Friday, April 19, 2013

My Grandmother, Choosing Family, and Yellow Split Pea Lentil Soup

My grandma left the world this past week.  She had moved into advanced stages of dementia, and suffered from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and congestive heart failure, so in many ways her passing was a blessing; I know that she is now finally at peace.  I hadn't seen her for a while; she moved to Maine when I was still in middle school, and she had been deteriorating for some time, so my aunt had been busy trying to take care of her, and, I suspect, not really wanting people to see her as the person she'd become.  Which means that my memory of her is not clouded by memories of her illness ... good for me, I guess, not-so-good for my aunt.

Grandma was not my "real" grandma, in the sense that she wasn't blood-related.  She was my aunt's mother, someone who joined our family by marriage.  When my alcoholic uncle (my mother's brother) and my aunt divorced, my family, sadly, mostly abandoned my uncle, and kept my aunt and my cousin, and got Grandma, too.  She was the only grandmother I ever knew; both of my parents' parents died long before I was born.  And she played the role well: there were always banana breads and coconut breads and muffins and chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen, and pots of "gravy" (she was Italian) bubbling away on the stove, and presents that spoiled me.  She sent me scores of cookbooks, and was always offering, on the sly, to let me come stay with her.  I am sure that it was her intent to "fatten me up," not that I needed fattening in my formative years.  I very clearly remember my first New Year's Eve apart from my parents, when I stayed at Grandma's house and she let me watch the ball drop.  We had split pea soup for dinner, and mini hot dogs at midnight, with a tiny glass sip-full of champagne.  I thought I would die of happiness, living it up like a real "grown up," my folding TV tray perched next to hers as we sat together on the couch watching Dick Clark.

In many respects, you don't get to choose your family.  You're stuck with the people who raise you, at least for the early years.  But for me, my grandma was the first example of someone we chose to make part of our family.  My first daytime babysitter was another person we "adopted," for lack of a better term: Aunt Kitty, as we called her, was not just someone who watched me when my parents were at work, but someone who was there at my high school graduation, marveling at the young woman I'd become.

Over the years, I've done my share of this "annexing."  My best friend's parents in high school, who smothered me in hugs.  My high school English teachers, who fed me large shopping bags full of mystery novels, and who hosted me for weekends of quiet reading, good food, and cat-petting during difficult adolescent years.  My college boyfriend's parents, who often welcomed me to their Shabbat table, who fed me chicken soup when I was sick and challah when I wasn't, even if they probably did feel a little sorry that I wasn't Jewish.  My friend in California, who became a big sister, looking out for me when I wasn't looking out very well for myself.

I was talking with a friend from church recently about the giving and receiving sermon from the other day, about why we build our community and try to make sure that everyone is taken care of, and it's precisely for this reason: that most families come imperfect, incomplete, some assembly required.  Which is not to say that everyone needs the heteronormative family with four grandparents and 1.5 siblings and a dog, but that relationships are complicated, and that I feel grateful for the people who have become my chosen family over the years, who help me define what family really means.

My grandmother never would have imagined split pea soup like this.  But I know that she is with me now in the kitchen, nodding approvingly at my efforts to keep the oven hot and the pots bubbling on a regular basis.

How do you define your family?  Who have you chosen to add to your family over the years?

Yellow Split Pea Lentil Soup
adapted from 101 Cookbooks
I added a little more water and vegetables than Heidi did to this soup, and less raisins, because I don't like my soup quite as sweet.  I also tossed all of the scallions in during the cooking stage, instead of saving some for the end as she does, partly by mistake, but I liked the result.  And I added a bit of garam masala for a deeper of flavor.

1 c. yellow split peas
1 c. red lentils
8 c. water
2 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 T. fresh peeled and minced ginger, divided
2 T. curry powder
2 T. coconut oil
8 scallions thinly sliced
1/4 c. golden raisins
1/3 c. tomato paste
1/2 t. garam masala
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
2 t. salt
one small handful cilantro, chopped

Rinse the split peas and lentils very well and place them in 3+ quart soup pot.  Cover the beans with water, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer.  Add the carrot and 1 1/2 t. of the ginger. Cover and simmer for about 35 minutes, or until the split peas are soft but not mushy.  You should test them every few minutes towards the end of cooking time to make sure you don't get split pea soup the way my grandma used to make it (which was great for people with no teeth).

In the meantime, in a small skillet over low heat, toast the curry powder, stirring constantly until fragrant. This should only take about a minute or two; if it starts smoking you're gone too far! Set aside.

Melt the coconut oil in a saute pan over medium heat, add the green onions, the remaining ginger, and raisins. Saute for two minutes stirring constantly, then add the tomato paste and garam masala and saute for another minute or two more.

Add the toasted curry powder to the tomato paste mixture, mix well, and then add this to the simmering soup along with the coconut milk and salt. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes or so.

You can add rice or farro if you'd like a heartier soup; I preferred mine as is, sprinkled with lots of cilantro.
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  1. So sorry to hear about your loss! Thanks for a lovely post that confirms my feelings about the importance of recognizing and honoring broad definitions of family. It sounds like your grandmother was a special woman.

  2. I'm sorry to hear of your grandmother's passing. May peace be with you all.

    I definitely have a lot of chosen family. Having moved halfway around the world, I've needed to make a family of my own to survive here. In addition to family-friends back in the US. I love chosen family!

  3. I am so sorry for the loss of your grandmother. The memories you share of your time with her depicts someone who was so nurturing and also fun to be around. I love the memory about New Year's eve and the hot dogs and the champagne. I always marvel how my kids remember so distinctly the things that are slightly forbidden. I have chosen my family, to a certain extent. My stepfather, being the prime example, but also friends who are like sisters and a few older women friends who are like mothers. They have completed my circle - and they are as much family to me as the blood ties Beautiful post as always.

  4. Just found your blog! It's wonderful. Looking forward to following along. I'm so making this recipe.

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  6. Sorry to hear about the loss of your Grandma, but what lovely memories of her life and the impact it made. That split pea soup sounds yummy...

  7. I'm so sorry for your loss. I also have a fair share of chosen family. It's really about the people who are there to support you and love you, not just blood ties. Thank you for sharing the memories of your grandmother with us.

  8. Love this J! I am sorry for your loss and loved learning about your "reloshantives." That's what my day's family nicknamed good friends who are like family. Though I was lucky to have all four grandparents alive until I was in college and felt close to/had a good relationship with all of them, they didn't live near us, so I only saw them a few times a year. Also, my mom was an only child and my dad one of 5 kids born, in 5 years, but his siblings have not stayed close over the years. They live far away from each other and are in touch now and then. Thus, like you, there were numerous reloshantives in our life, especially my parents best friends, a couple who were like an aunt and uncle to me. So yes, this post really resonates with me. I do feel blessed and lucky to have a good relationship with some of my blood relatives, I am just as grateful for the family/ reloshantives who I got to choose, as you say.

  9. Godspeed to your grandmother.

    I love the idea of "annexing" family-type members as needs and abilites arise and can be matched.

    Maybe this is part of the allure of blogging for me. I found new sisters, cousins, aunts who fill some of the needs I have that my real-life family doesn't.

    Sing it, Sister :-)

  10. I am sorry about your grandmother. I adored all of my grandparents but we didn't live very close to them when my sister & I were little -- but we did find "honorary" grandparents wherever we lived who helped to fill that gap in our lives, and I still think of them all fondly.

    I've written on my blog about my "Parents' Neighbours' Daughter," who grew up at our house & became a member of the family -- and who now brings her own little girl over for my parents to spoil. She calls them "Grandma" & "Grandpa" too. :)


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