(by Catherine Gigante-Brown)
When you lose your mom at an early age—I was 34; she was 58—at some point in the years that follow, you realize that your friends’ mothers often stand in for your own. Both emotionally and culinarily.
Sometimes it’s my high school buddies Sarah and Sue’s mom, Barb, whom I watched effortlessly whip up chicken soup and orange muffins from scratch after temping at a law office all day. Barb calls me “Third Daughter” because I came into the Gilbertson family more than 40 years earlier, way before her lovely daughters-in-laws did. That term of endearment both thrills me and touches me.
Other times, it’s moms that I adopt, because of my own mother’s shining example—Terry’s credo was that if you knew someone liked a dish, there was no greater joy than feeding it to them.
One day a few years back, I posted on social media that I was making a big pot of navy bean soup. My friend June responded that not only did it look delicious but it was her mom’s favorite. I set aside a quart and personally delivered it to Mrs. Hinton, who lived a few blocks away.
I never saw anyone so thrilled to get a container of soup. It truly warmed my heart. Mrs. Hinton and I sat at the table in her neat, sunlit kitchen and chatted. It made me pine for the times I spent with my own mom like that. She told me the wonderful story of how she and a girlfriend used to frequent a diner near their office every Monday because Monday was Navy Bean Soup Day. They both loved that thick, hearty concoction dotted with bits of celery, carrots and salty chunks of pork.
More than 60 years ago and Mrs. Hinton was still waxing philosophic about that soup. Or maybe she was just wistful for the carefree days when she was a young woman on her lunch break, free to do as she pleased for a brief moment or two.
Whatever the reason, I loved listening to Mrs. Hinton’s reflections. Her lovely face and delicate features took on a youthful glow, her deep brown eyes shone. Proust had his madeleines; Mrs. Hinton had her navy bean soup. Both dishes were equally as valid and as important.
Every time I make navy bean soup, I can’t help but think of Mrs. Hinton and smile. And I try to put aside a portion for her. When I was in treatment for a recurrence of breast cancer in the middle of a pandemic, cooking became a comfort, and what better comfort food than a hearty soup? It made me feel useful to pamper Mrs. Hinton when I often felt weak and helpless. But in a chemo haze, I delivered her soup to the wrong brick house in the row. Luckily, June was able to dash next door and rescue the displaced potage. It was still outside, its plastic bag hanging from the knob where I’d left it.
A few days ago, I left a serving in a bag from Rituals Cosmetics, propped on the windowsill of Mrs. Hinton’s ground-floor apartment, making another contactless delivery in this never-ending pandemic. The Rituals bag seemed appropriate because this soup has become our ritual.
How I miss sitting at Mrs. Hinton’s table, listening to her tell stories of Brooklyn past, when she was a young girl with a crush on the ice man’s helper, dashing out for a quick lunch with a girlfriend, enjoying the absolute freedom of simply being and a hot bowl of navy bean soup.
I thank my friends Sue and Sarah and June for sharing their mothers with this motherless child and for reminding me that there is joy in the sharing: of food, of people, of love.
Navy Bean Soup
(This is a very rustic, forgiving recipe. Feel free to substitute or add any herbs you like. I once used a seared pork chop when I realized I didn’t have a ham hock.)
1 lb. navy beans
1 T. oil (any type)
1 c. white onion, chopped
2 small cloves garlic, minced
1 smoked ham hock
8 c. water
1 bay leaf
1 t. dried parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small potato, roughly chopped
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
Sort and soak navy beans according to package directions.
In a large pot, heat oil and lightly sauté onions until almost translucent.
Add garlic and sauté for a few seconds.
Add soaked and sorted beans, ham hock, water, bay leaf, dried parsley, salt and pepper. Cook at a gentle boil, partially covered, for 1 hour.
Add carrots, potato, and celery.
Continue cooking until beans are soft, approximately 30 - 60 minutes longer.
Remove ham hock and let cool slightly.
Separate the meat from the skin, bone, and fat.
Chop the meat, then add it back to the soup.
Gently mash the beans with a potato masher. Soup should be thick but not a smooth puree.
Makes approximately 3 quarts, or 6 - 9 servings.
(Remember to save some for Mrs. Hinton.)