Searching through the little chest freezer for the package of boneless chicken I know is nestled somewhere down near the bottom, I dredge up a meaty hambone. Hmm, I think: what can I do with that?
Upstairs, I pull my Joy of Cooking off the shelf and find the recipe for black bean soup; it makes a rich and tangy, wonderful pot of comfort, using a ham hock as inspiration. I bookmark it.
That evening, Jim fixes the chicken for us with a cheesy pasta side–yum.
The next morning I wake up to my phone bouncing and burbling: the College is on a three hour delay. I sip my coffee and watch the gentle, inexorable snow, and I think it’s a perfect morning for throwing together a big batch of hearty soup. Soon, I’m at the counter, happily chopping celery and onion and carrots. The little dog smells the hambone waiting in its tupperware at my elbow; she comes out and sits next to my left ankle, snout pointing up to the counter, hoping.
The veggies go into the hot olive oil in the pot; the rich smell swirls as I start to cut the ham from the hock, and a memory, floating above my noggin, finds an opening and seeps into my head.
This is just like that time Loolie came, unexpectedly, to visit, I think.
That was a Saturday, and I was up early making black bean soup that day, too. The veggies were sweating in the pot–the aroma woke Jim up. He floated downstairs–Damn! If he didn’t remind me of a cartoon character buoyed on curly, misty lines of scent!–and said, “Mom! What smells so good?”
Then he looked in the pot and said, with deep disappointment, “Oh. Veggies.” He went into the family room, dragged the Book Woman blanket off the lounge chair, and wrapped himself up on the love seat. He was snoring within minutes.
I went happily back to my chopping. And then, just like today, my phone started to burble and bounce on the counter.
That time, though, it was Loolie.
She was, she informed me, marooned at the Columbus airport, unable to get her connector flight to Chicago, so she could fly from there to Montana, where her sister Jules lives.
“This is so frustrating!” she bellowed. “There’s no chance I can get a flight before tomorrow morning. They said they’d get me a room in the airport hotel, but what would I DO all day?”
I grinned, thinking of Loolie, that high-pitched bundle of energy, ping-ing from wall to wall in a tastefully tiny executive hotel room. “Absolutely NOT,” I told her; “you’re coming here. Do you want Mark to pick you up?”
I could hear huge relief in her voice. No, she said, she’d get the airline to rent her a car instead of springing for the room. She’d see us in a couple of hours.
By the time she arrived, just before eleven, the soup was doing a long slow simmer, and the house was awake. I had the vacuuming done, the sofa bed pulled out and made up, and the living room closed off and turned into guest space. One load of laundry was chunking around the dryer; another, splooshing in the wash. Mark and Jim had gone out to pick up a few things, food-wise; the dog had been walked. I was ready for Loolie when she gusted in.
We took big mugs of coffee to the dining room table, and she told me her tale of woe–how her 45 minute layover in Columbus turned into an overnight stay. She was on her way to Jules’ house because Jules’ oldest son, Trevor, was getting married in the spring, and the bridal shower was that Sunday.
“Looks like,” she said bitterly, “the best I can hope for is to get there about two hours after it’s finished.” She sighed a heavy sigh.
Then she shook it off, just like that.
“Oh, well!” she said. “This way I’ll get to visit with my sister for a week without having to help her cook for the shower.” She grinned wickedly, delighted at her unexpected reprieve. “AND I get a nice long visit with you! Hey, this isn’t such a bad deal after all!”
By the time Mark and Jim came back in, Loolie’s ordeal had turned into her adventure. She enveloped the boyos with great big hugs; she helped them unpack their bags–“Ummmm! What is this?” she demanded, pulling out the crusty loaf of sliced french bread Mark picked up at Giacomo’s. Jim opened it up and grabbed a slice for himself and a slice for Loolie; they ate it like candy, like potato chips: no butter, straight from the bag, marveling and ‘ahhhhhhing’ at its goodness.
“Save some to go with the soup!” I reminded them. Jim ran down to get a frozen pizza to pop in the oven for his own, non-vegetative, lunch.
While I putzed around getting lunch ready, Mark and Jim re-connected with Loolie, whom–since I usually visited when I was traveling solo,–they didn’t often get to see. It was fun to listen as I chopped the ham into tiny morsels and stirred them into the rich, fragrant soup–fun to watch them all spreading the past year out on the table like a funny, lumpy hand of cards, picking out things of interest and delight to snatch up and examine. By the time I brought big bowls of steaming soup to the table, garnished with little rings of green onion, they were caught up and comfortable.
