not simply soup but a meal fit for royalty.

One of the best things about split pea soup is the simplicity of its preparation.  Soak a pound of split peas overnight.  The next morning, add enough additional water to bring the liquid up to ten cups.  Add a ham hock and simmer for two hours, stirring as you feel the urge. 

The world of cooks is divided into stirrers and readers.  Those of us in the stirring group are up every five minutes because we know full well that the laws of thermodynamics cannot be trusted in gastronomic matters; the readers fritter away their time reading the paper and drinking coffee.  There is no evidence that either produces a superior bowl of split pea soup. 

After two hours add a cup or so of chopped carrots, a cup or so of chopped onion, a cup or so of chopped celery, and a bay leaf or two.  Simmer for an additional hour or so, stirring according to your predilection, then pass the soup through a sieve and chill for a few hours.  Skim the fat off the surface, reheat, and bind with a roux of butter and flour or leftover mashed potatoes.  Eat with salad, garlic bread or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and gusto – the more pints of gusto, the better.

I didn’t add any salt to the soup because I left out the secret ingredients.  I put in a clove or two of chopped garlic with the onion, some ground thyme, and then two or three Andouille or Chorizo sausages during the last half hour.  With that mixture of spices, plus the salt from the ham and sausage, no additional salt is necessary.  Remove the sausage and ham hock before putting the soup through the sieve, then chop the sausage and remove the meat from the ham hock and add those back to the soup when reheating it.  The result is a soup different from and superior in every way to the one canned by Mr. Campbell’s descendents, equal in difference to that between American cheese and Stilton.

Julia Child might not endorse such liberties.  The master of the art of French cooking disapproved of people who alter recipes.[2]  What would she have said about my Uncle Herman, at whose table many current and former Literary Club members supped?  My then not-quite-wife and I once walked into his house as he was preparing dinner for a gathering the following evening.  Dinner was to be cassoulet and Herman, dissatisfied with any particular recipe, was trying to combine three recipes including one from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  My wife still tells this story as an example of what happens when cooks experiment with recipes.  I, who am more enamored of legumes than she is, see nothing wrong with attempts to improve on recipes, even the recipes of Julia Child.  This is, after all, how the art of cooking advances.

I’m not alone in embellishing split pea soup.  Joan Carpenter, who has lived for many years in Tennant Creek, a half carton north of Ti Tree, reminisces frequently about her childhood in Adelaide and the gastronomic delights of the City of Churches.  An institution unique to Adelaide is the pie floater: a meat pie served upside down in a bowl of split pea soup, liberally doused with ketchup.  The pie floater has even been named an official South Australian cultural icon.  The pie carts appear in the evening in central Adelaide and remain open until the wee hours, dispensing pie floaters to gamblers leaving the casino, opera patrons, businessmen working late, the homeless, and anyone else who feels hungry.  Joan assures me that although the concoction sounds appalling, it is actually delicious.  Support for this appraisal seems to be unanimous; googling “pie floater Adelaide” brings up over a thousand pages, and although I have not checked them all, the ones I did check were undivided in their endorsement of the virtues of the pie floater.

That split pea soup is healthy as well as delicious is unquestionable.  For years it was a staple of sailors and explorers.  The voyageurs lived on it, paddling trade goods and furs back and forth across Canada while the evening’s peas were soaking in a pot in the canoe.  The Royal Navy trained, explored, and fought on it across the seven seas.[3]  Dried peas will keep for years if necessary, are relatively light, and make a nourishing, if boring, meal without anything more than water.  Add some carrots, some meat, and a few spices, and it becomes a one-pot meal fit even for a future king.

All legumes are high in fiber, but like the equality of pigs, some legumes have more fiber than others.  The amount of fiber, however, depends not only on the legume involved but also on the definition of “fiber,” which in fact has no single, accepted meaning within the food world.

According to the food chemists, “dietary fiber” as listed on the Cheerios box is the total amount of indigestible plant matter in whatever you happen to be eating.  If you want a more precise definition, you might ask the Food and Drug Administration, but that turns out to be a fool’s errand.  “Dietary fiber” is merely the fiber in your diet.  Lengthy investigation reveals that there is soluble fiber, which turns to a gel when mixed with water; soluble fiber is also called viscous fiber, which is certainly appropriate given what happens if you let your glass of Metamucil stand too long.  It turns out that there is also insoluble, or fermentable, fiber, which does not dissolve.[4]  Ain’t science grand?  I will lump the two together and use the chemist’s definition.

