Soup in Summer and a President’s Fall

Last month, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered announced the “Taste of Summer” contest, an invitation to listeners to submit their favorite summer recipes and the great stories behind them. NPR didn’t select Chef Zuz’s submission of his late mom’s famous Hamburger Soup as one of its three finalists — all of which are much more appropriate as summer fare — so Cuisine Stupide offers it up here.

In August of 1974, when I was 14 years old, my parents let me and my best friend, Rob Lichte, go on our first no-chaperone backpacking trip in the Sawtooth wilderness of central Idaho, miles from the nearest town, road, or telephone.

Mom dropped us off at the trailhead and said she’d be waiting for us with whatever a couple of hungry, tired teen-agers wanted after three days of gorp and freeze-dried chili. We voted for hamburger soup, a creamy tomato and macaroni meatball dish that was the very best thing my mother – who was mostly a Spam-and-casserole kind of cook – ever made.

That summer the nation was in the final throes of the Watergate scandal, and Rob and I were a couple of political junkies swaggering in the moral certainty of our teen-age wisdom. On that trip, basking in the campfire after dark each night, we talked for hours about the break-in, the cover-up, and the closing circle of impeachment around the president.

“Do you think Nixon will resign?” Rob asked.

“Naw. No way,” I replied. “Nixon will never resign.”

Our backpacking trip was glorious – a golden adventure of isolation and exploration. We arrived back at the trailhead weary and famished, and Mom had the hot hamburger soup simmering right there on the Coleman stove.

As we sat at the picnic table, slurping soup and retelling the trip, I asked offhandedly: “So, did Nixon resign?”

Mom stood there, incredulous, forgetting where Rob and I had been for the past three days.

“Haven’t you HEARD?!” she cried.

Hamburger soup is more wintertime comfort food than refreshing summer picnic fare. But to this day, the aroma of this wonderful dish reminds me of warm summer afternoons in the high country and the natural places where human history is a rare visitor and always arrives late.

Mom’s Hamburger Soup

6 cups water
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 tsp salt
5 bay leaves
10 peppercorns
1 quart tomatoes
1 cup sour cream
2 cups elbow macaroni

For meatballs:

1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup cracker meal
1 egg (or 2 egg whites)
Salt and pepper

For slurry:

1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/4 cup water

Bring water to boil. Add onion, salt, bay leaves, and peppercorns.

Combine ground beef, cracker meal, egg. Season with a little salt and pepper. Make small round balls and add them to the pot. Simmer for 10 minutes, partly covered.

Add tomatoes and simmer 20-30 minutes, partly covered.

Meanwhile, cook macaroni in separate pot.

Remove meatballs from soup and set aside. Strain the soup and discard the solids. Return soup to heat.

Mix flour with 1/4 cup of water to make slurry. Add sour cream to the slurry. Slowly add a little hot soup to the sour cream mixture to prevent curdling. Then add the sour cream mixture slowly to the soup while stirring quickly. Cook 5 minutes.

Return meatballs to the soup and bring to a boil.

Serve soup over macaroni.

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