In honour of the Horrifying Holiday, I’m going to tell this one myself. Ruby laughed all the way through it – I swear I kept waiting for the punch-line, and when it came…. well. Let’s just say I’m gonna tell this one myself, and leave it at that. And Ruby, by the way, swears it’s a true story, and has made me promise to change the names and the type of business being run, in case relatives of long dead proprietors happen upon my blog somehow – (“I don’t trust that Internet!”) – and take offense.
When Mr. and Mrs. Smith came to Canada from the Old Country, they did everything they could to fit in and prosper. They did manage to prosper, after a fashion, but the “fitting in” might have only happened up to a point. Canadians being Canadian, no one would be so rude as to give the new people the impression that they were anything but exactly what they felt they were: just like everybody else.
There were oddities about them, though, that they just couldn’t see in themselves. One was the name they chose, believing their own was too unwieldy for the English palate. “Smith” was generic enough, but it didn’t once occur to them that their accent gave them away the second they spoke. They swore to speak only English in this new country, even to each other, and after a time, the Smiths managed a fair grasp of the language, but the accent, if anything, grew thicker with the passing years.
Mr. Smith was a shoemaker, by trade, but was dismayed to discover that Canadians in the ’70’s in the backwoods little berg along the highway had a penchant for wearing running shoes. Everywhere. Everybody was on some new health kick, known as “jogging”. Even the mayor jogged to work in the mornings. It soon became apparent that the Smiths could not get by repairing shoes.
“Schneakas,” Mr. Smith would snort in disgust. “Mock my vords, dey vill all haff flot feets in der ult aitches.”
Mrs. Smith never worried, however. She knew they would get by. They always had. So, she would pat her husband’s head as she set a bowl of soup in front of him, and say, “Don vorry. It vill ull vork out. It ulveys duss.”
And Mr. Smith would eat the soup, and he would feel better, because his wife made the best soup in the world. The whole town thought so, too, and the Smiths were invited to every Potluck ever held, for that very reason.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Smith was convinced that they should turn the store-front they lived in back of into a lunch counter establishment. Mr. Smith agreed, believing he’d lucked into early retirement, little knowing that he was going to be working harder than he ever had before, waiting tables and washing dishes all day long.
The Lunch Counter, which is what they named the place (pronounced “Loonch Conter” in Smith-speak), was an instant success, and Mrs. Smith ran it like a boarding house. There was no menu; customers ate what was put in front of them, and for awhile, the repertoire didn’t change much. No one complained, though. The soups were delectable, and no one had ever eaten better anywhere else.
“Vy you don mack [UNPRONOUNCEABLE] soop?” Mr. Smith asked one day.
“Day don haff [UNPRONOUNCEABLE] spess in dis contry, das vy,” Mrs. Smith replied. She thought she would write home to the Old Country, and ask her sister Klara to send her the spices she needed. For reasons Mrs. Smith couldn’t fathom, spices she needed for her best soup recipes were not available in Canada.
Klara was happy to oblige, and once or twice a month, a small package wrapped in brown paper, and addressed in “foreign-looking” bold handwriting would be reverently passed among the staff of the post office. They would hold it by turns, sniffing at it, all wondering what the mysterious spice inside might be, and what kind of soup it would become a part of.
One day, Mr. Smith brought home a package that confused him.
“Klara is okay, you tink?” he asked his wife, setting the package on the kitchen table. Mrs. Smith looked up from stirring her soup, worried.
“Yah, I tink,” she replied. “Vy you usk me dis?”
“Look da pockage. Klara don write dis,” he said, pointing to the mailing label. He was right, Mrs. Smith agreed; that was not Klara’s familiar handwriting. A closer inspection showed that the package was addressed to Mr. Smith rather than his wife, which made it that much more confusing. There was no return address.
Mr. Smith opened the package to reveal a bland-looking spice. There was no letter, no note, no indication inside as to who might have sent it, or what it was. Just the spice.
“Vat it is?” asked Mr. Smith. Mrs. Smith lifted the package, and sniffed it.
“I don know,” she said. “Don smell lack nuttin.” She dampened her finger, dipped up a bit of the spice and tasted it. She furrowed her brow.
“Vell?” said Mr. Smith. Mrs. Smith couldn’t place the taste at all.
“I tink mebbe it gotta cook. Den ve find out vat is it. I mack sumtin new!” Excited, Mrs. Smith began right away. When the water in a large kettle began to boil, she tossed in some vegetables, some noodles, and a tablespoon of the mysterious spice from the Old Country. When the soup had been simmering for an hour, she tasted it.
“Vell?” asked Mr. Smith. Mrs. Smith shook her head.
“Don tast lack nuttin,” she said, disappointed. “Mebbe I gotta need more.” She scooped a half-cup of the powder into the pot and stirred it up. She let it simmer a little longer, but it still didn’t taste like anything new to her. She had Mr. Smith try it, and he agreed. It was Vegetable Soup and nothing more.
Exasperated, Mrs. Smith poured the last of the spice into the soup and stirred it around. There were people to feed, and the Potato-Leek Soup was nearly gone. This “Just Vegetable Soup” would have to do.
Her customers accepted the soup, and enjoyed it, many commenting that it was the best vegetable soup they had ever eaten.
“Dat’s ult family recipe from da Ult Contry,” Mrs. Smith said, as usual. “Big seckret.” She would never admit that it was a secret to her, as well. She would have to write to Klara and find out what the spice was, and why it didn’t taste like much of anything at all.
Over the business of the next few days, though, both Mr. and Mrs. Smith forgot about the mysterious spice completely. In fact, they didn’t think of it again until a letter arrived for Mr. Smith, addressed in the same unfamiliar handwriting as the strange package had been. He opened the envelope.
“Who rite dat?” inquired Mrs. Smith, stirring the latest concoction at the stove.
“Is from my cussin in Ult Contry,” Mr. Smith said, glancing at the bottom of the letter.
“Red to me vile I cookin,” she asked, and Mr. Smith complied, reading slowly, translating the language haltingly into English as he read.
“Hullo from hom. Ve hop you iss bote okay. Ve send sad noose dat grundmadder iss not vit uss now, but she usk uss to send loff to you bote before she die, and say she ulveys vish she go to Canada to see beautiful new contry and to see you vun last time. So ve send you ushes of grundmadder dat she be vit you vonce more.”
Now, obviously, these people didn’t feed “Grandmother Soup” to the whole town – I made up the business the “Smiths” were in, after all, along with the wicked accent, but Ruby swears on her life that these people really made soup with the ashes. The whole box. And that they didn’t find out until weeks later, when the long-delayed letter arrived, what the “spice” really was. And she laughs hysterically when she says “Grandmother Soup”.