What are indigestible plant parts?  Principally cellulose and hemicellulose, along with lignin, pectin, and a few other carbohydrate-based products.  If you recall your botany, you will recognize these as the principle components of cell walls.  Botanists are fond of pointing out that cellulose is probably the single most common biological molecule on the planet.  It is composed of long chains of glucose, just like starch.  In starch the bonds between molecules are arranged in a regular 1 – 4 pattern.  In cellulose, however, the bonds flip-flop, giving cellulose an alternating structure which turns out to give it great rigidity and make it almost impervious to the actions of water and animal digestive enzymes.  As a result, dietary fiber does not break down, is not absorbed across the lining of the small intestine, and passes through the digestive system unscathed.

We are told, ad nauseam, that dietary fiber is good for us.  “… [D]iets low in fat and high in fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables are associated with a reduced risk of cancer,” says the FDA[5].  Unfortunately, the FDA is unable to tell us why: “… the specific role of dietary fiber, fiber components and the multiple nutrients and other substances contained in these foods are not yet fully understood.”[6]  In the absence of science, I am free to speculate about how fiber works.  I suspect that fiber acts rather like steel wool on a crusty frying pan.  First, it traps the fats while passing through the small intestine, just as steel wool is instantly gummed up with fat.  This is how fiber removes cholesterol: it binds the cholesterol in the small intestine, preventing absorption, and also binds with bile, which contains cholesterol.  It goes on to scour out the colon as it passes through.  The more fiber you eat, the cleaner the colon because of the regular scouring.  Since split peas have a very high fiber content – a single serving has 65% of the FDA-recommended daily fiber value[7], as much as five tablespoons of Metamucil – split pea soup meets the ultimate food test: it tastes good, it’s good for you, and it’s cheap.

“Soup is water flavored by meat or bones, or vegetables or legumes, herbs and spices, and almost anything else the human race is known to eat.  The soup may have pieces of all these things in it.”[8]  It is conceivable that cold soups like gazpacho could have emerged before fire was domesticated, but since most soups require heat, it is more likely that soup began by accident.  Patricia Solley[9] reflects on the origin of soup, arguing that it must have come between 10,000 and 80,000 years ago.  She speculates about Neanderthal chefs carrying water in bark or wood containers and noticing how food swelled and colors leached when they fell into the water, how the taste of the water changed, and how small the leap really is from a stream-temperature fruit tea to hot soup.

Heating this paleolithic soup, even without a Le Creuset Dutch oven, would not have been difficult; many cultures, from Australian Aborigines to Native Americans, have mastered the art of boiling water using heated rocks.  Indigenous peoples probably used heated rocks for cooking, as have modern campers who crave pizza while canoeing.  The Aborigines even managed to render the fruit of cycads edible, a feat which requires repeated leaching, mashing, and boiling to remove the toxins.  If a cook can do that, he can make soup.

Once the basics – heating something in water – have been mastered, the cook is inhibited only by ingredients and imagination.  Until the emergence of agriculture in late neolithic times, ingredients were limited by seasons and the plants and animals which were locally available.  When farming established legumes and grains as crops, cooks had access to foods which could be dried, preserved, and traded without significant loss of nutritive value, and the scope of possible soups increased exponentially.  With the steady food supply in a single location which farming provided, permanent shelter became possible.  Permanent shelter in turn allowed the development of both the kitchen and kitchen utensils. 

Pots and pans are heavy and awkward to move; nomads possess few, if any, of these.  The Aborigines of Central Australia have a single implement, a concave section of tree limb called a coolamon, which is used to winnow grass seeds and mix dough as well as carry water and, when moving camp, tote babies and infants.  Consider now my kitchen, in which there are three stock pots, two Dutch ovens, half a dozen sauce pans, four frying and sautéing pans (five if you count the cast iron pan used for roasting chicken), a grilling pan, two roasting pans, and I haven’t even started on the knives, spoons, spatulas, whisks, forks, and so on.  I could simplify my kitchen, but my soup might suffer, and that is a step I am not yet prepared to take.  Thank goodness for permanent shelter.