We sat and ate the soup–we actually each had two big bowlsful; it was tangy and good, pure comfort food. Jim chowed down on his pizza. We watched as the blue winter sky clouded over and the snow began, first gentle, then fierce. Loolie sighed with satisfaction.
“I am so glad you were home! I was afraid you’d have meetings or plans or visits scheduled,” she said. “This is so NICE.”
“After lunch,” said Jim, “Aunt Loolie and I are going to watch Star Wars. You want to join us, Mom?”
“And I’m making dinner,” said Loolie firmly. “This was a wonderful lunch, and you’ve cooked enough for the day. James, you’re making dessert, okay?”
Jim saluted. “Ma’am! Yes, Ma’am!” he said smartly.
We finished our soup, mopping up the final remainders of the rich broth with the good bread, and everyone crowded into my tiny kitchen to clear away the mess.
“I’ll get the movie ready!” Jim said, and he slipped out of the chaos to the family room. The kitchen sparkled in ten minutes, and we grabbed comfy seats in front of the TV, dragging in the big round ottoman so the love-seat-sitters had a place to park their feet. I sat in the plaid chair; I pulled the old foot rest closer, and I grabbed my knitting–a scarf I was making from scraps for a vibrant young colleague who shared a passion for repurposing. The uplifting, regal Star Wars music filled the family room, and we settled in.
The snow fell, the beloved old movie played, the knitting slipped from my fingers. I surfaced a couple of times–once to hear Loolie say, gleefully, “See? See? Han steps right on Jabba’s tail!” Jim launched into some back-story he knows about that particular scene and I drifted away again, waking to the distinctive music and the final credits rolling out on the TV screen.
“Oh, my gosh! What a hostess, eh?” I said, and we all laughed, and then somehow,–I think it was Loolie who suggested it–we were all bundling up to go outside and conquer the snow. We divvied up the push brooms and the snow shovels, and the four of us, hooting, a few snowballs flying here and there, cleared the driveway and the front walk, the back steps, and the paths from the carport to the front door. The snow had gentled down; the neighborhood was hushed and lovely.
And we, we realized, were getting hungry again. It was 6:00. Loolie took charge.
“How are we on beer?” she asked, and she sent Mark and me off to the Wine Rak with clear instructions on what to buy.
“Can I use anything I find in here?” she asked as we were leaving. Her nose was deep into my freezer.
“Sure,” I said. “And Jim will help you find anything you need in the cupboard.”
James, gathering the ingredients to make a brownie mix, nodded in agreement.
Mark and I went out; we got the Sam Adams; we came home to find a merry mess in the kitchen.
Jim had his IMac on the little glass table; an episode of “How I Met Your Mother Was Playing,” and he and Loolie were roaring at something Barney Stinson said. The rich smell of brownies baking perfumed the air. My counters were covered with potatoes in various stages of undress, chopped onion, garlic bulbs, and some cooked, indeterminate meat Loolie had plucked from the freezer. The microwave was churgalating merrily. The little dog was everywhere, hoping for free-fall, as Loolie chopped, chopped, chopped.
She whirled as we came in, brandishing the serious knife I bought at the College bookstore, a knife recommended by and intended for the culinary arts program.
“You two,” said Loolie, happily in her element (which is to say, in charge), “grab a beer and go sit in the family room. James and I have things under control. I am making,” she added, “HASH.”
“Hash!” said Mark reverently; he believes it is one of nature’s perfect foods.
“Hash?” I said questioningly. “I’ve never MADE hash. I’ve only OPENED hash.”
“Oh, honey,” said Loolie, brightly, “you ain’t lived, then. You just wait.”
With only a tiny jot of guilt–Loolie LIKES to be busy; she has, we often joked, two speeds: high, and asleep; she is NOT your typical guest–Mark and I settled into the cozy chairs in front of the set and found an old episode of “Salvage Dogs”. Loolie poked her head in once.
“Do you still get,” she asked, “those wonderful eggs from your buddy Heather at work?”
I assured her that we did.
