My Aunt Dorothy would have been the first to tell you that she wasn’t a cook. It’s what she told me when I asked her to describe the Slovenian recipes I remember her preparing when I was growing up.
But that can’t be right. I know this because, in a long-ago kitchen inside my mind, I can see myself sitting at a speckled Formica table spooning up a fragrant elixir so powerful it could transform even the bleakest day into something good and true.
“What about soup?” I ask my aunt one late-winter morning, when snowdrifts are piled like icy mountains against the windows of her Ohio living room.
“Oh, well, soup,” she says, settling back in her recliner. “That’s not cooking. Everybody makes soup.”
I start to protest, “But they don’t. Almost nobody bothers with homemade soup anymore. Usually, it comes out of a can. Or if they really want to go gourmet, they buy it ready-made from Whole Foods.”
Aunt Dorothy doesn’t reply – she’s fallen fast asleep, a normal occurrence for her these days. Her old body, stricken with a raging infection, is failing fast. I’ve traveled from my home in California to the state where I was born, paying her what the doctors say will likely be a last visit.
My optimism is as incurable as Aunt Dorothy’s illness. My plan is to help her get well by learning to cook her favorite recipes and bringing them to her apartment at the assisted-living facility.
Later that morning, I’m standing in my cousin Phyllis’s kitchen. I watch attentively as Phyllis drops ingredients into a battered old stockpot: beef knuckle bones, chicken gizzards, tomatoes, root vegetables and herbs. Although I know this is a traditional Slovenian stock, I can’t help thinking of a witch’s brew. This seems perfect, since I have a feeling a magic potion is just what Aunt Dorothy needs right now.
I spend the rest of the day writing at the kitchen table, soothed by the rich, savory aromas of the simmering broth. For now, time is marked only by the intensifying fragrance of the soup and the rhythmic drip of sun-warmed icicles hanging from the eaves outside the window.
Just after sunset, Phyllis teaches me to make the family’s signature dumplings for soup, which she learned to prepare from our grandmother. There’s probably a Slovenian name for them, but as kids we always called them “bumps” – and since no one argued with us, the name persists to this day.
Phyllis is Aunt Dorothy’s eldest daughter, but she definitely didn’t inherit her mom’s anti-cooking gene. By the time she was a teenager, Phyllis was preparing many of the family meals. On weekday afternoons, she’d fix supper while her younger siblings played or did homework, making sure everything was on the table when Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Henry came home from work.
Now, she shows me how to pile flour in a bowl, making a well in the center of the mound. Her hands are swift and practiced as she breaks eggs into the flour, then blends the mixture with a fork.
As soon as a single floury mass of dough crouches inside the bowl, Phyllis pulls off ragged pieces and plops them into the barely-bubbling broth. The light, tender dumplings immediately rise to the top, floating triumphantly across the simmering surface.
When I ask Phyllis how big they should be, she replies, “As big as you want. When my mom would fix soup for us, she made the bumps as big as golf balls. We’ll make these smaller, though, because they’ll be easier for her to eat and we’ll get more little nooks and crannies to hold the broth.”
That evening, I’m standing in Aunt Dorothy’s tiny galley kitchen, ladling golden bumps and amber broth into a flowered china soup bowl.
Aunt Dorothy is seated in her wheelchair at the kitchen table.
“Remember,” she says. “I like the bumps as big as boulders. And don’t forget the gizzards.”
I push a few of the bumps together to make a boulder, hoping she won’t notice their lack of geological cohesiveness. To make up for it, I add plenty of the chewy gizzards.
I set Aunt Dorothy’s bowl in front of her and she spoons up a mouthful of soup, closing her eyes for a moment as she revels in the familiar mingling textures of bumps, gizzards and broth.
“Well?” I ask. “Is it okay? Does it taste the way you remember?”
“Good. Very good,” she says. And, judging from the breadth and brilliance of her grin, I know she means it. “Phyllis always makes good soup. And now you can make it for your nieces and nephews.”
I portion out a (gizzardless) bowl for myself, and we spend the rest of the snowy evening savoring homemade soup and catching up on a lifetime of stories.
When I get back to Phyllis’s house, my complimentary “bed-and-breakfast” for the time I’m back in Ohio, my cousin tells me a story of her own.
A couple of weeks ago, she says, her mom talked about dying.
“Phyllis,” she asked. “How’s it going to be when I go?”
“Well,” Phyllis said. “You’ll fall asleep. And when you wake up, you’ll be with Dad.”
Aunt Dorothy passed away on Easter Sunday.
When I hear the news, I imagine her waking up and walking on strong, steady legs into a sunny kitchen. Uncle Henry is already seated at the table, fondly watching her ladle out two steaming portions from a soup pot simmering on the stovetop. They sit close together, sharing their first heavenly meal of homemade soup – with lots of gizzards, and bumps as big as boulders.
RECIPE: Bumps for Your Soup
Like many Slovenian recipes (and Slovenians), this one is very easygoing – feel free to tweak as desired. For the broth, use your favorite homemade or prepared chicken, beef or vegetable stock (or a blend of all three). Since the broth is what gives the bumps their character, it’s a good idea to choose an especially savory variety.
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 extra-large eggs
Pinch of salt (optional, depending on the saltiness of the broth)
Before you start the bumps:
On the stovetop, heat your desired amount of broth (usually around 5 quarts) in a large stockpot. When it begins to simmer, ladle about two quarts of it into a large saucepan (which you’ll use to cook the bumps). Since there will be a bit of loose flour on the outside of the bumps, cooking them in a separate pan allows you to keep the reserved broth in the stockpot clear.
And now, on to the bumps:
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, mound the flour and make a shallow well in the center. My cousin Phyllis is coordinated enough to beat the eggs inside the hollow, but I have to mix them in a separate bowl, using a fork and the same motion that I would for scrambled eggs.
When the eggs are beaten, use a fork to gently cut them into the flour.
Mix until dough sticks together and most of the flour is worked in – there will still be some loose flour on the outside. This is fine – just be careful not to overwork the dough.
Use your fingers to pull off ragged, walnut-sized bits of dough and drop them into the simmering broth in the saucepan, then let them cook for about 15 minutes – or until a sample taste is savory and cooked all the way through. You’ll need a good 20 minutes or more for boulders.
When in doubt, just let your bumps cook a bit longer.
To serve, ladle the bumps into soup bowls and cover them with reserved broth from the stockpot (gizzards are purely optional).