The advent of agriculture and a sedentary (by comparison) lifestyle also allowed protocooks to take advantage of the skills of potters and metalsmiths.  Pots and pans allow another improvement in the preparation of soup: continuous heat.  Until this point our ancestors were building fires which they used to heat rocks; the heated rocks were then transferred to a container like an animal skin to heat the soup.  This can result in temperature fluctuations unless the vessel is watched closely. 

Andrew Smith notes that “the cooking technique of boiling was not commonly used until the invention of waterproof and heatproof containers about five thousand years ago.”[10]    Heat is an important part of making most soups, because most soups begin with complex organic molecules.  A grain of salt in water rapidly ionizes, producing cations and anions without any thermal intervention.  A piece of tough meat covered with water, however, is just a wet piece of tough meat until heat is added.[11]  The addition of heat causes proteins to begin unraveling, the first step on the road leading ultimately to tenderness.  Heat also releases starch from storage vessels in plants, thickening soups and stews.  Heat releases and mingles the flavors in a way that soaking never can.[12] 

What is true of soup additives in general is true in particular of split peas, which remain crunchy even after hours of soaking in cold water; only when they are boiled do they yield their complex flavors and textures.  Mixing other flavor sources by heating them with the peas enriches the soup.

With the advent of clay and metal cooking vessels, the soup could be put directly on the fire and the heat controlled by making a cooler or hotter fire.  A little ingenuity and a little reticulated gas and pretty soon – on an evolutionary time scale – the soup is in a Le Creuset Dutch oven on a six-burner Viking range.  But it’s still the same pea soup the voyageurs balanced in a cast iron pot in a canoe on Lake Superior.

There are many foods other than split pea soup which attract strong followings.  A year ago my wife and I were staying on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, not far from the Virginia state line.  Since I am always in need of steamed clams and fresh crab cakes whenever I am near salt water, we asked our hosts if there might be a restaurant which featured such items.  We followed their directions down back roads to the Crab House, an out-of-the-way shack on the edge of an inlet in Greenbackville, Virginia.  There we found the best steamed little necks I have ever tasted.  Even the friends who were with us, Maryland residents who can have clams whenever the mood strikes them, said these were exceptional.

I used to sneer at the genre of food known throughout the Midwest as “barbecue.”  “You might be a redneck if you think ‘barbecue’ is a noun,” I can hear Jeff Foxworthy saying.  I knew Calvin Trillin raved about the quality of barbecued ribs at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City,[13] but I could never quite see the attraction of burning meat until it resembled the sole of your shoe, pouring some vinegar-flavored red sauce over it, and calling it an “ethnic delicacy.”  That is, until I was in Kansas City.  “Why not,” I thought.  “I’m here in the alleged barbecue capital of the world, Memphis notwithstanding.  At the worst I’ll have indigestion for a day or two, and that happens at home.”  So I did a little research on the internet and discovered that – steady, Trillin – Arthur Bryant’s is considered déclassé.  Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue is now alleged by many sources to be the best source for barbecued meat in Kansas City and, by extension, the civilized world.

By several strange turns my wife and I found ourselves at lunch one day in Independence, Missouri, at Clinton’s Soda Fountain, an eminently forgettable greasy spoon.  This may be the site of Harry Truman’s first job, but their chief activity now is drumming up business for Maalox.  For chili they opened a can from Hormel’s reject pile.  To make a grilled cheese sandwich they toasted two slices of white bread in a toaster, then put a slice of American cheese between them and popped it in the microwave on a paper plate, serving this travesty on the same paper plate. 

That evening, having been to “the mall” in between, we went to Fiorella’s, principally so we could say we had tried the barbecue in Kansas City.  I cannot claim to be an authority on all things barbecue after one visit to one restaurant.  But I do admit that, after years of snobbish refusal to consider “barbecue” a food at all, I am converted.  At last I understand what the fuss is about: hours of slow cooking at low temperature do for the toughest cuts of meat what nothing else can.  This oldest form of cooking – for there can be little doubt that the first barbecue was an unfortunate mastodon discovered by one of our early ancestors after a lightning strike in a forest – deserves a place in the pantheon of American regional food.

