I taught a group of international students in Northern Michigan for a year. Despite the remote location of Marquette, we were a varied group including a few nuns from South Korea and Vietnam, a mother and daughter from the Ukraine, and an overly stylish Japanese boy, Haromi, who spent more time on his eye makeup than his homework. Our lessons were four hours long, but with such a varied group, we had a lot to discuss. When you are working with a textbook with titles like, "America, your new home!" you want to supplement with news articles, short stories and songs. We did a lot of role plays and acting in class, which most of the students enjoyed, especially the nuns. Okay everyone, you're at a dinner party socializing, how do you interact, what do you say you like to do? I once overhead someone say, "Hello, I am Sister Jeanne, I enjoy praying and power point presentaions." Besides role playing, most students really liked to learn lyrics to popular songs. Almost everyone, except Haromi, who preferred heavy Icelandic death metal. There we'd be, all sitting around a CD player out looking at a window with snow and sleet while we mouthed, "blackbird singing in the dead of night." Somehow, it seemed pretty beautiful.
A few days before Valentine's Day, sister Maria announced that she wanted to perform a love song. I thought she was going to sing, but as she stood in front of the class with her black orthopedic shoes tapping out the rhythm on the carpet, dressed in her woolen grey habit and gown, she pulled out a harmonica and slowly, but confidently played a sorrowful love song from her country. At first we all just stared, Haromi turned away and put a misplaced hair back in place, but we all sat in silence while sister Maria closed her eyes and what I'd like to think might have been the hum of some God. There were no words to the song, no melody any of us recognized, just her steady confidence of sorrow that had each of our, even Haromi's, black mascara running.
Later in the year, Sister Maria would show the same sense of confidence while reading my palms, telling me "watch out for rabbit men. find man born year of the rat. very important." Sure, I thought, just want I needed, more rats in my life to claim as boyfriends. But when my birthday came around, sister Maria came up after class soliciting me to listen to her advice. "Emelie, you must be careful, your heart so big, but you are bull. Bulls not move fast unless push." What could I say to that? Sure, sister Maria, you take that bumbo jumbo stuff back to Veeitnaam. No, I didn't question a woman raised a Buddhist who chooses to live as a Christian nun. Nope, I listened carefully. Frankly, I even prayed that I might be able to teach her something she didn't already know in one of the three langauges she spoke. Maybe even a fourth or fifth language if you include palm reading, astrology and speaking with gods.
I'd love to claim that year that my teaching of English as a Second Language was all taught in metaphor, folk wisdom, history or even poetry, and all my lessons were moments of insight, but really I taught grammar everyday and sometimes for the entire four hours. Grammar isn't boring, actually it lends itself to all of these other topics I mention, especially when you teach the second conditional. The second conditional is used for unreal situations that might happen in the present or the future. For example, If I were you, I would drive more carefully in the rain. But the best part about teaching grammar, would be to have each student come up with their own examples. Sister Maria's, " if you steal from friend, then God mad." or Valerie from the Ukraine, "if you cheat on love, then you would marry cheat husband." Sure, these students were new to English, but what was I going to say, "No, sister Maria, that's God would be mad. God get it right, already." Don't you think Sister Maria already knew enough about what would or wouldn't happen having grown up during the Vietnam War and choosing to live a life of chastity and poverty? Somehow, I think she didn't need me telling her what to do. Don't get me wrong, I would correct them, but first I'd make sure to compliment their insight.
Luckily, we wouldn't just sit in a classroom with textbooks all the time. Sometimes, I had them over for meals and we would each take turns cooking, teaching each other how to make a favorite dish. Sister Maria taught us how to make Pho, the Ukrainians made ciasko, a Russian apple cake and poor ole Haromi just couldn't seem to ever make it to these classes. But I'd like to think it was in the kitchen, that all of us women really were able to learn from each other. Yet as you might imagine, whenever you have a group of women in the kitchen regardless of where they are from or if you have nuns, the issues of men almost always surfaces. "American women don't know love," Valentina said while sipping on her borscht one cold January afternoon, "American woman are so hard, so cold, and" she paused and leaned closer into us around the table, "they don't know how to cook." She took another sip, while I felt slightly ashamed having been the only American woman at the table. Valentina clarified, "they don't know how to cook for their husbands." At first, I was thinking she was referring to some sad pork chop and a lump of potatoes on a plate, where some Cossack sat slumped like his potatoes with a empty bottle of vodka. But she continued, "you cook to feed family, but you feed family for love." We all sat with bowls in our hands and nodded. I remember telling myself, remember this Emily, you might someday have a husband who might thankfully if Sister Maria had any say, be born during the year of the rat. I didn't say anything. How could I? Who was I to go off on feminism and woman's rights to a woman who had raised three children under Communism and by the slap of the hand of a husband who drank himself to death. Now Valentina was here with her daughter at age 55 to start her "new American life!" Again, you don't argue with Ukrainian women or nuns. You listen and hopefully you remember what they say.
And really, I think Valentina's right. It can be the simplest of soups, a pot roast or a favorite meal for your husband's, mother's or child's birthday or even your new friend's girlfriend in a foreign country. It doesn't matter, you make something that helps everyone who's around the table feel the presence of love. Sure, I know the image of the American housewife with a wooden spoon in hand, a bowl full of chocolate cookie dough and a smile that seems sponsored by Prozac is an image we all as women recognize clearly as a poster for suppression. But really, it doesn't have to be. Once, I made a baked Alaska in January in Poland for a fellow teacher and we gathered around the shoe box apartment I had and ate cake while sitting on the floor. I still like to think that was one my better culinary moments. But bare in mind, I am from the Midwest and I have tendency to fall into the kitchen as my safe place in times of stress and intimidation. Never mind Emily, she's making meat loaf one might say, but really, I'd like to think I follow the advice of Valentina and we cook out of a need to show love.
I cannot say that my husband was born during the year of the rat, but I would like to say, I love to cook for him. Sure, I struggle at times with asking myself how I went from single in stilettos living in Rome to now being a wife who runs a Cooking School in Missoula, Montana where I have to wear sensible shoes because I work on my feet all day. Sure, one could say I sold out, lost my freedom and independence and my European Life! But that would be too easy. Really, I'd like to think I gained something more. And thankfully, I listened to women with more insight, my students, who each dedicated their lives in their own way to love and learned to make or bake something to show for it.
This soup I share with you is one of my favorites in my cache of simple foods. I made this for my mother in-law and some of her friends, for my father who recently visited and of course many times for my husband. It is a good seasonal spring soup, but even in the summer for those random rainy days this feels just right. I first found this in Bon Appetit this past April, but I've made a few changes. Enjoy.
Petite Peas and Tarragon Soup
2 16-ounce packages of frozen petite peas (let thaw)
2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil
1 1/2 cup shallots
4 cups of chicken broth, (use veggie broth if you want a vegetarian soup)
3 tablespoons of fresh tarragon
1 cup milk or cream
1. Heat oil or butter in a heavy large saucepan.
2. Add shallots and saute until golden, about seven minutes.
3. Add thawed peas, four cups of broth and tarragon; bring to boil until flavors blend and peas are tender, about six minutes.
4. Cool slightly.
5. Use a hand held blender, immersion blender, for best results and puree soup.
6. Add milk to soup and let flavors blend.
7. Heat soup on low and serve with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
8. Garnish with tarragon leaves and serve.