Wednesday, January 31

Waffles, Coffee, and Lentil Soup

At 5' tall, my grandmother was a giant of a woman. She was a dominating figure in my life and my mother's life. We have loved her, and we have feared her. Throughout our lives, her cooking sustained us; and from her little kitchen with four pots, a couple of frying pans, and some wooden spoons, her food was always remarkably delicious.

Nan is 98 years old now and lives in the Alzheimer’s unit at Scalabrini nursing home in Rhode Island. She doesn’t remember much any more. She doesn’t remember me. She usually forgets my mother, who visits her every day. When I saw Nan last month for Christmas, I tried to prompt her. “Nan, remember me? Your granddaughter? Susan?” Nothing.

On the last day that Jeff and I lived in Rhode Island before moving to North Carolina, we slept over Nan's house, with a full U-haul truck parked in the driveway. When we awoke, it was raining as hard as I can ever remember. It was January 1997. My grandmother, a notorious late sleeper, got up at 4:00 am that bitter cold morning and made us breakfast. We woke to the warm, sweet smell of waffles from her vintage waffle iron and to the gurgling sound of her electric coffee percolator. They were the best tasting waffles I had ever had and have had since that day.

I provoked her again: “Remember me Nan? I’m your granddaughter, Susan. I’m married to Jeff" (she loves Jeff). Still nothing. “Remember when you made us waffles?” “Waffles?” she answered. “Yeah, that rainy morning.” Her eyes lit up. “Oooh, yeah,” she said. “I made you waffles.” Tears were welling up in my eyes. “Waffles and coffee, huh?” she added. “Yeah, Nan, waffles and coffee,” I repeated. “I was a good cook, huh?” she asked me. Tears were just flowing now. “Yeah Nan, you were a good cook.”

I made Nan's lentil soup last night because we were missing her, our families, and Rhode Island. Whenever we feel this way, we try to make some type of Italian comfort food that our mothers and grandmothers used to make for us. Somehow, it always transports us, albeit briefly, back home.

I don’t know if this recipe is exactly like Nan’s, but she probably wouldn’t either. That’s because she never used a recipe. Ever. I have inherited that from her; I often don’t measure, and I rarely follow a recipe exactly (which is why you never want to come over my house for souffle).

Nan's Italian Lentil Soup
Makes 4 servings.
Print recipe only here.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 cup lentils, brown or black*
2 bay leaves
4-5 cups water (depending on your desired soupiness)
1 8-oz can tomato sauce or diced tomatoes with juice
A good shake of red pepper flakes
Salt, to taste
About 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh basil
About 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh parsley
Some good Reggiano-Parmigiano and quality extra virgin olive oil

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until golden. Add celery and carrots; cook 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add lentils, bay leaves, and water; bring to a slow rolling boil for 15-20 minutes or until lentils are tender. If the lentils are absorbing too much of the liquid, then simply add more water. Once they are just about done, lower the heat to a simmer, and stir in the tomato sauce, red pepper flakes, and salt.

Remove the pan from the heat. And remove the bay leaves before serving! Add the fresh herbs now so they will retain their bright green color and fresh flavor. Top with lots of good grated cheese, and drizzle some quality extra virgin olive oil on top.

*TIP: I love Trader Joe’s black lentils. They have an earthier flavor and don’t break down as easily as brown lentils. They also create a thicker soup perfect for clinging to a nice piece of crusty Italian bread. Mmm.

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Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Italian soups are such a Rhode Island thing, and it's lovely that you associate soups with home and with your grandmother. I'm a fan of TJ's black lentils, too.

cookiecrumb said...

We call it heritage. She passed on a recipe to you. You're passing it on. Life.

Sweet recollection about Nan remembering the waffles; weep, weep.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

I am so glad you can get TJ's lentils -- I know there aren't any Trader Joe's in RI.

Well said....

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. Fabulous story. This is the first time I ever got choked up reading a food blog.

Anonymous said...

This brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

I am glad it made a connection with you. Thanks.

Thank you. I wish she could read it.

Oh for the love of food! said...

Reading your post made me cry, Susan,and if Ming were here to see me, i bet my bottom dollar he'd say, "good blog, huh?" and he'd be right. I'm a Waterworks kinda girl, anything happy or sad (or in between!) can and usually will set me off.You also made me think of my favourite movie,'The Notebook'.

Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan) said...

I can relate to this on so many levels: Alzheimer's, cooking from instinct, missing home and family--what a wonderful, memory-provoking post. Beautiful!

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful post and a beautiful story - I'm glad that you were able to connect with her, albeit briefly, with that memory.

Freya said...

I agree, a beautiful reminiscence about family and food, the two are inextricably linked.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Well, there's nothing wrong with being a waterworks kind of gal. :) Thanks so much.

I'm pleased that you connected to this piece. Isn't that in part why we blog? Thanks for the heartfelt compliment.

Thanks you. Cooking is the perfect way to feel closer to her.

Thank you. I appreciate your comment.

Patricia Scarpin said...


Your post brought tears to my eyes.
What a lovely idea to cook the lentil - food can really take us back to the past, to good moments we shared with people we love.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed a beautiful post, and a delicious looking soup. Well said.

Anonymous said...

A lovely post! Be glad that you have such wonderful memories of your grandmother--and delicious ways to honor those memories.

The soups sounds excellent. Thanks for the tip on the Trader Joe's lentils--I'll give them a try. How many does this recipe serve? I'm guessing two, with leftovers for whoever gets to them first.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Thanks for the lovely comment.

I so appreciate that.

Terry B-
It's hard not to have memories tied in with food, isn't it?

Re: the servings--2 bowls or 4 cups. Or, if you've got really good bread, 1 mega bowl. :)

wheresmymind said...

I only wish I got a few recipes from my Grandmother before she passed away.

Anonymous said...


sher said...

Susan, your post brought tears to my eyes. I'm so glad you found the right words for your grandmother to retrieve her memory of that wonderful moment when she made you waffles. That story is the essence of why food is so important to us. My paternal grandmother also had Alzheimer's. The soup looks delicious, a lovely way to celebrate you grandma! :):)

Anonymous said...

what a sweet story. I have great memories of my grandmother's cooking too. How I wish I was smart enough to learn them when I could have. The Lentil soup sounds delicious!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I don't know what happened to the comment I left yesterday but I just wanted to say this post made me cry, made me miss my grandma so much. Thanks for sharing.

Wandering Chopsticks said...

BTW, the verification word that popped up after I submitted my comment is ssusn. :)

Melting Wok said...

Susan, your story is very touching, I could relate in so many levels. My dad is getting into the alheimers at the moment, and he's million miles away from me. Thx for sharing, and this is my food for soul, its lovely !:) By the way, I am tagging you on my current post, check it out. Have a great weekend now, cheers !:)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Susan, what touching story. It has taken me many years to learn something I probably knew all along -- that people pass on warmth, love and memories through the food they prepare us. Thanks for visiting my site. I love what you're doing here and will visit often.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

There are many things I wish I had done too.


I love your idea of "celebrating" my grandmother.

Your memories are something that you will always have.

Wandering Chopsticks-
I'm touched that it affected you so muuch.
SSUSN--what are the chances of that?:) BTW--I hate those word verifications.

Melting Wok-
I'm truly sorry to hear about your Dad. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Your welcome. Thanks for the lovely words.

Jann said...

How wonderful to share this about your grandmother-mine lived to be 96! she was a great cook as well...i have two of her favorite recipes, that's all. I guess we are very lucky to have these! This is the first visit to your post, i'll be back! Cheers!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Let's hope they both make 100!
Thanks. So glad you found me!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Hi Susan,
Tag, you're it for 5 things people don't know about you. You can keep it all food related if you wish.

Jeanne said...