Marilyn Smith, an acquaintance who was involved in market research for several years, says that Cedar Rapids, Iowa, consumes more pizza per capita than any other city in the United States.  I can believe this, for the only national chain not represented in Cedar Rapids, as far as I can tell, is Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno.  Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John, Papa Murphy, Chuck E. Cheese, Little Caesar’s, and Happy Joe’s are all listed in the telephone directory.  But also listed are Tomaso’s, Zoey’s, and Naso’s.  These are small, local pizza specialists.  Tom Carfrae proudly puts his goal on the wall at Tomaso’s: “Our mission statement: make good pizza.” If you want to eat at Tomaso’s on Friday evening, plan on spending an hour in line.   If you want pizza from Zoey’s at halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, you better call during the pre-game show.

The common theme of all these restaurants is a limited menu, prepared to order with care and pride, with quality being more important than either speed or price.  Curiously, none of these restaurants is expensive by modern standards.  A dozen steamers on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or along the waterfront in Seattle will cost easily three times as much as on the Delmarva Peninsula.  The price of whitefish livers at McCormick and Schmick’s or Shaw’s, in the unlikely event you found them on the menu, would certainly be astronomical compared to the price in Gruenke’s in Bayfield.  Fiorella’s may be expensive by some standards, but we walked out with a second dinner for two and change from forty dollars including drinks, something you’ll never do at Benihana.

Another advantage of these establishments is that you don’t have to put up with a new class of intellectual, the “foodie.”  Foodies, as nearly as I can ascertain, are the first people to patronize a new restaurant that advertises itself as being suitable for the discerning palate.  Foodies will beat a path to the door of any new beanery offering Mongolian-Turkish fusion cooking, even if that is really just old horse on a stick.  Such people flock to the newest sushi bar but are seldom found at Hackney’s, where they have been serving the world’s best onion rings for forty years that I can attest to.

David Sedaris writes of an experience in a New York restaurant of the sort favored by foodies.  “ ‘And this would be … what, exactly?’ Hugh asks.

“ ‘This,’ the waiter announces, ‘is our raw Atlantic swordfish served in a dark chocolate gravy and garnished with fresh mint.’ ”[14]

Sedaris goes on to bemoan the loss of traditional establishments in favor of “… precious little bistros boasting a menu of indigenous American cuisine.”  “The patty melt,” he writes, “has been pushed aside in favor of the herb-encrusted medallions of baby artichoke hearts, which never leave me thinking, Oh, right, those!  I wonder if they’re as good as the ones my mom used to make.”[15]

Dining out in much of America has become an ordeal, not a pleasure.  If you are unfortunate enough to live in a city where McDonald’s is considered the apotheosis of haute cuisine, as I do, you must be prepared to drive what Iowans consider a long distance to find a good meal, except for pizza and that quintessentially Iowa sandwich, the pork tenderloin.  As more families struggle to get by on two incomes, the time available for preparation of food has dwindled.  One parent or the other must dash home to get something out of the freezer and thrust it into the microwave so the kids can eat between soccer practice and homework.  In the race between speed and quality of preparation, quality finishes a distant second.  Because dinner at home becomes a harried and hurried affair, more restaurants can appear good by comparison.  Add to this the disappearance of home economics from most middle school or junior high school curricula and you have the basis of modern American culinary banality. 

Our expectations when we dine out increasingly reflect this same appreciation for care and quality.  We want our dinner to be on the table in the restaurant almost as soon as we give the order.  To achieve this, restaurants increasingly cook food ahead, freeze it, and then pop it in the microwave as soon as the order appears on the screen over the cook’s counter.  Not much different from grilled cheese a’ la Radarange.

