For many years in my family the standard for good split pea soup was set by the folks down in Santa Nella in California’s great central valley at Pea Soup Andersen’s. That restaurant on Interstate 5 is not far from the original location in Buellton where Anton and Juliette Andersen set their first restaurant in 1924.
According to their website, three months in, they added pea soup based on a recipe made by Juliette’s family, which became the main attraction at Anderson’s Electrical Cafe (named for the business’s new stove) and for the two restaurants eventually called Pea Soup Andersen’s.
My family members excel in many areas, but cooking is not generally one of them. My Grandma Haag made great Swedish meatballs and brownies but did not generally hand down great cuisine genes to her children or grandchildren. Fortunately, my sister married Eric, who has been an adventurous cook for years, and when he gets together with our cousin Robyn, a home arts teacher and her husband, Johnny, a catering professional, some pretty creative food gets served to our family. (Thanks, you guys!)
I have often said that I will eat anything that Dick’s sister Margery puts on a plate. She doesn’t consider herself a fancy cook, but she hosts most of their family gatherings, which no one leaves unsatisfied.
All this is to say that I’m no Juliette Andersen. I consider myself cooking impaired and, if I’m being honest, someone who hasn’t taken the time to dive into the kitchen with great interest and a willingness to experiment. I’d rather go write a poem or read a book or take a walk. My friend Georgann loves to cook, and my late husband Cliff was an adventurous cook. When he was alive, we hosted a number of Thanksgivings, something I haven’t tried since. (Well, there was one disaster, and I gave up after that.)
But since Dick came home after a month in Honolulu recovering from his cardiac arrest in January and a triple bypass, what he wanted was soup. Good homemade soup. That arrived in the form of Jewish penicillin from our good friend Hilary Abramson and Marge’s split pea soup. They kept telling me—along with my good friend Lisa Morgan who is a fine cook herself—”Soup is easy.”
So I had Marge and Lisa talk me through how they do split pea soup (after looking up way too many recipes online). “Make it as simple as you possibly can,” I said. “As if you were talking to someone who barely knows where the stove is.”
And they did. Each of their instructions occupies a single square sticky note.
“I’m gonna try this,” I told Dick when we went to the store one day. (Store runs and daily walks are big outings for a guy who isn’t allowed to drive yet.)
He looked dubious. Not because he doesn’t have faith in me. “You’re so busy,” he said, which is true. “You want to add this to your list of things to do?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking of the friends I admire (some of them men) who make their own soup. “How hard can it be?” And we laughed, of course, because usually that’s the sentence that spells the beginning of trouble.
We bought a package of split peas, wondering how they split them so perfectly down the middle. We bought low-sodium chicken stock and onion and carrots and celery. We bought a nice chunk of good ham from the deli section. And on the Sunday morning when we spring forward in California (after chopping the veggies the night before), I got up and put the veggies in the soup pot with some olive oil and sautéed ’em, as instructed, and then added all the chicken broth (as I wondered, “Are 32 oz. too many oz.s?”) and some water and left it all to simmer on the stove.
Then I went back to bed for a while. Dozed. Woke up realizing that it’s probably not smart to go back to bed with something cooking on the stove (though I do it when I’m baking Grandma’s brownies… of course, then I set a timer). Got up, flustered. Went back to the kitchen. Peeked at the soup. Stirred it, mostly for drill. Read the sticky notes again. “Crap,” I said to the cats who were sitting there watching me. (They’re not used to seeing me at the stove in the morning. Or at any time of day, really.) Lisa’s instructions said add fresh bay leaf. I forgot the bay leaf. Don’t have bay leaf. Decided not to go buy a bottle of ’em at 9-something a.m.—wait, no, 10-something a.m.—when I needed just one. Lisa said you just take it out before you eat the soup anyway.
“Bay leaves are stupid,” I said to the cats. Then I went to the computer and Googled “why put bay leaf in soup” and read for a while. Apparently they are not stupid. “The bay leaf adds a slightly sweet, sort of tea-like note,” according to one article. Best to get fresh ones anyway. That wasn’t going to happen, so I crossed “bay leaf” off my instructions.
“We will imagine that there is bay leaf in the soup,” I told the cats, who looked unimpressed.
I stirred the soup a bit and watched it steam. I felt slightly more accomplished in the cooking arena and went to take a shower. In the shower I realized that I’d forgotten the ham at Dick’s house, even though the night before I said, “Please make me a sticky note that says ‘HAM’ on it in big letters, and put it on the door so I don’t forget to take it home with me.” I walked right out that door without HAM and this morning got an email from Dick saying, “You forgot the ham.”
Decided not to drive over to Dick’s to get it. It could be vegetarian split pea soup. Or I could add the ham when I got to Dick’s house later in the day. It would be an afterthought. Like the virtual bay leaf in the soup.
I was having trouble finding agreement between my on-the-ground experts and online sources about how long to simmer the soup. “A long time,” Marge had said.
“The longer it simmers, the mushier the peas get,” Lisa had said. That sounded good. No one wants hard peas in their soup. I went to the kitchen, lifted the lid and stirred. Yep, gettin’ good and mushy.
Crap. Seasonings. Was it too late for seasonings? And what seasonings should I use? Fresh ones, the sticky notes said, which, of course, I didn’t have. All the online sources had different suggestions. I opened my spice cupboard, surveyed the little bottles, proud of myself for having bought new dried spices oh, when was it? Maybe three months ago? Couldn’t have been last summer, was it? Nah… three months ago tops. Cinnamon didn’t seem right. I settled on Seasoning Salute that had a bunch of stuff in it. Sprinkled with abandon and let the steam carry the good smells into my nostrils.
Went back to the computer and Googled “seasonings for split pea soup.” Read for a while. Googled Pea Soup Andersen’s and read about their history. I learned that in a book called “On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America,” author Bill Graves noted that the restaurant sold 500 to 600 gallons of pea soup in a day. I looked at Andersen’s recipe: crumbled bay leaves. And a teeny bit of cayenne pepper. Huh. Other than that, pretty much everything I’d used. But oh, crap. That recipe advises you to wash the split peas first to “remove any stones or impurities.” Stones? There are stones in peas? And they don’t simmer their soup for hours. Maybe an hour and then use something called a “food mill” to “create the smoothest, creamiest texture.”
A food mill? Craaaaaaaap.
But I took heart and looked at my sticky notes again. Neither Lisa nor Marge has said anything about cayenne pepper or a food mill. Probably my soup would come out just fine. Wouldn’t it? It would, I decided, when I turned off the heat and left it on the stove to cool. It would be just fine.
And it was just fine. Better than I thought. Creamier. Thicker. Especially after I put it in plastic in the fridge. When Dick scooped it cold into the saucepan for dinner, it was the texture of mashed potatoes. Green mashed potatoes with orange bits of carrot peeking out here and there. We heated it up, added the ham and more seasonings out of Dick’s cabinet, and it went back to its soft, soup-like state.
And, as you can see from Dick’s smile in the photo at the top, we very happily each ate a bowl of Jan’s First Split Pea Soup. We think it is as good as Andersen’s, but we may be a wee bit biased. There is more to eat tomorrow and tomorrow, too. We may get sick of split pea soup, but right now, I am basking in the glow of a small accomplishment.
I made soup for my sweetie, and I can live on that smile for a long time to come.