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Maggie's Black Bean Soup

(A Soup of Love)

Ever heard a shockingly funny story that ended in a twist of heartbreak. That's this one from Maggie Fex of Sonoma County, California--and it comes with a terrific soup: rich and earthy but not overpowering; filling and nicely spiced with a fine range of textures and contrasts. Serve hot to 6-8 people as a stick-to-your-ribs meal and, as Maggie says, as a "love-offering...much more than physical nourishment. Soup is such a comfort food."

Souptale: I'll tell you a story involving this soup, and I hope you won't be offended by it. Here goes:

The Winter of 1995 it flooded. Our neighbors across the street were on a lower elevation, closer to the Russian River, and as it continued to rain, their home was threatened. They (let's call them John & Mary) asked me and my husband if they could come & stay at our house. We said sure - you know, good neighbors & all that. They came over with practically all their worldly possessions, their two cats, and a litter box the size of a small child's wading pool.

It continued to rain over the next several days and the neighbors now had water in their living space of their home. The waters continued to rise and pretty soon the river was up to the 2nd step of my front porch. More rain was predicted and the roads were closed. They were flying people out by helicopter, people were leaving in boats. My husband Jim and I called our other neighbor, George, who lives up behind us on an even higher elevation. His place is a summer cabin with one bedroom and a woodstove. He lived in San Francisco and usually only came up on weekends or in the summer. We asked George if we could move up to his place if we had to evacuate our house. He graciously said yes, and told us where to find the key.

Meanwhile, impatient neighbor John has broken a window to get into George's house. He and Mary rush in and usurp the only bedroom, leaving Jim and myself on army cots in the front room. They leave their cats & their enormous litter box in our upstairs guest room.

Fortunately, I had made a big pot of this black bean soup, and I served it to everyone for dinner. John asks if there's any meat in the soup and I tell him yes, ham hocks. He turns up his nose, shoves the bowl away and pushes back from the table, an angry vegan. The rest of us continue to huddle over our steaming bowls in the cold cabin. The rain pours, we are collecting rainwater in buckets to wash with, and to pour down the toilet because we now have no water, and no power either. It gets dark very early and we light candles.

John goes off into the bathroom as Jim, Mary and I continue our meal. John comes out after awhile, walks to the middle of the room and says, "I have an announcement to make. The sewer system isn't going to take much more of this. I have one hundred and forty-seven plastic Safeway bags, and pretty soon we'll have to start defecating in those, although that may pose some problems for me, because, as a vegetarian, I have a tendency to splatter."

He actually says this, with a straight face.

I get up, and say to Jim, "Uh, honey, why don't you come outside on the porch with me and have a cigarette?"

Jim says, "I don't want a cigarette."

Me: "Oh, yes you do."

And I take his arm, lead him outside and shut the door. I then grab him by the shirtfront and say, "Jim, I don't care what you have to do, or who you have to call, but GET ME THE F*** OUT OF HERE! Everybody has their limits but mine stops just short of defecating into plastic Safeway bags with this clown. GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!!"

Jim agrees. He calls his chief at the San Francisco Fire Department, and he in turn calls someone else at the Office of Emergency Services, and they in turn call the sheriff. Two frogmen in a Zodiac boat come and fetch me, my husband, our duffel bag of clothes, medicines and a few essentials, and our cats in their carrier. We are going up the main street of Guerneville in a boat. "Oh, look, is that the roof of the hardware store? Is that the roof of the car-wash?" It is extremely surreal, and depressing, to see our town this way.

Eventually we ended up being evac'd out via Army transport truck, up on big huge enormous wheels, as we had missed the last helicopter out that day. It took 2 hours over mountain roads to get to Sebastopol, usually only about 15 minutes away by car. We were taken to a Red Cross Shelter which looked as if they'd hung a sign that said, "If you have lice, scabies, a personality disorder, poor hygiene, a drinking problem, a lot of tattoos and very few teeth, come on down!" Because that was who was there. Fortunately my brother-in-law picked us up there and took us to stay with my sister in Novato. After that we moved to a motel, until the waters had receded and the rain had stopped. Then we had the big clean up to do. The neighbors cats had crapped all over the guest room. John had let everyone in the neighborhood use our phone and there was mud tracked all over our hardwood floors in the kitchen. We were lucky not to have gotten any water in the living space of the house, just about a foot of water in the garage.

I made another pot of bean soup, and it was a long time before we felt much like talking to John & Mary.

My wonderful husband, Jim, passed away this March. He loved my bean soup - he loved everything I made. He said I was the best cook ever. What a pleasure it was to cook for him - it was so easy to make him happy. Food was a love-offering, one of the ways I took care of him, and showed that I cared. It was much more than physical nourishment. Soup is such a comfort food.

He liked simple things, well-made--bean soup, split pea soup, beef stew, chili, fricassee of chicken, etc. Most men seem to like that "basic" kind of food that sticks to your ribs and leaves you warm inside. I sure miss cooking for him - just one of the nine million ways I miss him. He was a good husband, my best friend, and a heroic man. He was a San Francisco firefighter for over 31 years, and he had beaten cancer, and fought the good fight against heart and lung disease for almost 9 years before he succumbed. He was one of the strongest people I have ever known. I'm so proud of him.

Garnish: dollops of sour cream, chopped cilantro, and finely chopped red onion

Drain the soaked the beans, rinse, and fill a large pot with enough water to cover the beans with at least 4 inches of water. Add ham hocks and bring to a boil, then turn down to a slow simmer. Add onion and the garlic, which you have smashed with the back of a knife slightly. Add carrots and celery. Add the rest of the seasonings except cinnamon & vinegar. Cover loosely and simmer for several hours (I like to take a nap while it's simmering). Stir occasionally to keep beans from sticking to the bottom of the pot. You want to cook it until the carrots are very tender and the onions are practically liquefied. If it gets too thick, add some more water.

Then, take it off the heat and pick out the meat and bones, and set aside. Discard all bone fragments and gristle. Strain the beans and broth and put about half the beans into a blender or food processor, along with the carrots (along with the the onion, celery & garlic, which will be almost liquefied at this point). Whiz until it is thick and smooth. Return this mixture to the broth, add the rest of the whole beans, and the meat. Mix well. Add splash of vinegar and dash of cinnamon, and bring it to a boil, then turn it off. Taste to correct seasoning. If you like a more spicy hot soup, you can add chili powder.

I serve this with a dollop of real dairy sour cream, the fattening kind, chopped cilantro and finely chopped red onion. With a pan of cornbread and perhaps a nice tossed green salad, this makes a great lunch or dinner. It is even better the next day, and it freezes well.

I don't add any salt to this soup, because very often the ham hocks are themselves very salty, and also because I happen not to like salty things. If you like more salt, you can either add some sea salt to the water you boil the beans in, or better yet, add salt at the table. This soup can be made vegetarian - just don't use the ham hock.

All quantities are approximate and seasoning can be adjusted according to preference. The savory is a must with the beans, though, as is the bay leaf and the coriander. You can omit the cumin, but I think it tastes better with it.

I just made this soup out of my head one day. We have drippy, wet winters here in Sonoma County, and here by the Russian River, it floods. We're above the flood line, but often the roads are closed and undriveable, and a pot of bean soup on the stove is heartening, warming, and always tastes good on a cold, damp day.