The result is the mediocritization of much of the food industry.  We have turned our ingredients into tasteless polyploid imitations of fruits and vegetables, designed to survive transportation and cold storage rather than look and taste appealing.  Our meat and poultry industries, and increasingly our fish as well, use more steroids than Barry Bonds and consume more of the annual antibiotic production of America’s pharmaceutical industry than humans.[16] 

A couple of years ago I was dining at Vino’s in Cedar Rapids which, the name notwithstanding, is owned by an entrepreneur of Lebanese-American descent who has been in the food business for over thirty years and who founded and still owns Naso’s of pizza fame.  I ordered spaghetti with meatballs, a dish which should be resistant to mutilation.  I tasted the sauce and suggested to the waiter that the chef had been heavy-handed with the red pepper flakes.  I asked him to take it back and give me a fresh plate, without the pepper.  He replied that he could not do this, since the sauce was made in an industrial  kitchen across town and brought over in one-gallon plastic bags.  The restaurant simply reheats and serves the sauce.  Along with our manufacturing we have outsourced our food industry.  I’m sure this is faster and cheaper, but it also makes the cook immune from complaints.  I haven’t eaten at Vino’s since that day.

Bad food is not, unfortunately, found only in the United States.  Over thousands of miles and hundreds of meals in rural Australia I found more than my share of inedible concoctions masquerading as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  There were hamburgers –  a piece of leather between two slices of asbestos – in Camooweal, cheese and tomato sandwiches with a heavy dose of Vegemite at the McKinley pub, and tea fit only for flushing the car’s radiator at Frewena.  I suspect that most establishments around the world dedicated to rapid customer turnover are interested less in the quality of their food than in the quantity of the customer’s payment.

There is a solution to the problem of fast food: Slow Food.  This does not mean food which takes a long time to reach the table, like the trout I almost had in Tombstone one December night, which took over an hour after ordering to arrive in a restaurant which was only half full; from the fish’s taste and texture, the cook was half full, too.  Rather, Slow Food describes an ethic: dedication to quality and freshness and therefore the use of local ingredients, and the same care in preparation which characterizes the restaurants I mentioned earlier.

Slow Food is an official movement with followers and events, founded by Carlo Petrini, dedicated to the preservation of taste in food.  It is an outgrowth of the rise of fast food which is often blamed on the United States but for which Britain with its Wimpy bars and Japan with its dedication to automats must shoulder equal blame.  It is the antithesis of corporate food production, processing, and promotion.  Petrini writes that, “The Slow Food project was born in Italy in opposition to the fast food that landed on our shores and tried to take over …  If fast food means uniformity, Slow Food sets out to save and resuscitate individual gastronomic legacies everywhere. … [S]lowness is an antidote to hurry and the gulping down of nourishment.”[17] 

Petrini singles out McDonald’s, at least in part because the movement began when McDonald’s opened a “restaurant” at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome.  Perhaps there is something in the Italian psyche which resists fast food.  A fellow Italian food critic, Edoardo Raspelli, described McDonald’s hamburgers as tasting of rubber, and said its French fries were made of cardboard.  Raspelli likened his dining experience at McDonald’s to filling up at a gas station.  In response, McDonald’s sued Raspelli for libel, seeking twenty-one million euros in compensation, that being the amount of its Italian advertising budget in 2002.  Raspelli’s response?  “I wrote what I thought about the fast-food kitchen.  I find it repellent.  But I have insulted nobody.  I cite my right to make food criticism.”[18]  Raspelli should know about his rights: he has already won more than twenty libel suits initiated by restaurateurs and others in the food industry.[19]

Petrini and Raspelli are scarcely unique in their criticism of the purveyors of fast food.  I am guilty of describing McDonald’s as the Wal-Mart of the food industry, a place where flavor is secondary to profit and suppliers are forced to meet McDonald’s definition of quality.  McDonald’s specifies more than just the moisture content of the russet Burbank potatoes it buys for French fries; it also specifies the genetic heritage, with all the potatoes it buys descended from one line of Idaho potatoes.[20] Eric Schlosser, an American and the author of Fast Food Nation, provides a frightening glimpse inside the American food industry, from the farm to the abattoir to the franchise down the street.  According to Schlosser, “in 1970 Americans spent six billion dollars on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than one hundred and ten billion dollars.  Americans now spend more money on fast food than they spend on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.”[21] What you get for your buck from McDonald’s – or KFC, or Pizza Hut, or Starbuck’s, or Applebee’s – is dumbed-down generic protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids.

