By: John Carlson—
My wife makes a mean ham-and-bean soup, which is fortunate, since I grew up eating some of the very best.
A visit down to Mt. Summit and Sparky’s Doghouse – better known by many of us as The Cultural Center of the Universe – started me obsessing over this. It was my friend Sparky Harris himself, a man who expertly cooks literally hundreds of hams each year, who blessed Nancy and me with a meaty hambone to make ourselves a batch of bean soup.
Now, in the event you think that bean soup caters too much to proletarian tastes, that it’s a dish lacking in sophistication, you should know this. No less a culinary establishment than Indy’s legendary St. Elmo’s, a favorite restaurant of a certain Peyton Manning when he’s in town, serves a fine cup itself. Paying a rare visit once, our knowledgeable waiter advised us to mix a bit of leftover St. Elmo’s fiery shrimp cocktail sauce with our beans. One bite of this concoction put a whistle to my lips and rosy glow on my cheeks.
Still, I’m certain there’s never been better bean soup than my late Grandma Smith’s.
I’ve rhapsodized before about her cooking, her chicken and dumplings, her Sunday roasts and the bursting garden she and Gramps tended on a vacant lot. No hobby, this was a necessary means of stretching an underpaid working man’s family food budget. Then there were my lunches in junior high school, which was located just up the street from them. This being those dangerous days before healthy stuff like kale was invented, twice a week I’d trudge there to find her cooking inch-thick hamburgers and browning thickly sliced potatoes in two cast-iron frying pans.
Or, sometimes, there’d be a huge pot of bean soup.
Was hers a healthy lunch menu? I suppose not, but back in those days she didn’t know any better, thank God.
Of Canadian heritage, her family had moved to the rural hills of central Ohio and thrived there on small farms and in little towns. Country cooking came as naturally to the womenfolk as farming, milking cows and coon hunting did to the men.
Hence, her bean soup.
I’ve dined on plenty of such soups over the years, ones in which you could count every single bean if you were so inclined. The Delaware County Fairgrounds’ bean soup, served at the Dinner Bell restaurant every year at fair time, comes to mind, and it’s a good one sold at a very reasonable price.
But my Grandma Smith’s bean soup was more like a thick porridge. Ladled into a bowl, it was soup you could almost stand a spoon in upright. I can’t imagine how long she stirred that stuff to get the perfect consistency, but colored a beautiful deep beige, it was almost as marvelous to see and to smell as it was to eat.
Still, there were so many other facets to that woman, I should be embarrassed how the first thing that comes to mind when I think of her always seems to be food. There was her kindness, which was boundless. Her love of the jigsaw puzzles that often graced a folding table in her living room. Her sewing and quilting, the latter of which resulted in a pink quilt for my sister Patty and a blue quilt for me, one I slept wrapped in until it was tattered. And lest I forget, there was also her unswerving embrace of staunch Baptist beliefs. Gramps told me he’d seen that in action once, early in their marriage when she caught him trying to sneak a Lucky Strike down in the basement workshop that doubled as her pantry.
As a quit-smoking method, I have a feeling Millie Smith’s righteous indignation left pills and patches in the dust.
I also remember the day I walked there for lunch, stepped inside and found her quietly crying. Silently handing me a letter from a sibling, she stood there as I read it, learning that her mother, my Great-grandma Martin, had died in her sleep down on her family’s farm.
That’s how she learned of her mother’s death. In a letter.
That poignant memory has lasted, reminding me that it was a simpler time, now long, long ago. Once I smell Nancy’s bean soup cooking tonight, those dear days won’t seem so far in the past after all.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.