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Split pea soup.

A black cast-iron pot full of steaming split pea soup

There’s another ghost in my kitchen today. Her name is Olive.

I got the ham bone from my family’s New Year’s Day celebration. And that means just one thing: split pea soup. It’s one of Christopher top five favorite dishes, and May loves it, too.

My husband’s great grandmother, a Cannuk named Olive, was famed for her pea soup. It’s a recipe that makes smart and economical use of resources — you can feed an army for pennies if you make pea soup, you manage to eek every last atom of flavor out of that ham, and it keeps the house warm while you’re cooking.

It was a great winter food, by all accounts. The ingredients all stored well — dried peas, root vegetables, water, ham. Big bowls served with hot whole wheat bread (who had white flour back then?!) would form a complete protein. The fiber made it stick to your ribs — this was food for lumberjacks and trappers. And those scraps of ham from the bone made it taste good, while the long-simmered bone dissolved into collagen and made a water-based soup lip-smacking. And famously, peas porridge keeps well, getting better and better each day, up to nine-days old.

In my in-laws’ familial lore, pea soup has yet more thrifty implications. When he was a kid and things were tight, the family would go to his grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner — often a ham. Then the family got sent home with the leftovers: lots of ham and a ham bone for soup. It was a way for the grandkids to get fed, without being obvious charity. And it used up the ham bone.

Split pea soup is economical, efficient, traditional. It’s got history and vegetables in it. All the things I love about food.

All that said, I loathe pea soup.

Saying that out loud, I feel like a traitor to my cause and like Olive would whack me with her wooden spoon for admitting it. Olive was, by all accounts, an enthusiastic wielder of spoons, in the kitchen and out of it. Actually, according to family lore, she preferred to whack her kids (and foster kids) with the cast-iron skillet, instead of a spoon. I’m not sure that I would have liked Olive. My husband and his mother refer to her, with a slightly proud smile, as “a cast-iron bitch.”

The thing is, I think I understand Olive much better because I hate pea soup. In my mind, she hated it, too. She gagged on every thick, rich, healthy spoonful the way that I do. But, where I have the luxury of ordering up a pizza or tossing a bag of Trader Joe’s potstickers into the microwave, she didn’t have an option.

What’s more, I think she hated cooking.

Back in Olive’s day — the early part of the 20th century — women spent 7-9 hours a day cooking or preparing food. That’s as much time as they spent sleeping and left little room for anything else. It was grueling and backbreaking labor, often very hot and sticky. Anyone who has canned tomatoes in the broiling heat of August knows why women didn’t just embrace convenience foods — they lunged at them. Cooking was the basic bedrock of survival and it ate women’s lives.

I cook out of love. (Why else would I spend two days making a soup I can’t stand?) I cook from a high-minded idea that local and organic foods will make my family and my planet healthier. I cook as a spiritual meditation, a physical act of communing with nature and culture. Hell, I cook because I like to eat food that doesn’t suck.

But I don’t to cook to live. Nor am I stuck cooking because I’m a woman. I have options that Olive never dreamed of — I could go back to work and use that money to buy all our food at the Whole Food’s prepared food section, or order take-out, or eat Trader Joe’s every day. I could have married a man that likes to cook, or I could ask Christopher to cook once in a while. I’m not trapped in my kitchen by gender and circumstance, I’m there of my own free will. And that makes a lot of difference.

So, as I bustle around my kitchen this evening, stirring a cauldron of thick pea soup, I think of Olive and of all the women who cooked because they had to, not because they wanted to.

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