 Food is synergistic.  It is more than the sum of its molecular components.  Food is complex organic and physical chemistry, resulting in aromas and flavors and textures as well as nutrition.  When you start with manipulated ingredients and treat them unkindly, the result is unlikely to be rewarding.  Few people would want to eat at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Jack in the Box again after reading Schlosser’s comments about how franchise food is grown, processed, and prepared.  But you don’t need to go to a fast food emporium to eat poorly.  Soda fountains in Independence can serve up indigestible fare with the best of them, as I have already noted.  So how can you tell whether the establishment you are about to enter has good food, bad food, or the usual indifferent offering?  One way, I believe, is to look at the community around you.

I asked Kurt-Michael Friese, the owner-chef of Devotay in Iowa City and leader of the Slow Food convivium in eastern Iowa, why Iowa City has so many good places to eat while Cedar Rapids, almost twice its size and only twenty miles away, has so few – except, of course, for pizza.  I had long believed that the difference was due at least in part to the presence of the university in Iowa City, and the cosmopolitan population that comes with a large university.  Friese agreed with my hypothesis, but added that good restaurants create their own educated clientele, which in turn expects more good restaurants.[22] 

My wife and I noticed while living in Flagstaff, slightly smaller than Iowa City but also with a university in its midst, that there were many good places to eat.  Curiously, however, there were also many bland or even bad establishments.  For every Cottage Place there was an Olive Garden, for every Pesto Brothers there was a McDonald’s.  There were “authentic” Mexican restaurants, but Taco Bell did a roaring trade as well.  Our conclusion, based on absolutely no evidence, was that while Northern Arizona University may contribute a cosmopolitan atmosphere to the city and its dining, the Grand Canyon brings five million visitors a year.  Most of those believe they must choose between dining quickly and dining well in Flagstaff.  The result is a much broader spectrum of food quality than that found in either Cedar Rapids or Iowa City.

I asked Friese if Slow Food necessarily meant that food arrived at the table slowly.  I cited my mother’s recipe for hollandaise as an example of what I consider Slow Food which is prepared quickly: one tablespoon of butter, one teaspoon of lemon juice, one egg yolk, and a dash of cayenne pepper.  Melt the butter in a double boiler and mix the egg yolk, lemon juice, and cayenne.  When the butter is melted, add the egg, stirring constantly until it reaches the desired consistency.  This is something I can make in my sleep and which, if you discount the time required to bring the egg to room temperature, requires only three minutes to prepare.  Friese agreed this would indeed be fast Slow Food: it uses fresh ingredients and is prepared as needed, with attention to taste and texture, rather than coming from a jar.  It also has the advantage of being so simple that even I can make it.

Like many Americans, my first interest in food, as opposed to stuff you just put in your mouth, was probably a result of watching television.  Sunday evenings I listened – and watched – as Julia Child demystified the process of food preparation.  A “towering figure on the culinary front,”[23] Child taught a generation of Americans that it was all right not just to enjoy good food but to actually try to prepare it.  According to Jacques Pépin, “[s]he demystified French cuisine in a way that had not been done before.”[24]  But she did more than that; she also made mistakes, on live television, and laughed them off as part of the process of cooking.  Although the New York Times insists Americans were already Francophiles, at least in their food preferences, when Child burst onto the American television screen in 1962,[25] in fact it was Julia Child who popularized “foreign” food in America.  The result should have been a nation of gastronomes who would be intolerant of cardboard French fries when they could have pommes frites, who would sneer at bottled hollandaise when they could make the real thing in three minutes.  Instead, we are a nation that allows any place serving food to call itself a restaurant and which tolerates the abuse of our palates without criticism, provided only that the portions are enormous.

I have wandered far from the original topic, but homemade soup is quintessentially Slow Food, at home or in a restaurant.  Using a frozen chicken stock as a base, which takes five hours to prepare and reduce but which can be made in bulk and kept frozen for months, you can produce in twenty minutes a chicken noodle soup unlike anything from a can.  You can take a pound of simple black beans and produce a complete meal with complex flavors in a single pot, using a little celery, some onion, a couple of ripe tomatoes, a bit of garlic, a ham bone and some chorizo sausage, a touch of cilantro, and a jigger of dry sherry.  And, of course, two days.[26]

Soup is, as Barbara Kafka says, “a way of life.”[27] I have a friend who was born in Iowa, educated in Pennsylvania, California, and Ireland, and who has lived in Belgium for the past twenty-four years.  He and his Belgian wife and children frequently visit the United States.  His son, when it is his turn to choose a lunch spot, invariably selects a diner, because that is where he has the best chance of finding a good bowl of soup.