“Yes!” said Loolie, triumphant, as she whirled back to the kitchen. More pans clattered, and I envisioned my entire shelf of pots and pans denuded, each pot coated with dregs of some concoction or other and flung haphazardly around the kitchen.
“Hash and eggs,” said Mark dreamily.
My first taste of home-made hash was a revelation. Loolie had diced potatoes and onion and garlic; she had chopped up the meat, which we theorized was a chunk of leftover pot roast. She had stood at the stove and stirred and sauteed, stirred and sauteed, until flavors blended and shared their secrets with each other. She stirred in the broth she’d microwaved; she poached eggs. She took out the thick and sturdy Fiori-ware plates and put a steaming scoop of hash on each, topped with a perfectly cooked egg. She seated us at the dining room table, and insisted on bringing our plates to us.
As she served she sang, a riff on Sting’s “Fields of Gold”:
You’ll remember me when I serve you HASH
with EGGS from HENS of
You will sigh with JOY
when you cut inTO
those eggs with yolks of GOLD!
The song might have been boisterously off-key, but the meal was so GOOD. I thought Mark would float away from the table, he was so uplifted. The hash was perfectly cooked, a little bit crusty, tender and savory. The fresh eggs DID have yolks of gold, and the flavors were perfect together. We had our first helpings with egg–vegophobe James had a sandwich–and then we divvied up the rest of the hash in the pan and ate every single morsel, scraping the crust off the cast iron skillet with forks and fighting, to the little dog’s dismay and disgust, over the tiniest remaining shard.
Mark and I cleared away the preparation mess; we ate Jim’s brownies, still warm, with scoops of ice cream (CHURNED ice cream, I consoled myself guiltily, after a day of rich eating–only half the fat) drizzled with Hershey’s syrup. I poured coffee for Loolie and me; Mark and Jim steeped themselves mugs of tea and hot cocoa; we pulled out the playing cards from the sideboard and dug around for nickels. We played game after game of ‘skat’–uproarious games that elicited groans of dismay and crows of delight, and that ended–no surprise–with Loolie heavier by a hefty stash of coinage. Then, realizing that Loolie’s flight could require an early morning departure, we bundled everyone off to bed.
We were up by 6:00 AM, and that was good, because Loolie called and found she needed to be back at the airport by 10:00. She packed up quickly, expertly; she ate a fast breakfast of bran flakes, gave us all big hugs, and was gone like the whirlwind she is.
She called me a couple of weeks later, and she said she and Jules had a great visit. Loolie loved meeting Trevor’s intended, a feisty young woman named Amy who volunteered as a ski guide when she wasn’t working as a CPA. Loolie and Jules cooked up a storm together and went to all the local sites and had a big family dinner to make up for the beloved faces Loolie missed seeing at the shower. It all, she told me happily, turned out GOOD.
Things have a way of doing that when Loolie is involved, I thought. And now, as I slice the ham from the hock, getting it ready to go into the pot, I muse about visits with Loolie: they always yield unexpected gifts, surprising dividends. Homemade hash has become one of our family staples–I begged Loolie for her recipe, but she could only natter about a hint of this, a pinch of that, and what’s in your freezer and your pantry? That’s a little loosey-goosey for me, I’m afraid–I need structure, instructions,–so I start with the Joy of Cooking method (here’s a link to their ‘Farmers’ Market Hash’ recipe: http://www.thejoykitchen.com/recipe/farmers-market-hash) and give myself free reign to improvise. Hash is a warm and comforting Saturday night supper, and the memories it evokes of a visit from the Whirlwind make it taste even better.
The soup is simmering; it’s starting to perfume the house, and Jim, once again, drifts downward, following the good smell. The snow has stopped; in 90 minutes or so, I’ll head off to work. For dinner, we’ll cook up a big pot of rice and scoop the black bean soup over the top; we’ll tear apart slices of Giacomo’s french bread and mop up the last remains of rich broth. Jim will eat his pizza, and we’ll reminisce about the time that Loolie got stuck in Columbus.
Mark will mention how good some hash would be; Jim will say how impressive Loolie’s Star Wars knowledge is; I will think to myself that travel season is coming upon us. Time to think ahead, maybe planning a visit with Loolie, to connect with her and Kerri and some of our high school buddies–a time to recharge and revitalize.
And to, maybe, discover a new recipe. Spring is coming. I can’t wait!