‘Emily Johnson Dickerson died at her home in Ada, Okla., last week. She was the last person alive who spoke only the Chickasaw language….
…Dickerson, 93, was one of about 65 people fluent in the Chickasaw language, which has seen its number of speakers shrink from thousands since the 1960s.’ – NPR, 01/08/14
Things go extinct: animal and plant species, languages, cultures and customs. There are a number of things I personally think the world is a lesser place without – dinosaurs, Vikings, political moderates.
Rudimentary, simple-yet-tasty culinary stalwarts.
Case in point: For the past couple of months, I have had weekly physical therapy appointments as I try to get a bad case of bursitis in my elbow under control. My PT is a delightfully charming young woman named Ellen, and while I am being put through my paces with various exercises and routines, we chat about…stuff. As I am there late in the day, after school, I am one of the only patients and the staff is winding down the day. Usually the other five or six PT’s join in the conversation as they are putting their things away for the night. All are women, none of them are yet thirty, most of them are single or newly married, a couple of them have very young children.
A couple of Tuesdays ago was one such afternoon; me, Ellen, a PT in training, six other staff PTs and a sixty-something gentleman having a knee worked on at the station next to mine. We were discussing sports, and eating stadium and arena food. I remarked what I have been told by stadium workers: never buy a hot dog before the fourth inning of a baseball game or halftime of a football game because the dogs will taste better – that’s when all the oils and seasonings in the hot dogs get simmered into real tastiness. I added, “It’s the same basic idea behind making wiener water soup.”
A chorus of shaking heads and a puzzled “What’s that?” from Ellen was all I got in response. But they were looking at me with curiosity.
This poor-college-student-on-a-budget-not-even-worthy-of-the-title-‘budget’ staple was a foreign concept to all of the young women present. They stopped what they were doing. Blank stares and confused looks all around.
“Really? You guys have never heard of wiener water soup?”
Shoulders shrugged, heads shook.
“You know when you cook hot dogs in pot of water? After you eat the hot dogs, you save water to make soup. A little pepper and basil, and presto! A cheap, tasty broth.”
“You’re kidding, right?” asked Ellen skeptically.
“It’s a classic recipe.” More blank stares. “None of you have ever tried it?”
“You’re putting us on.” Said one, more curious than accusatory.
“Nope. Only piece of G-rated advice my brother gave me when I moved away from home; ‘Don’t forget the recipe to the wiener water soup!’ It’s right up there with ramen noodles for cheap, single guy eats.”
“I. Have. Never. Heard. Of . That.” Said one PT in amazement as Ellen switched repetitive motion contraptions on my arm.
“Yep. Its right up there with going to a restaurant and ordering a cup of hot water so you can pour ketchup in it to make tomato soup…”
“Now I know people in college who did THAT!” chirped another PT, prompting a few ‘ewwws’ and one mumbled ‘disgusting’ mixed in with a fair amount of chuckling and head shaking as they continued their clean up. I turned to Ellen.”You should try it sometime. Might like it.”
“Yeahhhhhh. I don’t think so.”
“That’s all it is? Water with some salt and pepper?” asked one of the married-with-young-kids PT. I could tell she was seeing the potential.
“Hey” I replied “If you use all beef hot dogs, it’s essentially beef bouillon.”
“FATTY beef bouillon!” interjected one PT to laughs from the others.
“I don’t think so, Mr. Mark” said Ellen, shaking her head, amused.
“I’m telling you…a little pepper, a pinch of basil…”
“Hey, its sounds like gore-may eating to me!” The older guy getting his knee
worked on had remained silent to this point. “Yes it does!” He added cheerfully.
The staff looked at him, and at me. Shaking their heads and laughing.
“You let me know how that goes next time you’re in” responded his PT as she massaged his knee. The rest of the afternoon continued without incident, everyone going their merry ways. We all had a good laugh out of the exchange, but I got to thinking about that roomful of young women, none of whom knew of this culinary basic. Of course, the old guy with the bum knee didn’t either.
It was just a day later that I heard the report on NPR noted above. The story referred to “the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program, a program that tries to counter further erosion of Chickasaw by offering language immersion programs for both kids and adults including an iPhone app and a stream of videos, make the language accessible to anyone on the face of the planet…”
The Internet is a wonderful tool for such cultural reclamation projects. Sure enough, many of the top food and recipe sites on the web (seriouseats.com, cooks.com and familycookbookproject.com) all had variations on the venerable wiener water soup – though some take it a bit over-the-top with their more ‘modern’ variations. (Sun dried tomatoes? Really?)
It’s comforting to know that in today’s fast-paced, modern world that there is still a place for good old-fashioned, time-honored American home cooking. Think back to the days of your youth and young adulthood. What did you do to get by? What simple things got you through those meager paycheck-to-meager paycheck days?
What sage wisdom could you pass along to the microwave-it-in-its-cup generation? (Sage, by the way, also accents wiener water soup quite nicely.) Think about these things. Write them down. Preserve the ways of the past.
Don’t let cultural touchstones just fade away.