There are many Americans for whom soup is also a part of everyday life.  My father had soup for lunch at least half the days of the week, even during summer; this is a family tradition, or perhaps a genetic trait, I carry on.  Nor are we alone: witness the number of restaurants offering soup and a half sandwich or soup and salad on their lunch menu.  Granted, many of these merely open a can or thaw a bag of frozen soup, but many others make their soup fresh daily. 

Soup can console, inspire, or fulfill.  It can be a complete meal or a simple introduction: 

Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup?  Who soothes you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give you a hearty sustenance and cheer?  Who warms you in winter and cools you in summer?  Yet who is capable of doing honor to your richest table and impressing your most demanding guests?  Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it.  You don’t catch a steak hanging round when you’re poor and sick, do you?[28]


Thro’ many sauces, salads and sweets,

I have already bent;

‘Tis soup that gratified my need,

And soup that does content.[29]


Associated Press.  “Home-cooking movement gains ground.”  New York Times.  April 12, 2004.


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Friese, Kurt Michael.  Aug. 12, 2004.

[1] Jerry Newman, “Amazing Soup,”  in Patricia Solley, An Exaltation of Soups.  (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), 3.

[2] Regina Schrambling, “Julia Child, the French chef for a Jell-o nation, dies at 91,”  New York Times, Aug. 13, 2004.

[3] “Training ships on the river,”, (accessed Jan. 4, 2005)

[4] 21CFR101.76, revised April 1, 2002, p. 131.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] “World’s Healthiest Foods,” (accessed 3/26/05).  Does it strike anyone else as queer that the FDA establishes daily values for nutrients whose mode of operation it can’t explain?  “We don’t know how this works, but we’re pretty sure you need this much of it.”

[8] Barbara Kafka, Soup: a Way of Life (New York: Artisan, 1998), xii.

[9] Solley, op. cit. pp. 5 – 7.

[10] A.F. Smith, “History of Soup.” (accessed Jan. 4, 2005).

[11] The PUB (a snack bar) at Coe College serves soup every day for lunch.  Sandy, the manager, makes the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted, although she does not like mushroom soup.  One day in the spring of 2005 Sandy was to make mushroom soup, but she became ill and had to leave before the soup was started.  One of her assistants volunteered to make the soup in her place, and did it by pouring cream, chicken stock, mushrooms, onions, celery, and julienned carrots into the crock pot which keeps the soup warm.  She then turned on the crock pot.  The result bore little resemblance to Sandy’s soup, evidence that cooking really is more than simply heating food.

[12] ibid.

[13] See, inter alia, Alice, Let’s Eat, Travels with Alice, or Feeding a Yen

[14] David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 2000), 121.

[15] ibid.

[16] Which raises another question: do we import the drugs we feed our animals, or do they also get high-priced but “safe” American products?

[17] Carlo Petrini, Slow Food, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 17.

[18] Jennifer Harper, “McDonald’s sues critic who calls it ‘obscene’.”  Washington Times May 30, 2003

[19] Philip Willan “McDonald’s fries critic of its ‘cardboard’ food.”  The Observer June 1, 2003

[20] Richard Gooding, “A recipe for disaster,”  (accessed April 17, 2005).

[21] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 3.

[22] Kurt Michael Friese, interview, Aug. 12, 2004

[23] Schrambling, loc. cit.

[24] Ibid.

[25] John Leland, “Change of Scene, if Not Cuisine.”  New York Times July 26, 2001; Schrambling, loc. cit.

[26] But you can’t do this if you use the 1997 edition of Joy of Cooking.  The 1975 edition carried a basic black bean soup recipe, but that has been excised from the new edition.  Once again, the legumes have been sacrificed in the name of modernity.

[27] Kafka, op. cit.

[28] Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”), in Solley, op. cit., p. 15

[29] Jerry Newman, loc. cit.