Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

tempNew England, like much of the country, is deep in the clutches of winter.

I woke at four Friday morning to find the furnace had stopped working sometime during the night. The thermostat in the living room- the warmest room in my apartment- read a frosty 45 degrees (Fahrenheit.) The temperature outside was a mere 1. After several attempts, I was able to get the furnace started and when I left for work it was still chugging away. Crisis averted.

Later, I told my daughter Abby about the furnace. She said it reminded her of times we lost power when she was a child.

I remembered one of those times. We had a power failure one snowy February evening. While the children huddled under blankets in the living room, I braved the snow to heat canned soup over a propane burner on the front stoop. We supped by candle light and then Abby and Elizabeth entertained us by reading “Hamlet” aloud, each creating a different voice for each character. We snuggled together laughed until the lights came on. It is one of my favorite memories.

Another year, when the children were much younger, we lost power early in the first day of a huge ice storm. Abby and Gabriel had fevers, so I bundled them into bed and told them to stay there. With Elizabeth in tow, I emptied the refrigerator and buried the food in the snow on our deck, then turned the faucets to a slow trickle to keep the pipes from freezing. But as the hours passed, the house became dark and cold as a tomb. When my friend Sue called to see how we were faring, I told her we were without electricity. She quickly arranged for us to stay with her parents, who hadn’t been affected by the power failure. I joyfully herded the kids into the car, and skidded to their nearby home, where they greeted us with warm smiles and warmer hugs. Our communication was limited- they spoke mostly French. We spoke only English. But hospitality crosses all cultural barriers. We were given the whole lower level of their home- living room with two fold-out couches, TV, kitchenette, bath and bedroom. We remained there for five days, until the power to our townhouse was restored. It took several hours before the townhouse was warm enough to bring the kids home, and the ice coating the power lines and trees didn’t thaw for a week. But the warmth of the Lacroix family burns in my heart still and I will never forget their generosity.

During our most recent snow storm,  I reluctantly bundled up to take the trash to the dumpster across my apartment house parking lot. It was 6 degrees and the wind swirled snow in every direction- certainly not a night for a winter stroll. The storm raged like a banshee as I trudged through the snow, and I hunched my shoulders and bowed my head against the wind.

As I walked, I noticed how dry and granular the snow was. Under the streetlights it sparkled and shone and the earth seemed suddenly covered in diamonds. I stood enchanted by the dumpster forgetting about the wind and the cold.  “How often we miss out on beauty like this because we are blinded by our discomfort,” I thought, and I took a longer and slower route back to the warmth of my apartment.

jan 2014It’s funny how the worst of circumstances can provoke the best responses. After last night’s storm, there is brilliant sunshine that sparkles against alabaster roof tops. In much the same way, many cold nights filled with icy winds and frigid darkness, have brought memories that melt my heart and fill me with the warm embers of yesterday.
Tonight promises temperatures well below zero, and while I hope my furnace holds up under the strain, if it dies again, I’m sure we will find a way to stay warm. And who knows- maybe a whole new set of memories will be born.

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Momma G’s Bean Soup or How to Thaw the Gizzard of a Frozen New Englander

This winter has been particularly cold and snowy.   Today as I watch fresh snow drifting onto the banks outside my bedroom window I listen to the forecast- sub zero temperatures for most of the week.   I smile, thinking about the ways my parents worked to keep their family warm during the long Massachusetts winters.

The house where I grew up was a drafty old New Englander at the top of Dye House Hill.  On frigid winter nights, the wind would sneak through the cracks between the doors and their casings, blowing icy shivers down my neck.  My mother nailed moth-eaten woolen blankets over the doors in an effort to keep out the cold, and the cast iron radiators hissed and clanged, protesting the overtime.  We played a game of hide and seek with the sun, opening the window shades during the day to capture a little warmth from the pale January light, and closing them as soon as the drifts outside the window turned blue with shadow.

