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The best way to get warm, stay warm and yell your favorite football team to victory in the windy autumn chill is to plant a Thermos jug full of a good hot country soup on the tailgate at the very start of your station-wagon-and-stadium picnic. Martinis, whisky or hot buttered rum no doubt will supply their share of energy and central heating at the game, but a soup like this stays with you. It should be made at home, thick, savory and nourishing—so thick, in fact, that it will have to be ladled out of a large-mouthed Thermos and eaten with spoons from bowls.
Dried beans are the basis for some of the tastiest and most nourishing of such warming liquid meals. Vegetables strengthen them; and so, sometimes, does meat or rice—and, almost always, spices. Many of the bean soups have come down to us from peasant cookery, which had to supply cheap protein and nourishment rich enough to sustain a hard life in the open air—a life a football fan is likely to share, if only briefly.
Besides providing the strength to celebrate victory or to accept defeat gracefully, each of the various kinds of beans imparts a particular flavor to its soup. In addition, beans have a great capacity for absorbing other flavors, achieving an amalgam of taste from a wide range of individual ingredients.
Probably the oldest of all soups is based on lentils; Esau is said to have sold his birthright for this particular mess of pottage. We don't know what Esau got in his soup besides lentils, but a modern version adds bacon, a ham bone, onions, carrots and celery. Nourishing and filling, warming right down to the pit of the stomach, it is a meal in itself. The late Frank Case of the Algonquin Hotel in New York used to say his lentil soup was bad for business, because no one wanted to spend anything on the rest of dinner after eating it.
Minestrone, a spicy Italian stand-by that has become familiar to Americans, is another widely known soup, in which beans are combined with virtually anything in the pantry—celery, zucchini, spinach, onions, peas, bacon, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, leeks and parsley. If you have minestrone before the game you won't want even a hot dog during it. A Genoese version of the soup adds pesto just before serving—a wonderful aromatic compound of basil, garlic, olive oil and grated cheese. Pesto brings real zest into the meal, but you may have the bench to yourself after eating it.
An untraditional way of mocking the turtle uses the humble red bean, in New Orleans-style mock turtle soup. Red beans, fully as tasty as the calf's head that is the substitute in standard mock turtle, meld with wine, hard-boiled eggs, onion and garlic to make a soup of great taste and strength; a splash of Tabasco and a pinch of cayenne increase the heat.
The smooth brown soup in the vacuum jug, on the opposite page is black bean, considered by many to be the best bean soup of them all. The black bean, so dark it is almost purple, originated in Central and South America and is still a staple there, as well as in Mexico. The beans found their way over the border into Texas, and Yankee traders brought them as far north as Connecticut, where there is a native version of the soup. Rich, and thick enough to hold its warmth for hours in a Thermos, black bean soup has a taste that is strong yet subtle. With slivers of avocado and slices of lime floating on top, it delights the eye as well as the palate.
Beans take well to canning, and there are some excellent canned soups on the market. But for maximum enjoyment the good picnic hostess owes it to herself, her entourage and the occasion to make black bean soup at home. It exudes a pleasant fragrance while cooking, and it tastes even better than it smells. The beans can be cooked the day before, cooled overnight and reheated and sieved the morning of the game if the trip is a long one. Otherwise it can be started in the morning and allowed to simmer tranquilly until just before it is time to leave.
BLACK BEAN SOUP
2 cups dried black beans