Wow, what a fabulous post. Had me getting very weepy as I can relate to being far away from family and missing loved ones. My mom passed away far, far too young in 2003 and when I went home for Christmas I brought back with me her dog-eared recipe index book where she always used to write down recipes. I made her chocolate mousse a couple of weeks ago and reading the recipe in her handwriting was almost like having phoned her to get her recipe. It made me miss her terribly but it also made me feel as if she was with me.

Lucky you to have a Trader Joe's nearby! I am totally in love with their linseed nachos...

Susan from Food Blogga said...

What a treasure it is to have your mom's hand-written recipes.
Thanks, I loved your comment.

Anonymous said...

Susan, I read your comments about Nan
and I appreciate them. They brought back many memories, tho not all pleasant one. Love Mom

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,
This was just what the doctor ordered. This made me think of a lot of great times we had with Nan! She was a great cook!!!! my favorite was her magical chicken cutlets. thanks for making me think and NO thanks for the welled up eyes!!! love you Paul

Anonymous said...

My grandmother is now 84, and is having difficulties remembering some things (Or perhaps many things, my Grandfather keeps it close to his chest and I can't get as much information as I'd like between my home in Texas and their home in California.)

Every year on my birthday she would make me a German chocolate cake. To this day it's one of my fondest memories.

I think I'll make one this weekend.

Thank you so very much for sharing, and God (Or applicable deity) Bless

Susan from Food Blogga said...

For me, cooking and memories of my family are inextricably linked. It is in large part why I have started this blog. Thanks.

Alanna Kellogg said...

What a lovely story, waffles, yes, food yes, the connection of family and food. Forever you'll call waffles 'Nana's Waffles' and yes, Nana's Lentil Soup.

I had a similar experience with my 'Finnish' mother, the mother of the family I lived with for a year as an exchange student. In 2000 I learned that she'd been diagnosed with Alzheimers some years before, she and her husband had told no one til then. But I knew it was time, within a couple of months I got myself on a plane to go see her. We gathered as a family as we had so many times on a Sunday, tasting pastries and drinking coffee. I was sad, however, already she didn't know me, I was a Sunday guest, no more. I managed a few very rusty phrases, mostly food words. And it was when I stumbled over the mustikaa piirrakka (blueberry cake) that my mother laughed in recognition, and cried out, "Alu, you're back!"

Susan from Food Blogga said...

What a touching story. Thank you for sharing it.

christine said...

That was a very sweet and heartwarming post. Thank you so much for sharing that (and the lentil recipe! I love lentil soup). My mamaita also suffered from Alzheimers before she passed away and I will never forget how it affected my dad. In April, I will be going down south to collect her recipes (she used to own a restaurant) so I can pass it on to the rest of the family and try to revive all our favorites from her kitchen. :) I have no idea what to expect since I've never seen her recipes before.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Thank you so much for the lovely comment. What a treasure you mamaita's recipes will be for you and your family.

Namratha said...

This was a very touching post Susan, sorry for your loss...I know its been a while but memories of such humble loved people will last forever...

Love the lentils soup, will try it sometime :)

Africantapestry and Myfrenchkitchen said...

A heartwarming post Susan...I'll defintely vote!

Rachael said...

My eyes are stinging. What a wonderful way to carry on your grandmother's memory by posting these recipes and stories about her.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful and touching post.

I love lentils and loved this soup recipe with lentils,will definitely try this soon, thanks for sharing:)

Le Flâneur Novice said...

I couldn't read the recipe. Ended in tears. Couldn't see the rest...

Elizabeth said...

Sadly, I went to Trader Joe's today to buy the black lentils described here and found they've been discontinued. I will never know how wonderful they might have been. Sigh. On the other hand, the lentil soup recipe looks wonderful.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

elizabeth-My TJ's kept telling me they were a seasonal product, but I didn't understand how lentils could be seasonal. I'll ask again, but they probably are discontinued. Sad, indeed.