By Jeremy Louden
My parents divorced when I was young…five to be exact. This situation was anything but rewarding, so I cannot pretend that I went through anything exceptional. Still, my experience wasn’t a statistic; it was mine… and it was troubling.
The divorce led to a lot of missed time with my Dad since I only stayed with him on the weekends. The face-to-face interactions one would have with a live-in parent is what I missed the most. We always managed to make the most of our weekends together, but there was always some disconnect that couldn’t be ignored. As I reflect back on our times together as an adult, I realized that during those times, he was doing what he could to teach me the values he felt most important for a young boy to learn. Some of those lessons were being taught in ways I didn’t even realize, such as our time together preparing his potato soup.
I was a picky eater growing up, not eating something if it contained but one ingredient that I did not like. I was never made to try different foods as a child; this led to a dislike because many foods could be used in any number of ways. Our typical weekend meals included pizza and cheeseburgers with french fries. Any vegetable was basically my enemy. My parents would not let me help them prepare any meals because they knew if I saw something going into it that I didn’t like, there was no way I was going to eat it. My fickleness was the reason I had never tried my Dad’s potato soup as I knew it contained ingredients that I did not like.
It wasn’t until I was thirteen years old that I made the decision to finally try Dad’s potato soup that he prepared using his secret recipe. Even though it had onions and celery in it — two items I despised — it was time to give it a try. Celery was something I had never tried, but I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it because it was green. I didn’t eat many green things when I was young. Onions were something I tried and had a very strong distaste for. I was not a fan of the slimy texture of a cooked onion and the thought of having to eat them caused me to gag. I was going to be brave and try Dad’s soups despite the fact I was repulsed by some of the ingredients.
On one cold weekend we spent together, Dad had told me he was going to be making soup. He asked me what I would want for dinner, since he knew I wouldn’t eat the soup. This is when I made the decision that not only was I going to eat the soup but I was going to help make it. I was certainly wrong in thinking I wouldn’t enjoy this soup; in fact, it is one of my favorite meals to this day.
Everything had to be perfect for the soup to turn out the way it was supposed to. Dad’s recipe had to be followed precisely, although I would learn that he never really had a recipe at all. Dad showed me the size the potatoes needed to be cut, then watched me intently to make sure I was cutting them exactly as he showed me.
“This keeps them from turning into mashed potatoes” he explained.
Cutting the onions and celery were done much like the potatoes, which would then be sautéed in butter until they were perfectly tender and not too crunchy. He always took small bites of them as they cooked to make sure the next ingredients were added at just the right time.
Once the onions and celery were perfect, he would add the half and half and the seasonings. I watched him precisely measure each one before he would add it to the pot. When I asked how much of each he was putting in I would get a response such as just a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that.
The final and most important ingredient added was an entire sixteen-ounce block of Velveeta cheese. As you peeled back the foil covering, the gold blob called cheese revealed itself. This one-pound mass appeared more like a block of molding clay rather than food. According to Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food: Food Defined,” Velveeta wouldn’t even be considered food as this wobbling blob surely wouldn’t be recognized as cheese by my grandmother.
“No other cheese would cut it” was his response when I asked why he used Velveeta instead of a better-quality cheese.
After what seemed like hours of preparation, all of the ingredients were in the pot and the cooking process began.
Around the time I turned sixteen, I stopped visiting my father on the weekends. I was forced in choosing between the adolescent urge for independence and spending time with my father. Our time together was the victim of me choosing to follow my urges and being more interested in hanging with my friends. As I continued to get older, our time together became more infrequent as I was carving my path in life and trying to find my identity. I was starting a career that was demanding in the amount of work it required while still trying to balance my social life. Those were my top priorities in my early adult life and the left little time for much else. I continued to distance myself from my dad which I would later regret.
My Dad and I still had a great relationship, but our time together was minimal at best. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 that the reality of what I had been taking for granted had set in. Dad wasn’t always going to be here so I needed to do everything I could so make time to be around him. In the next four years before he passed, I took advantage of every opportunity to spend time with him. It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized that no matter how much time we spent together, Dad was continually teaching me lessons on life. These mostly subtle lessons started on our weekends together and continued throughout his life.