My father hung a thermometer outside the dining room window and at night he and I would shine a flashlight on its dial, watching the needle sink lower and lower, and announce to the family how many degrees below zero the temperature had fallen.   During winter storms, we watched snow pile in the backyard, occasionally measuring it with a yardstick borrowed from its home next to my mother’s sewing machine.

On frigid mornings my sisters and I laid our clothing on chugging radiators before slipping out of our flannel night gowns.  The aroma of fresh coffee lured us downstairs to the small kitchen that was my mother’s kingdom. There, the chill of winter was warmed by bowls of oatmeal and thick slabs of homemade toast slathered with melted butter.

My mother was not a gourmet cook, but she could take a few basic ingredients and make a feast that would fill the bellies of a family of ten.  On cold nights, her specialty was “Stone Soup,” named after one of our favorite folk tales.  The story goes like this:  Three hungry soldiers enter a village and finding nobody willing to give them food, fill a pot with water and stones in the village square.  As they light a fire under the pot, they explain to the villagers that they are making soup from a stone.   They convince the villagers that the soup would be even more delicious if they only had an onion, or a potato, or a cabbage.  One by one, the villagers volunteer a few vegetables, until a giant pot of delicious soup is created for all to share.   

My mom’s soup was much like stone soup in that she added whatever she could find from the refrigerator.  Leftover pot roast and potatoes that would normally serve two people could be stretched to feed a small army with a bit of broth and some onions, carrots, and parsnips.  Throw in a can of tomatoes and the rest of the corn from last night’s dinner, and the simmering pot would sing a tantalizing Siren’s song to a hungry family.  Homemade bread or muffins and a slice or two of cheese on the side would complete the meal.  A bowl of this hearty concoction thawed many frozen bellies that had been out delivering newspapers, or shoveling walks, or sliding on the hill beside Columbia Hall.

As a young mother on a tight budget, I learned to make my own soups.  I could get three meals from one chicken- roast chicken for Sunday dinner and chicken soup for Monday and Wednesday suppers.   Unlike other meals that require following someone else’s directions, there is freedom in making soup.  I could be as creative as I wanted, and the results were usually delicious.  I found that homemade soup not only nourished my family’s bodies, but also their souls.  Maybe it is the chopping and sautéing, or perhaps it is that my best soups are made while listening to Josh Groban, but I think making homemade soup is a labor of love and comfort food at its finest.

Recently, my daughter Elizabeth asked me for a recipe for soup.  Recipe?  How do you write, “A little of this, a little of that, add whatever you have in the refrigerator?”   I thought of my mother, and how I adapted her Stone Soup to create my own bean soup.  For all those readers shoveling, de-icing and cursing the wicked New England winter, here is Momma G’s Bean Soup.  Soup from a stone… Imagine that!

Momma G’s Bean Soup

What you need:

Large pot

3 cans of beans- black beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas…anything that looks appealing

2 stalks celery- cut into small chunks

2 carrots- cut into small coins

1 onion- diced

1/3 small cabbage- about 2 cups shredded

1 cup frozen corn

1 small jar of med heat salsa

1 can tomato sauce

1 can diced tomatoes (you can use the pre-seasoned ones, or southwestern style stewed tomatoes)

3-4 cans vegetable or beef broth

Ketchup (about ¼ cup)

Cajun seasoning (optional)

Oil

Heat oil in bottom of the pot and add onions, carrots and celery.  Cook until tender and add cabbage, tomato sauce, salsa and diced tomatoes.  Gently simmer until cabbage is soft and veggies are tender.  Drain all the beans and add to the pot.  Add broth one can at a time until the soup is the consistency you like.  Add ketchup and Cajun seasoning to taste (go easy on the Cajun seasoning- it will get spicier as it simmers.)  Once the soup has simmered about 20 minutes, add the frozen corn.  Simmer another 5-10 minutes and it’s done.  This freezes well, and should make a huge batch.

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