A Soup From Poland Travels Thousands of Miles — Only to Return Home
Shared by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
Recipe Roots: Poland > Toronto > New York City > Poland
When we think back to recipes that were part of our family’s fabric, that we want to remember and pass along, we often jump to dishes like latkes reserved for Hanukkah, Shabbat morning bourekas, and Persian sweets made with apples for Yom Kippur. But, for Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a noted scholar at NYU, the dish that comes to mind is her mother’s split pea soup made with leeks, celery root, white limas, and barley. “I think it’s because it’s an everyday food, not a festival food,” that it holds such a special meaning for her, she says.
It’s a soup she was raised on in a Yiddish- and Polish-speaking home in Toronto. “I just assumed that everybody made it….It was just so much a part of our life, that no one ever thought to treat it as anything exceptional,” she says. And she never thought to make a distinction between the soup being Jewish and being Polish. But, it’s often in the daily dishes that we find the marrow of our family’s kitchens, the dishes that define our lives.
Her mother, who lived to be just shy of 99, was born Dvoyre Shushanoff in the city of Brest-Litovsk, which today sits on the Belarusian side of the border between Poland and Belarus. She immigrated to Canada in her early teens, changing her name to Doris and the less formal Dora, and with her brought the tradition of soup. A clear chicken soup graced their shabbat dinner table, and beet and cabbage renditions of borscht made their appearances as well.
But, it was the split pea soup that stuck with her daughter. Barbara never received a written recipe or formal instructions for how to make it. “For me it was completely intuitive...I never had a recipe for it, but I somehow understand it,” she says.
When Barbara moved to Poland full-time in 2007 to serve as the Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition of the excellent POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, she returned the recipe to its homeland, a place where bundles of soup vegetables like celery, parsley root, carrots, and leeks, called włoszczyzna are sold, tied together, in markets. Włoszczyzna translates to “Italian stuff” Barbara explains, a reference that dates back to the 1500s when an Italian princess of Milan married a Polish king, bringing with her Italian gardeners and vegetables.
Whether in Poland or New York, where she now lives, Barbara prefers to gather her own vegetables one by one for this soup instead of buying a bundle prepared by a grocer. She swaps the onions her mother used for leeks and includes celery and/or celery root.
To her knowledge, she’s the only remaining person in her family who makes the soup. “I don’t know if I’ve ever given it to anybody,” she says of the recipe. So, she asked in her recipe that you “Remember [her] mother Dora when you serve it forth and the cold winters in Eastern Poland just after World War I.”
Barbara has generously shared the recipe in her own artful words below. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
Elixir: Dora's Soup Reinterpreted by her Daughter
3 large leeks with green tops, plus more green tops if you have them
1 pound (or 2 1/2 cups) green split peas
2 large carrots
1 knob of celery root (the size of your fist) and/or 6 stalks of celery with leaves, diced
1 large parsnip
1 parsley root (optional)
2/3 cup barley (preferably hulled)
1/2 cup large white lima beans
1 bunch fresh dill, with stems
1 bunch fresh parsley
kosher or sea salt to taste
My mother, who passed away just shy of 99, was born Doris (Dvoyre) Shushanoff in the city of Brest-Litovsk (Brisk in Yiddish, Brześź nad Bugiem in Polish, and Brest in Belarus today) and came to Canada when she was twelve. She was a fastidious mincer (you had to see the precision with which she minced radishes) and equally fastidious about kashering meat and skimming the foam from broth to produce a crystal clear chicken soup. Above all it is her split pea barley soup that I identify with her. Here it is, in my version.
Bring 8 cups of water to boil in a large pot. Meanwhile, carefully wash 3 large leeks, preferably organic. Place the dark green tops (plus the dark green tops of other bunches, if you have them or can salvage them from a farmers' market--some people throw them away!) into the water and simmer until they are very soft, about 30 minutes.
At the same time, in a small pot, simmer 1 pound (or 2 1/2 cups) of washed green split peas (organic if possible) in 4 cups of water. The fresher the split peas the quicker and softer they will cook; soak overnight for even faster results. Cook till soft, about 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the white part of the leeks in half, wash free of sand, and slice thinly. Scrub two large sweet carrots, a knob of celery root the size of your fist (with the dark green stalks) and/or six stalks of celery. The dark green variety from Chinatown is flavorful, especially if your celery root did not come with its top. Add a large parsnip, a parsley root (if you can find it). Dice the celery stalks and leaves. Leave everything else whole. Organic vegetables preferred.
By this time, the leek tops should be soft and grey green. Lift them out with tongs and drain in a colander, saving all the liquid. As they are cooling, put all the vegetables into the leek stock and simmer. Wash and add 2/3 cup washed and soaked barley (preferably large, darkish, and unpearled, from health food store) and 1/2 cup soaked large white limas.
Soon as the leek tops have cooled enough to handle, squeeze all the goodness out of them, put all the drained liquid into the pot, discard what remains of the leek tops.
Now, look in on the peas. If they have softened nicely, you can mash them with a spoon, whisk them, puree them in the pot using a hand blender, or give them a turn in the food processor: they should be smooth. Add them to the soup pot. Cover and simmer gently.
As the whole apartment fills with the aroma of roots releasing their concentrated goodness and the pulses swelling as they rehydrate, go off and do something else--or sit at the table and look off into space, daydreaming, reading, the radio humming. Check the pot in about 40 minutes. Add more water if necessary.
Soon as the vegetables are cooked through, remove them. Mash them coarsely with a fork or dice them. Return them to the pot. Add kosher or sea salt to taste.
Soon as the limas and barley are soft, the soup is ready to serve. Wash the fresh dark dill (a good handful) and chop coarsely, stems and all (as well as finely chopped dark green tops of the parsley root or flat-leaf parsley) and add at the last minute or, even better, serve the soup with finely chopped fresh herbs added to each bowl or served in a bowl so each person can help themselves.
Serve it forth. With coarse bread--either Essene sprouted grain loaf (from health food store or sprout the wheat and make your own) or Lithuanian sour rye cut from a crusty round loaf the size of a millstone (or make your own from whole rye). Sweet tub butter for those who still eat butter. Half-sour dill pickles--the butcher has them. Cold buttermilk.
When the soup has cooled, put some in the fridge and pack the rest into containers and freeze so you don't get bored eating 4 gallons of the same thing every day in a row. When reheating, thin out with water (or leek stock or vegetable water) as needed and refresh with fresh chopped dill. Dill freezes well in little packets and can be chopped into the soup that you defrost. Or, add fresh chopped dill to the top of the container of soup just before freezing.
Remember Barbara's mother Dora when you serve it forth and the cold winters in Eastern Poland just after World War 1.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Manhattan /January 7, 1994