If necessity is the mother of invention, my grandmother held a patent in survival. Raising ten children in the height of the Great Depression, Granny learned some lessons the hard way. All those kids, all those mouths to feed, which were staircase born, or stigger-staggered in age. One born every year to help their Papa work the fields and bring in the harvest, had to find something to eat themselves. They were sharecroppers, a common trade in the Old South. Ranch hands were nonexistent, as no one could afford the luxury of hired help. The burden of existing was on the family, and the luck of making a meal depended not just if it rained, but if it rained at the right moment, a precise time in the harvest.
The days were long and the work was hard, but love lived under the roof of that shotgun shack they lived in where my Mom was raised. It wasn’t even a house by today’s standards.
Dirt poor would have been an upgrade.
In good times there was laughter and old-fashioned ribbing shared among the siblings. No one liked to reminiscence about the bad times, there was no point. Getting over the hump was something they had to do to get back on track, back on the path that led them out of poverty. There were plenty of hardships on that road. Disappointment lingered, etched deep in their souls, the kind of heartache that sinks its teeth into your bones for the rest of your life.
If I looked in my Mom's eyes, or one of my aunts or uncles long enough, I could see the haunting of hard times dulling in quiet remembrance.
Granny’s eyes were always a bright, beautiful shade of blue.
My Mom said that she grew up in a crowd and she remembered many a night where she didn’t get a ‘bug’s bite’ to eat all day. But my Granny, my Mom’s mom, she was a devout woman with a heart of gold. She was a crafty lady, an innovator at making something out of nothing. Not just with food, but with clothes, drinking water. All the things we take for granted nowadays.
Granny concocted this recipe I’m going to share with you out of sheer desperation.
You see, not many people embrace the hollowed etchings of destitution. There's an understanding of misgivings one can't appreciate unless you’ve lived through it and come out on the other side.
Unscathed. Hardly. The scars leave a mark, you just have to know where to look to see them.
My Mom taught me that if you forgot where you came from you can’t get where you’re going because you don’t know where you’ve been.
When I was a child Sunday afternoons were designated family time. We’d load up in the car and travel to see Granny. Whoever else was there on a given Sunday would vary, depending on what everyone had going on. It was a large family so you could count on quite the gathering. Aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and the outlaws, everyone was welcome to sit at the table and share a meal at Granny’s.
It was a always a full house. For my Mom, it was like coming home.
These were the days of high cotton, as Granny would say. By that she meant that she could pull a hundred dollar bill out of her brassiere for one of the kids to go grocery shopping for the Sunday feast.
And what a feast Granny prepared. By the time the nearby church bells chimed Noon, every plate was full and no one would question if someone wanted a second helping. High cotton - good crops equaled good times. It meant the cupboard was stocked.
Granny was an incredible cook. She had the same menu every week, her grocery list did not change that I can remember. You could count on pot roast with potatoes and gravy simmering in a Dutch oven. A plate of breaded fried pork chops took the centerpiece of the table, surrounded by bowls of assorted homecooked vegetables. Granny cooked whatever was in season at the time.
Every Sunday without fail, on the front burner of the stove sat an old dilapidated stockpot. Full to the brim of Granny Soup, the name lovingly penned years later in her honor.
A nod to the past, a caldron reminder of good times and bad times.
I was about eight years old the first time I noticed that old stockpot at Granny’s house. Mom grinned at me over her shoulder as I took my seat at the kid’s table in the kitchen. Back then, kids ate sperate from adults, and the adults plates were dipped first.
When she placed a bowl of the tomato based soup in front of me I didn’t know what to think.
It certainly wasn’t a sophisticated meal. It looked quite bland. I stirred my spoon around and found a noodle, For a kid, that’s a homerun in itself. But the smell. I can still remember the aroma.
Mom smiled at me as I slurped away. Every now and then a I’d find a bite of potato, followed by a noodle. It was satisfying to eat and warmed my insides. In between those bites, the sweet nectar of tomato broth nursed my tongue and played a savory melody.
That Sunday afternoon one of my older uncles recounted how the soup was created. Why it was needed in the first place. As if the Great Depression was not hard enough the South was also suffering from an ill-conceived drought. Crops were dying, there was no meat to be bought even if you were lucky enough to have a few extra coins. In those days the supermarket was your farm. No jotting out to Trader Joe’s for any provisions. If you didn’t grow it, or couldn’t trade with your neighbor for it, you were out of luck.
Granny took what she had on hand and came up with a recipe that everyone in my family still makes to this day.
My eight year old self was full of elementary school angst. Life seemed so hard, relationships at school strained. I was climbing a mountain of my own making. Hearing the story of how hard life really was for them gave perspective that I wasn’t old enough to appreciate, but yet I did find balance. And admiration.
Things could always be worse.
Things could always be better.
And when you were stuck in the middle of bad, you had Granny Soup to see you through to the good.
That Sunday Granny was hunched over watching me eat. Standing at full posture she was about my height, the weight of the world might not have dimmed the sparkle in her eyes but it defiantly took a toll on her body. Her blue eyes twinkled as she saw me twirling my spoon in the soup, ferreting out a noodle.
“That’ll put some meat on your bones. Keep your tummy form eating itself,” she said to me as she dipped herself a bowl of her Granny Soup.
Every Sunday there were plenty of leftovers of everything except Granny Soup. That pot of soup was the one thing that was devoured, with nothing left but the tomato stained ladle as proof it was made.
Nowadays I make the soup when I am feeling homesick, and missing my Mom so much I feel like I’ve been split down the center. It may sound crazy, but I can feel Granny smiling from Heaven as I take each bite. And with that I feel closer to her, and to my Mom, like somehow they are still with me, guiding me.
Reminding me that resilience is a token of grace.
And that things can always be worse. And that things can also get better.
And I can make Granny Soup in the meantime, waiting and wishing.
Here’s the recipe, it’s very simple and quite easy to make:
1 good sized potato
2 cups elbow macaroni (any size)
One quart (46 ounces) tomato juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel (and wash) and dice the potato. In a large stockpot, bring an inch and half of water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, add diced potatoes and a dash of salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer 20 minutes
Don’t drain the water you cooked the potatoes in
Add tomato juice
Add elbow macaroni
Simmer on medium heat for ten minutes, stirring occasionally.
When the pasta is tender, soup’s ready!
Granny Soup is an incredibly easy dish to make, and even with inflation, seven dollars spent on ingredients makes enough for many meals. If you decide to make this soup I do hope you enjoy the simplistic savorness in preparing. And that you too find nourishment.
Not just for your body, but for your soul as well. Because Granny Soup is in fact soul food.
In good times and bad, there is always hope. You can find it one bowl at a time.
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