Taking Stock


By Helene Phelps | January 10, 2018

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I was thinking about traditional foods of Wisconsin the other day.  Envisioning the immigrants who crossed choppy seas and rock infested forests… those seekers leaving footprints on their way to a better life. German, Irish, French, English, Russian, Polish and all flavors of Scandinavian; travelers displaced at the same time that they, in turn, displaced others. This European wave carried with them few treasures and only small necessities.  So too on the migratory path from South America and Far Eastern shores, African bondage, and distant islands.  This global procession brought recipes from home; recipes held tightly in the memories of mothers and grandmothers. .  And each with a common use for Soup.

Growing up in Wisconsin, in the kitchens of mothers and grandmothers, aunts and neighbors, I was often nose high to a pot of soup simmering on stove tops. My father  stirred old country ‘Snert’ — a thick green split pea soup loaded with equal parts of diced celery and fresh ham hocks nestled in the oversized cast iron Dutch oven. We ate Father’s soup for days on end with slabs of dark pumpernickel bread layered under icy cold butter.

My mother’s family emigrated from England and Ireland with homeland recipes tucked inside pockets and treasured books.  Lamb soup, using bits of last week’s vegetables and the chewy tooth of local barley, was a hearty offering filling our bellies and spirits after wintery school days.

Grandmother’s beef and cabbage soup bubbling for hours, softening into chunky porridge, was always offered with dollops of sour cream and warm rye biscuits.

Our next door neighbor arrived in Wisconsin when she was just 15.  A challenging year to begin anew, leaving friends and family behind in Italy. But oh, the Minestrone!  Made with their garden fresh carrots, zucchini, garlic and green beans, and tiny semolina shells, it was magnificent!  This healthy homeland soup covered the neighborhood with a soft aromatic cloud that still gives me goose bumps.

Just across the street, our gregarious Tibetan neighbors were known for their charmed hospitality and monthly parties. We’d gather with a dozen Tibetans for fragrant bowls of Rice & Spice soup, squeezing into the tiny house with the humid kitchen, steam rising from pots on every burner.  What fun to be a child, licking the last of the pearly rice grains from the back of our spoons; to hear laughter in languages from the far reaches of our planet; and to know that we all belong right here.

These days I pass on to my children the very loose guidelines and family secrets for making soup.  We look down into the same cast iron Dutch oven used by their grandparents and see native and immigrant Americans melting together into a rich and complex stock. Grains, ancient and otherwise, wild rice, foraged greens, all manner of meats and fish, back door garden bounty, and herbs pinched from the windowsill… all assemble on the kitchen counter before the great migration to the stovetop.

Soup!  Can you smell it?  The aromas of a unifying world tradition.  Simple, thrifty sustenance with a story as long as the human race.  A staple found in every home kitchen and restaurant within the borders of our diverse state!  So grab a spoon… Pull up a chair… And savor Wisconsin’s history.

Helene Phelps

Helene Phelps recently retired from Wisconsin Public Television and now lives in the far northwestern corner of our fair (and sometimes very cold) state.
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2018-02-10T23:06:29+00:00 Tags: , , |

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WISCONSIN LIFE tells character-driven stories that reveal what makes Wisconsin unqiue and distinctive through the diverse experiences of its people.