Splendid Split Pea Soup
Sadly, I learned upon returning from my honeymoon that the local branch of my library closed and the iron gates outside will remain locked for two years during renovations. I love that library. I love its creaky old wooden floors, the open second floor, the inoperable fire place. This news was devastating to me, but I decided to face the future by walking to the main branch on a gray Thursday. I put on my pale swingy coat with big black buttons that makes me feel like Catherine Deneuve, wrapped a vintage silk scarf around my neck and headed off in my sensible red clogs. On the way, I passed a bodega with an enviable selection of flowers. The branches of bittersweet looked like a Chinese painting of berries in the snow with its sudden shock of red. I stopped to look at dahlias, considered the $8 price tag, and settled for getting them on the way home if I their dark velvety petals still seemed like a necessity. As I was walking along, I glanced up a brownstone-lined street flush with turning leaves, and a school bus drove by. I hadn’t set out to have a quintessential fall day, but it was turning out that way.
And then I stepped out of the wind and into the library. The quiet hush of studious productivity reminded me of college days settled into library armchairs in front of snowy windows. I was in heaven. Then I started to browse, which I never do at the library, and here’s the Duh Discovery of the Week: the library cookbook section blows your bookstore’s out of the water. There are shelves of cookery books that are old, unpopular, out-of-print, strange, delightful, and deeply charming. They also have Rachael Ray, of course, but it is all the other books — the slim volumes devoted to the cooking of Massachusetts and old, hard-to-find favorites that won my heart. There, between the stacks, I fell in love with one such charmer: The Supper Book. Filled with delightful illustrations, historical context, and personal asides, Marion Cunningham, who revised and updated Fanny Farmer, fills her cookbook with the single-course suppers that are simple, honest, and good. On my day in the library, tucked out of the weather’s way, nothing seemed more appealing than a bowl of her split pea soup, and the timing couldn’t be better — this marks the beginning of National Split Pea Soup Week. Though split pea soup won’t be winning any beauty contests, it does have a certain humble, unassuming appeal that makes it one of the coziest soups for fall.
Let me leave you also with a sense of her voice and her thoughts on dinner for one which convince me Cunningham is a kindred:
Sometimes eating supper alone feels private, quiet, and blessedly liberating. You may eat anything you want; you needn’t be conventional. I like a baked potato with olive oil and coarse salt and pepper followed by vanilla ice cream, which proves to me that money doesn’t buy a good meal. One night not long ago I had freshly baked cookies and milk, and found that uplifting.
Split Pea Soup
adapted from The Supper Book
Cunningham recommends serving this soup with dark rye bread and melon, a suggestion that makes me love her book all the more.
1 pound split green peas
1½ pounds ham hocks, or a leftover ham bone with a little meat attached
2 medium onions, chopped
3 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
8 cups water
Put the split peas, ham hocks, onions and celery in a soup pot, add the water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours. The soup is done with the peas are soft. Taste, add more salt if needed, and a generous grinding of pepper. Remove the bones and any skin from the ham hocks, shred the meat and return to pot.