Split-pea soup and the meaning of life

Dec 30, 2009

Take a leftover ham hock from Christmas dinner. Put it in a large pot (a lobster pot will do, if your cooking accoutrements are limited). Pour in a sizeable amount of water (if you have to use a large pot, such as one made for boiling lobsters, then you can just eyeball the water level for a nice batch of soup). Since you may be off, because of having poured in too much water, be prepared to add extra amounts to your recipe. For example, though the recipe called for two bay leaves, I tossed in three this morning.

Get that ham hock / bay leaves combo a'boilin', then a'simmerin,'  while you bundle up and head to the store to buy the split peas that you thought were stashed deep in the pantry, on unorganized shelves, where it's difficult to spot a tall bottle of cooking oil, not to mention a wimpy plastic bag of split peas squashed behind and beneath half-used jars of soy sauce and dilled pickles. If you're like me, more is better, so when you're shopping, get both the green and yellow split peas. Now, if you're a reader, once home and unburdened by your winter coat and scarf, you'll notice right away that there are discrepancies between the recipes for split pea soup on the green, versus the yellow, pea packages.

Don't worry too much about details (one says to boil vigorously for 30 minutes, then simmer for another 30; the other says to let everything rumble away for a complete hour and a half). The important thing, I've discovered, is to feel happy and a bit creative and to have the confidence that it will all turn out well.  What I did today was to pour in two thirds of the green package and half of the yellow, first dutifully washing the peas, looking for any agricultural debris that might have escaped the harvesting-transport-packaging specialists en route to the grocery store.

Once the splits were tossed into the simmering lobstah pot of ham hock and bay leaves, it was time to think about the rest of the ingredients. Mine included one long, bright orange carrot, two medium-sized potatoes, two celery stalks, one largish red onion and four cloves of garlic. The latter two were concessions to an online recipe that I had read the day before. The other veggies were a throwback to memories of "Mom's Split-Pea Soup with Ham." Once those things were tossed into the lobstah pot, all that was left was to add a dash of black pepper (ground) and a few pinches of salt (I chose sea salt, since this was to be a gourmet soup).

The bewitching, Phase Three of split pea soup-making was about to begin: every five or 10 minutes, I took off the lid and stirred my brew (let the lid water drip back into the pot), watching the water contents take on a pea-green color (we wouldn't expect it to be olive-green, would we?) and a thickening texture. With each lift of the pot lid and stir, my confidence rose. Toward the end of the stirrin', I remembered a friend's advice: "Stan, split-pea soup with ham has to have lots of ham, so make sure you put in three cups!"  Luckily, I had made myself a 5.65 pound butt end ham roast the day before, for Christmas dinner, with no one to share it with, so plenty of extra ham was not a problem (remember, when in doubt, add more). Oh, yes, this gourmet recipe would rival Mom's Split-Pea Soup with Ham, from the old days!

And you know what? It did! About five hours after I had first combined ham hock, bay leaves, and guessed-at amounts of water in the lobstah pot (Phase One), and about 90 minutes after I had started tossing in all the other ingredients mentioned (Phase Two), I ladled out my first bowl of split-pea soup with ham. Oh, it was soooooooooo delicious!  The texture was smooth (miraculously, after 90 minutes of a light boil, those rock-hard splits had become wonderfully mushy), and the colors were pleasing (light, pea-green color with floating orange discs of carrot slices, white cubes of diced potatoes and garlic, and an almost magenta hue to the three cups-plus of shredded Christmas ham). Since it's a chilly, late December day in Maine (and we live in an energy-conserving world, which means that it's not exactly toasty inside the house), every bite of soup warmed up my tummy, not to mention my self-esteem!

Now, you may think that this little writing piece is about how to make split-pea soup with ham, but it's not. Nope. It's about life.

Because the thought occurred to me while washing the lobstah pot and stirring spoon, tummy full of four bowls of my soup, that composing a piece of music, or writing a book of poems or short stories, or a novel, or trekking northward in Pakistan, toward China, or even learning how to fly a plane - they're all a bit like making soup. If you've never done it before, you have to get off your duff and give it a try.

You're never too old to learn to make soup, and I suspect that there's still time for me to do those other things I want to accomplish in life. Granted, it's probably better to be more precise with flying protocols than my improvised take on soup ingredients. However, embracing the unknown, adding a pinch of creativity, trusting your instincts - those are all important components of taking on new challenges.

As I finished drying the lobstah pan and put my soup leftovers in the fridge, I said to myself: "If you can make a good pot of soup, Stan, then surely you'll one day be a good airplane pilot." And that's my New Year's greeting for you.

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