With him forever, my dad’s minestrone soup holds the secrets to who he is. It is indelible, much like his fingerprints, or heartbeat, but a mystery I cannot unravel.
It was always at the back of the fridge. An odd-looking mix of the drippings that came out of every pan, the water from all steamed veggies and a hearty handful of oregano. I can’t remember seeing him pull it out of the fridge, not even once. But it grew, and I knew what it was.
When I was a little girl, it was the cure for every cough, cold, or stomach upset. It was backrubs and late night cuddles when I couldn’t break a fever, permission to sleep on the couch when my room was too cold and the sign that everything was going to be okay. No matter what.
When I was a teenager, it was shame. It was the dish I couldn’t hide from, and was terrified he would serve to my friends. How would they ever understand? It was a change in state, city and socioeconomic class, and the fear of being seen as an outsider. And it disappeared for a few months, while mom worked to support the family in another city. He put it in the deep freezer and didn’t make another pot until my parents were under the same roof again.
When I was in my twenties, it was the taste of home. It was the first thing I wanted when I came for a visit, and the dish I asked if we could serve my husband on our maiden visit home as a married couple. It was more than a soup.
It was Dad’s minestrone.
He’d never called it minestrone–it had no beans. I learned to call it that when I was in college. A few friends were discussing how much they missed a good minestrone. How their families always had one cooking. I said I’d never tried minestrone. What did it taste like?
Like whatever your family ate last week! Was the reply. Minestrone didn’t have a set recipe. Sure, you could find one online, but a real minestrone didn’t use one.
Minestrone was love, patience and a stock made of everything and anything. Everyone’s was different, and it never tasted the same twice. It was pan drippings and vegetable juices and leftovers. It was making something out of nothing. It was hard work, always on the stove, or in the fridge.
I’d eaten it at least once a week for my entire life, only my father called his “hamburger stew.” Ground beef was the only ingredient (besides oregano) he always used – sautéed on the stove with a little salt and pepper and broken into bite-size, or slightly-smaller, chunks.
But Dad isn’t Italian.
He’s German-Irish, although he did spend a lot of time hanging out with the Italians in South Philly. His cooking is undeniably influenced by his friends. Years, miles and memories separated him from the Puccinis, Lupinaccis and the Romilinis, to name a few, but from the monster pots of homemade spaghetti sauce to trays of homemade meatballs that took hours to prepare, and his eternal pot of minestrone, he kept them in his heart, and in his kitchen.
I’m not sure where the soup emerged. Maybe it was a product of those friendships, but it’s so much a part of him that it could be from any of the events that formed him.
It could be from his childhood, growing up part of the working poor in urban Philadelphia. Maybe it was created out of necessity. I’m the youngest of a Yours, Mine, & Ours gang of 11 children and when I was born, food and money were tight…or maybe it was a relic from his days in the Korean War, far from home and hungry for something that tasted better than ordinary base grub.
It’s something I should ask him about, but I doubt I would get an answer. He couldn’t tell me where he got his fingerprints, how he learned to whistle, or why he shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly and gives his eyebrows a funny little lift when he doesn’t know something. Those are just parts of who he is–they’ve been with him forever, as far as he can recall. Just like the soup.
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