Things that make me think of people: ham hocks

Things that make me think of people: ham hocks

My mum always made minestrone soup. I didn’t like it, because it has vegetables in it and I liked to survive mostly on croutons and sulking, but I remember that as soon as she caught a whiff of winter, the pot went on. She had been using the same pot since before I was born, and I can’t remember what colour it was exactly, but it seemed enormous and I knew that if I dropped it on my foot, I would die. It wasn’t an elegant, Le Creuset iron, but a jailhouse, small order cook thing, cast from scrap from the gallows.

We would stop in at the butcher on our way home from school, and she would say, Have you got any ham hocks? and that was how we knew there would be minestrone tomorrow. The butcher was a man called David, and my uncle Ted worked in his shop as well. It was a brown shop at the end of a strip, and you could see the carcasses from the street, and when you pushed the door open a shrill bell announced you. Mum would wait for uncle Ted to cut her ham hocks, and David would slip us all a piece of fritz, and we’d peel the skin off in one go and then eat it. The skin, I mean. It was horrible when it was still attached to the fritz, but there was something magical about it if you peeled it off, like offal bubblegum. Mum would take her ham hocks in a plastic bag and we would sit in the back and chew on our fritz skin for ages. We saved the fritz itself, because it was so much better fried. Pop it in the pan, watch the edges curl over. Sometimes my brother and I would get a whole roll of fritz and fry it up for afternoon tea, with sauce.

I remember mum’s minestrone soup because it smelled like parsnip. I didn’t know it was parsnip, because as I said, not big into vegetables at the time, but as an adult I made my own soup and realised that the smell — the bitter, heavy, stock smell — was parsnip. And that parsnip doesn’t actually taste any better now than it did then, and that I had made the right decision in not eating it.

Mum cooked her soup all day. The pot clanged onto the stove in the a.m., after the cleaning was done, and it bubbled away until dinner. The lid clattered and rocked and the parsnip smell permeated everything, even if you fried fritz right next to it. Dad was always so pleased to be getting minestrone. He would go in every couple of hours and lift the lid and say, Smells good! because he’s weird that way, he’s always liked root vegetables, and brussels sprouts, and not just in the pretend way that adults do (I like brussels sprouts sauteed in butter, with bacon and almonds) but genuinely, and would eat them boiled in sock water without sauce.

If we were having minestrone, no one would cook anything else. I was the only one in my family who didn’t like it, so we’d sit at the kitchen table and the big pot would go down in the middle and dad would say Smells good! and everyone would eat their ham hock/parsnip slop and I would sit at the end by the window and look as sour as I could muster. We had a silver ladle with a wooden handle that had mostly cracked away, with little screws in it, and it would dip in and out of the enormous pot until everyone was full. Then mum would peer in and the pot would still be half-filled, and she’d pretend she might freeze it for later. But she never did, because where was the magic in it, if we hadn’t been to the butcher first?


  • Helen K

    July 2, 2014 at 7:16 pm Reply

    Winter is soup season, isn’t it? However (although I love minestrone), I can identify with your soup repulsions. I discovered a major flaw with my future father in law to do with soup. He would make it in a massive pot, with stock and bones of some sort, and some sort of awful barley stuff and goodness knows what else, in about April but it would last ALL WINTER. It would stay simmering on the stove top through to September or something, and whenever the pot was half empty, it would be topped up with new ingredients. Surely that’s not hygenic?? I married his son anyway, but could never eat the soup (I think both were good decisions)…

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 3, 2014 at 6:25 pm Reply

      Oh Helen, that sounds like my worst nightmare! My dad is big on the old soup mix too. I don’t understand it. Why put in a bunch of stuff that makes soup worse?

  • Erin Marie

    July 2, 2014 at 9:16 pm Reply

    I could read your writing forever. I swear it. Cross my heart, pinky swear, promise on my grandma’s grave.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 3, 2014 at 6:24 pm Reply

      Forever is a LONG time. Don’t write cheques you can’t cash, and other sayings from the 00s.


  • Maxabella

    July 5, 2014 at 10:33 am Reply

    I’ve committed the cardinal sin of visiting Anna’s blog: I have not left enough time free to keep reading and reading and reading. So now I’m just going to have to be late… x

  • stephanie@stephsjoy

    July 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm Reply

    Surprsing the things that trigger the memories of others and events! Guess minestrone is not regularly supped in your home now.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 5, 2014 at 1:24 pm Reply

      Haha Stephanie, no, it isn’t! I do a pretty good chicken soup, but minestrone will probably never feature on Casa Spargo-Ryan’s menu ;)

  • Kelly Exeter

    July 7, 2014 at 12:41 am Reply

    Sigh. I should know better than coming anywhere near your blog when I have writing of my own to do. Damn you Anna!!

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      July 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm Reply

      Stop that. You are an excellent writer and we should just hug instead.

      • Kelly Exeter

        July 7, 2014 at 2:15 pm Reply

        It’s ok. I gave up and watching the tennis instead!!

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