Then, somehow, my elbow caught the edge of Herb's hot soup and flipped it right into his lap. With his weak heart, the shock of it killed him instantly.

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The Rime of a Mariner's Knickerbocker Soup

(e-SoupSong 41: September 1, 2003)

This? It's knickerbocker soup, always served piping hot. And yes, I do--I order it every single night for dinner.

Why? Ah, I forget how new you are here. Well, we're friends now. I'll tell you why...and with my "glittering eye," if you're familiar with Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner."

I used to be a bit of a mouse, you know. Even just two years ago, when my husband Hank and I first moved here. We'd had an awfully nice life together. Quiet, respectable. It wasn't exactly all romance and passion, but solid. You know. When Hank sold the pharmacy and I stopped teaching, we looked around and decided the Riverside Retirement Community suited us to a T. I was glad to give up cooking dinner every day, and he liked the idea of us making friends here in the dining room. But then Hank got sick almost immediately. It all happened so fast. He died four months later--just three days short of our 50th wedding anniversary.

Oh thanks. Yes, it was hard. I'd never been by myself before, and I was awfully lonely. I'd always been bookish, you see, and wasn't very good at making friends. But then one day Herb Smith moved in. He was a good friend of John and Ann Peterson in #2135--going back to their Navy days in the war. John and Herb were on the Wasp--capturing Saipan and Guam in '44, assaulting the Philippines and Okinawa side by side. They talked about those dangerous days over dinner, and I couldn't help but overhear at my adjoining table. I was enthralled. Remember when Othello said how Desdemona had "loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them"? Oh, I knew that people thought Herb was a windbag and a bore, but what passion! He noticed my interest and when he started picking me up at my room to go to the dining room, I was as thrilled as if I was a young girl.

In fact, it was Herb who introduced me to knickerbocker soup. It was his favorite, from his navy days, and he'd talked the cook here into putting it on the standing menu. "Beans, tomatoes, bacon--just what a man needs when there's water water everywhere and not a drop to drink," he'd shout. He always was shouting, you see. I think because he was a little hard of hearing and just liked to hear himself talk. He ordered knickerbocker soup every night, every single night. Just as I do now.

With us, one thing led to another. Meeting for dinner turned into cocktails at my place first. Breakfast in the cafe led to long walks on the grounds. We both loved to travel, and one day Herb suggested we take a cruise together. Bit by bit, we became "an item" That's what Ann called it. And I don't deny it: I was glad to have the companionship and protection of a man again. I thought how my mother must be laughing in heaven to see her little girl, now an old woman, swept away by romance. Herb and I were very careful, though, about appearances. He knew how important that was to me.

Time passed, though--and you know what familiarity can breed. Of course I didn't say a word to Herb about how loud he was, how opinionated and annoying to other people. I was brought up too well. But it hurt me. I didn't say a word, but I felt myself changing inside, getting resentful. Even angry. Imagine--me, who'd never had an angry moment in all my life. Embarrassment can do that, I think.

Then one night--the most shaming night of my life--we were right here at this very table. Herb had just ordered the knickerbocker soup when John and Earl stopped by to comment on the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. "Herb," John said, "did you watch Bob Dole's Tribute to America's Veterans tonight?" Oh how happy Herb was to answer, to make a big loud statement for all the room to hear. "No," he crowed loudly, and I can still see his face stretching up like a preening rooster until it was only a foot away from John's face. "No," he said, "but I'll tell you this--I don't think much of that guy, making such a mess of the '96 race and now trying to promote his wife for office. He's a has-been in my book."

It was right then, as the waiter served the soup, that I looked into Herb's red face and saw what a fool I'd been. This was not a smart man. Not a man of passion and fire. No. This was a cocky, strutting little thing, not worth my love at all.

"And I'll tell you another thing about that Bob Dole," Herb shouted as John and Earl passed by, "He's a goddamn liar. I'm here to tell you--that viagra he's always talking about doesn't work worth a damn."

Well. Did you ever hear the bands of your own heart burst? Every eye in the dining room slid to look me full in the face.

What did I do? Well, what would you do? What could anybody do? I reached across the table for my purse, meaning to leave immediately. Then, somehow, my elbow caught the edge of Herb's hot soup and flipped it right into his lap. With his weak heart, the shock of it killed him instantly.

Oh yes, a terrible, terrible scene! No one had ever seen Herb so quiet before. "An unfortunate accident," the doctor's report said.

Since then, everyone has been so kind. And I'm a different person now, I think, facing up to the whole thing. That's why I eat a bowl of knickerbocker soup for dinner every night. Penance, of course. Of course, penance. But, just between you and me, it makes me think of that glorious moment when that cocky little albatross fell off my neck "and sank like lead into the sea."

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This nutritious soup--full of beans, tomatoes, bacon, and chunky vegetables--is an old sailor favorite...and it's tough to find a recipe that makes under a 100 portions. This is a great one, though--pretty to see, filling, and belly warming on a blustery day. Serve hot to 8-10 people as a luncheon meal with lots of crackers.

  • 1/2 pound white beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water
  • 10 cups beef stock
  • 8 strips of bacon
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 1 pound tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned are fined)
  • 6 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 3 large waxy potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 2-3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • salt to taste
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water, then drain and rinse. Bring the stock to a boil in a large soup pot, pour in the beans, reduce heat, and simmer for an hour, until the beans are tender.

While the beans are cooking, fry the bacon until it is crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels, leaving the bacon grease in the skillet. Toss in the onions and saute over medium heat until the onions are soft, about 5 minutes. Toss in the tomatoes and let cook down for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the beans have cooked for about an hour, scrape in the tomato-onion mixture, then the carrot and potato chunks. Bring to a boil, season well with pepper, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes, until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the bacon, crumbled, and season with salt to taste.

When ready to serve, ladle into bowls.

Best regards,
Pat Solley

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NEXT MONTH: "You Are What You Slurp: Soup Personality Tests"