Like most thirteen-year-old boys, patience was not a strong virtue of mine. I know I asked at least every thirty minutes if the soup was ready yet. Getting the soup perfect was a timely process.
“You cannot rush perfection, Jerm” was the response I received every time I asked.
We barely ate, if we ate at all, on the days we made potato soup. This would ensure we had plenty of room to eat as much soup as we could handle once it was finally ready. As we would check the progress throughout the day, he would let me stir, explaining what was happening at that step in the cooking process. These explanations meant nothing to me and just made me even more hungry and impatient. The aroma of the onions, potatoes, and cheese coming together were unavoidable as they filled the house. Each deep breath full of these smells chipped further away at my patience, causing my stomach to growl constantly.
The table setting was simple, with the pot of soup, two bowls, two spoons, and a box of Ritz crackers. These were the only crackers he would allow to be eaten with his soup. The butter flavor of the crackers went perfectly with the creamy textures and the cheesy flavor of the soup. The potatoes, with their slightly firm texture, were cooked perfectly. The onions had almost cooked away complete leaving behind only their rich, sweet flavor. The celery added a nice touch of color and just the right texture to the finished product. As the soup was ladled, the steam rose from the spoon as if it was sending a signal that it was time to enjoy what we had created.
Dad was methodical in his eating, taking a bite from his spoon, then dipping in one cracker, eating only the part with soup on it. His entire bowl was eaten this way. He never strayed from this pattern even when he burnt the roof of his mouth during the first few bites. He continued through he pains smiling and expressing his delight.
“Oh, man, that’s good,” he would say.
I enjoyed my soup in a much different way. Much less methodical, I crumbled as many crackers as my bowl would hold, creating a thick mess of his beautiful creation. He always gave me a hard time about this technique. Every time I employed my style I would be on the receiving end of a glare shot across the table.
“You’re ruining my soup,” he said with a grin.
We would go on to make soup throughout the years, with the last time being about a year before he died. Just when I thought I had mastered the secret recipe he had changed one thing. He no longer to the time to cut each potato to perfection. He made the switch to a frozen potato that was precut and ready to cook. While this had no direct effect on the end result, I realized Dad was no longer able to cut the potatoes as he once did. His cancer had returned. None of the treatments they tried worked and all were taking a toll on his body. He was getting weaker every time I saw and this once; this young, dark-haired man now looked old and gray. It was like looking at my grandfather, not my Dad. He was now a skinny and frail shell of the man I knew. The reality of what was happening hit me hard. I had come to the realization that the times I had gotten to spend with him were more valuable than I ever realized. This time it wasn’t going to be the weekend being over, or my struggles for independence that would end our time together. It was going to be the fact that he could no longer fight the disease that was destroying him.
During out last moments together, I had come to realize that even though I had missed out on some of the face-to-face interactions growing up, that it wasn’t really about the amount of time we spent together but the quality of that time.
It has been almost five years since Dad died. Whether it is a simple memory of something we did together or one of the lessons he taught me, he is a part of everything I do. As I reflect on our weekends together, the most important of those lessons were taught through cooking. I became more patient every time we would cook together. I was still hungry and ready for the soup to be finished cooking, but I understood the importance of the slow cooking process and patience is now my strongest quality. By following his directions, I learned to listen and pay attention to those who have experience in something I am wanting to learn.
After Dad was gone, I found myself struggling to find things that would remind me of him. I had pictures and a few other things that were daily reminders, but I was looking for something more significant. I finally realized that the memories I had were the key to keeping him with me. Not only the memories of the things we did together but the lessons he taught me during those times. Lessons I didn’t even realize I was learning.
I still make Dad’s potato soup from time to time. I make sure I follow his secret recipe exactly. I still “precisely” measure a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that. I cut the potatoes, celery. and onions in the same way he showed me. I still use an entire sixteen-ounce block of Velveeta cheese. He was right, no other cheese will cut it. It still seems like forever as I wait patiently through the cooking process. Even though I do everything exactly the way he taught me I can never get it to turn out quite as perfect as he did. It is still very good and now I get to enjoy it with my wife. We set the table very simply with the pot of soup, two bowls, two spoons and the box of Ritz crackers. Now she is the one who gives me a hard time as I crumble as many crackers as my bowl can hold.
Creating a thick mess of my beautiful creation.