By JEFF ROUBAL
Martinez News-Gazette Columnist
While Vivian and I were camping in Kings Canyon a couple weeks ago, we made beef stew for dinner. It was the most delicious stew that I’ve had in a long time. (I suspect part of the secret seasoning may have been kerosene fumes from the camp stove.) As I ate the soup, memories of soups from years past flashed before my eyes. Vivian told me that it is too hot in August to write an article about soup. At the risk of annoying readers more seasonally attuned, I am going to write about soup anyway.
My mother was a big believer in soup. With my two brothers, sister, and parents, there were six people to feed every night for dinner. Anyone who raised teenage boys knows they can go through a lot of groceries. Soup is very economical way to stretch the budget and feed hungry bellies.
The first meal that I ever prepared for my family was soup. I was a Cub Scout 1964 and working on my cooking merit badge . One of the requirements was to make beef stew. The recipe was in my Cub Scout merit badge handbook.
I was not allowed to have any help from anybody — at least that’s the way I understood the rules. After making sure all the ingredients were there on the counter, I told Mother to wait in the living room while dinner was prepared. I remember that it took a lot longer to cook than I thought. Dinner was late that night.
I also remember that there were a lot of dishes to wash. For some reason I dirtied up most of the pots in the kitchen. Most of the family agreed that it was good soup. My brothers complained of course. That was par for the course. (If you have a brother or two you’ll understand.)
From this humble beginning, I went on to develop a passion for cooking. I cook whenever Vivian lets me in the kitchen. Soup is still one of my favorites. It reminds me of my childhood.
We lived in a small residential community when I was growing up in Florida,. My grammar school was two blocks away. My friend’s house was two blocks away and there were neighbors on either side of us who helped to help to keep an eye on my sister, my two brothers, and me. Two houses away lived Mr. and Mrs. Beppler. They were an elderly retired couple who lived on a fixed income who didn’t have much to spare.
Whenever I got underfoot, my mother would send me down to visit with the Bepplers. Mr. Beppler liked to play cribbage or checkers. By the third and fourth grade, I was pretty good at checkers and better as cribbage. Mr. Beppler and Iwould sit outside in their backyard on the covered patio while Mrs. Beppler cooked
Every Sunday, Mrs. Beppler would make soup. If there was more soup than the Bepplers could eat, she would bring it down for my mother to feed us kids. The flavor of the Beppler’s soup changed every week depending on what they had had to eat that week.
Mrs. Beppler kept a plastic container on the bottom shelf in her refrigerator door for leftovers. During the week she would scrape the plates and every little bit of what was left in the bowls, pots, and pots into this plastic container.. Into the container went leftover vegetables, potatoes, and meat after each meal. On Sunday, she combined all this with seasonings to make soup. Usually it was chicken soup but occasionally turkey or beef. I have often marveled at her ingenuity.
My mother did not mind free soup. She was nothing if not frugal. Mom was always on the hunt for a bargain. Many years ago, she learned that one of our neighbors in Santa Cruz worked at Del Monte cannery in San Leandro. From 1899 until 1973, a cannery operated where today sits the San Leandro BART station. On one day a year, the cannery held a “dented can sale” for their employees. All of the cans that were damaged, dented, had upside down labels, had wrong labels, had discolored labels, or had no labels would be sold to the employees for pennies on the dollar.
The neighbor had a small sedan that was good for commuting but would not hold much. My mother had her green 1969 Buick station wagon, which was perfect for momentous shopping trips. Once a year, they would flatten all the seats in the station wagon and drive off to San Leandro at dawn to buy cases of dented cans. Mother would provide the station wagon, gas, and lunch. Our neighbor would provide access to the warehouse full of dented cans.
The two would come home late in the afternoon with the station wagon sagging until the axles creaked. My mother would drop off the neighbor at her house with ten cases of dented cans then scrape the station wagon’s bumper while carefully backing up our driveway with our fifty cases. My brothers and I would provide manual labor to unload the car and stow our treasure in the garage.
After the first year, Mother built pinewood shelves 24 in deep and 24 in high to cover one entire wall from the water heater to the big swing-up garage door. These shelves were braced with 1” by 4” Lumber sturdy enough to hold a ton or more of dented cans.
Mother would feed us what was in the dented cans throughout the year at a huge savings over what it would have cost to buy them in a grocery store. Occasionally we would get cases that had no labels. That meant “vegetable surprise” every night for a couple weeks until the case was used up. Mother would use these cans to make, among other things, soup.
Once in a great while, we would find a swollen can that contained deadly botulism. We never ate these but they were fun to blow up!
All this writing has made me hungry. I know Vivian thinks it’s the wrong time of year but I think I will make soup tomorrow! Here is the Cub Scout merit badge recipe for Beef Stew:
1960s Cub Scout Beef Stew
2 Lbs. stew meat in cubes
2 tsp Salt
1 sliced onion
1/3 Cup water
3 tbs oil
1/2 tsp pepper
1 can tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1/2 Cup Flour
6 carrots in 1″ pieces
1 Glove Garlic Minced – (Garlic powder will do)
3 med potatoes peeled/cubed
Coat beef cubes with a mixture of flour, salt and pepper. Brown in hot oil in bottom of a Dutch oven. While oven is still hot, pour water in and scrape brown bits from bottom. Place remaining ingredients into oven and cover. Simmer 1 – 2 hours or until meat is tender and potatoes are done.