by Phillip Vongsavang
It seems a little over the top to have such a strong opinion on the matter. A little over dramatic perhaps. But I can’t stand bean soup. Yuck. I can’t remember exactly, but I was out running some errands and it caught me off guard and has stayed with me ever since. As Darth Vader put it, “I sense something. A presence I have not felt since…” well, since I was a teenager. It was the smell of my grandad’s homemade bean soup.
Now Eugene Orndorff, my grandad, was a tinkerer, he always had been. Take it apart. Put it together. Broken piece? No problem. Electrical? Mechanical? It didn’t matter, he was your man. From my earliest memories, grandad always had grease under all nine of his fingernails. The missing tenth was due to an unfortunate lawnmower accident that instilled in me a healthy fear of yard work that still lingers today. Grandad was forged from a time when men rolled up their sleeves and figured things out on their own – like not to reach under a lawnmower to remove anything that may be jamming the blade. In those days, you had ten tries to figure things out like that. As a young man, grandad served in the Korean Conflict as a army helicopter mechanic. I’ve seen old black and white photographs of him standing in front of drab army tents in an equally drab uniform that look like they were taken from the set that old T.V. show, M.A.S.H. After returning home from his service, grandad found work at a local machine shop. That’s the man I knew growing up.
My grandparents lived in an old Sears and Roebuck home, ordered right out of a catalog, delivered to an empty lot and built near Bethesda, MD. Some of my fondest memories are of being sent down to the basement to retrieve grandad from his workshop. And unless Barney Miller was on, the workshop was where you could usually find him. Walking down those stairs the first thing you’d hear was the twang of blue-grass music from behind the closed door. Then you’d begin to notice the smell of grease, oil and sawdust mingling together in a not entirely unpleasant way. Anyone who has spent anytime in a mechanic’s garage knows that smell. And once the door was opened, it was the whirring and buzzing of saws and drills followed by the crackle, spark and distinctive smell of ozone from his soldering gun. Yeah, grandad definitely tinkered, and that habit followed him back up the stairs and into the kitchen.
Grandad was a big fan of cajun chef extraordinaire, Justin Wilson, known for his backwoods charm and tag line, “I Gua-Ron-Tee!” As proof of his tinkering grandad once offered me a brownie that was moist, delicious and warm, as if straight out of the oven. He was kind enough to inform me that he had added chili peppers to the recipe. Another time, he dropped small slices of parmesan cheese into a dry skillet. The result was a cheese chip that had all its cheesy deliciousness with the added crisp of a potato chip.
“What does any of this have to do with bean soup?” you must be asking. One Saturday afternoon my mother, my sister and I dropped by for a visit. We came through the back door, like we always did, and grandad greeted me the same way he always had: “What do you say, Phil?” followed in short order with, “Take your coat off and stay a while.” On this particular day the kitchen was filled with the smell of something that promised to be delicious. Grandad told us it was a bean soup recipe he’d been fooling with and offered us a taste. It was good, it was real good. Then he and my mother settled down at the kitchen table to chat for a spell. When it came time to leave, I slipped into my jacket and moved toward toward the door. That’s when grandad handed me the entire pot of bean soup to take to the car, and let me tell you, it was a big pot, I Gua-Ron-Tee !
For the next week it was bean soup for lunch, and bean soup for dinner. I’m pretty sure if we eat dessert, it would have been bean soup too. The only reason it wasn’t for breakfast was because, by age twelve, breakfast consisted of two cups of black coffee and three or four Marlboro reds, the breakfast of long haired rockers worldwide. Day in, day out, bean soup. I grew to loathe the stuff. After the first few days, the beans began to lose their shape, slowly breaking down and blending in with the rest of the ingredients in the pot. Eventually it turned into a pot of brown gruel with the consistency of art class paste and tasted quite a bit like salted cardboard. What had I done to deserve this cruel punishment? Was it because I had offered a positive review of this soup which would become the bane of my existence? Why me?
Over the next few years, grandad would whip up a batch of bean soup every few weeks and send the batch home with us. Through the eyes of that teen, I thought the agony would never end. I would sit at the kitchen table staring glassy eyed into a future that was an ever flowing river of bean soup. If that old song about beans is right, then I had to have the healthiest heart on the block. But through the eyes of the man I am today I realize that it was grandad’s bean soup that fed me and literally kept our family alive.
The truth is that those years were tough on my family. After my father left, my mother became the sole breadwinner for our family. She worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. We lived in the “not so nice” part of town. You know those places where every home was painted the same shade of brown that just about matched the awful contents of the pot that sat on our stove? Some days our cupboards were bare. Other days, I might find a box of minute rice and would make a snack of rice with soy sauce. My mother would get home hours later and, upon seeing the rice missing, go back to her room and weep bitterly. I had just eaten our family’s dinner for the next two nights. And I would find myself thinking, “What was the big deal? It was just rice.” It turned out all those batches of bean soup grandad whipped up was helping to feed his daughter and grandchildren. Each pot sent home meant we would go to bed with full bellies. I think he tinkered with the recipe and added a few secret ingredients like love and kindness. And just as the beans broke down and mixed with the rest of the pot, so did his secret ingredients, into every bite.
Mom eventually put herself through Temple School for Secretaries and found a great job working in the Federal Government. We moved out of the projects and got a nice little condominium a few minutes up the road. Cue the theme song from “The Jeffersons.” We would still visit grandad once or twice a week. Occasionally, he would pass along a batch of his bean soup for us to take home, but it was no longer as big a pot as it used to be and we didn’t have it for every meal either.
It’s had been a while since I thought about grandad’s bean soup. That is until that smell hit me. But I’m glad it did. It’s given me an opportunity to appreciate what grandad did for me. The secret ingredients he added had finally broken down and added its flavors to the rest of the pot. It took 40 years but they say good food takes time and this was the best food. As a father I hope my daughters never have to face those same trials my mother went through but if they do I hope to be half the man grandad was. That kid thought it would never end, this man hopes he never forget. I could really go for a bowl of grandad’s bean soup…if I could just find the damned recipe.