One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among tedious implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup in a tool shed—for all I knew it might have been used as a lubricant—my friend said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.”
I was puzzled at the time, but now I think I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have found no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup.
Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and in this case its company was poverty itself. Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them. For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives which, in this new world, were not quite picture-perfect. And potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished to an outhouse.
Others harkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s stature was reckoned by its making do in the face of adversity. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they came to know in hardship. As children they may have been sent to school with a biscuit folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean, and coming home they often had soup made from the leftovers and whatever else they had on hand to feed many hungry people. The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family.
I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range. She probably remembered her momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that (to her mind painful) image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and probably had learned how to make at her mother’s knee.
Here’s a recipe from Linda Bolton, who for many years ran the Good Food Store when it was on Jackson Avenue in Oxford. Linda was a guru of mine, a woman of many parts who cast her bread upon the waters without reservation. Back when I was writing a food column for The Oxford Times, I published a really basic potato soup recipe and the next day when I was walking towards the Rose, Linda yelled across the street at me: “Let me tell you what all you left out of your `tater soup recipe, Yancy!” So she did, and here’s the modified recipe:
For each serving (@ a cup and a half), take a large starchy potato, wash, peel and dice, making sure to take out all discolorations. Boil in enough water to cover, adding a vegetable bouillon cube. When almost tender through, reduce heat, sauté for each of two servings one small white onion and two cloves of garlic, both finely minced, in about two tablespoons sweet butter. To this, add liquid from the potatoes and boil until onions have broken down. Add this mixture back to the potatoes, simmer and stir until the soup has a creamy consistency with soft chunks of potato. Salt to taste and season with crushed dill seed, rosemary and pepper. You can add a little heavy cream and another tablespoon of butter to make a more substantial soup, in which case you might also want to add a little hard grated cheese. Serve hot.