Remembering the Roots of Family: Cheddar and Ale Soup, featuring Union Craft Brewing’s Altbier

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My mother’s side of the family – a bunch of rowdy, first-generation Italian Americans hailing from Washington, D.C., and all sons and daughters of Alfonso the barber and his wife, Aida – were larger than life. This was especially true of my grandfather Vito’s four sisters, Philomena, Persia Dolores, Edith Maria and Rose – a group of strong women I was lucky enough to call my great aunts.

In their prime, they were so dashing and elegant, even though they often bickered and disagreed, as big personalities are wont to do. I remember feeling so small around them. And in awe. I would peer over the pebbled stone slats of Aunt Dolores’ Watergate balcony and look out onto Virginia Avenue, wishing for the days when I would be old enough to wear big gold hoops and big hair and pink sweaters and Chanel perfume like they did. (Kids, it was the 1980s, and they weren’t messing around.)

I also wanted to have fun stories like they did – Dolores’ time in the Foreign Service, Edith’s career at the White House under Ford and Carter, Rose’s ability to tell the most hilarious jokes and Phil’s tales from sunny Florida, when she happened to be visiting.

But most importantly, I wanted to cook like they did.

After toiling away for hours in the kitchen, most people just put plates of food in front of you. The Four Sisters, however… they were ringmasters. The family dinner table was their stage, and each meal was a production and an opportunity to bring people together. (Trust me when I say you haven’t lived until you’ve had fresh, from scratch Italian Wedding Soup.)

Admittedly some of those “opportunities for family togetherness” I found to be completely boring as a child. Since they were devout Catholics – Dolores played the organ at St. Stephen’s Martyr in Washington, D.C., from the time it opened in 1960s until just before her passing a few years ago – many dinners, though delicious, revolved around honored guests from the church. Montsignors of some sort? I don’t know. I usually ended up in one of their bedrooms, playing dress up and poking and prodding my cheeks, while looking in their well-lit vanity mirrors with the gaze of a wannabe adult.

There were also jokes about how they had to put alcohol in pretty much everything. I still remember the glare my mother gave Dolores when she made me a tuna fish sandwich  that she later divulged “had a little Sherry in it for a nice kick.”

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The Four Sisters have long since passed, and yet I feel haunted in my own kitchen by their almost mythic stature. Not in a morose way; I always look back at them in my mental rearview mirror with a huge smile.

You see, in my family, the kitchen was where you created and made a statement. And the greatest satisfaction you could take was at the end of dinner, when everyone was all tired smiles, loosening their belts and giving their thanks to the chef, only to be told to make room – a dessert of homemade biscotti and fresh coffee was about to be served. My family even used to have a restaurant in the 1940s called the Perruso Family Restaurant on Georgia Avenue. I wish I had more information on it.

As an adult, I’ve always struggled a bit in finding my own identity in the kitchen. For years, I found it disheartening that something that came so naturally them was so frustrating to me. I dropped things. I was messy. Heck, I made things even our dogs wouldn’t eat. Eventually I just stopped, because the more I attempted to reconnect with them over my stovetop, the farther away they felt with each passing failure.

It has gotten better in recently. (One day I finally put on my big girl pants, picked up a spatula again and started trying new things.) The failures have grown further and further apart – though I still have a “Good thing we have pizza in the freezer!” night every so often. But now, armed with a little extra confidence, I find myself to be more adventurous.

For example, earlier this week I adapted a recipe for Cheddar and Ale Soup, using Union’s GABF gold medal winner, the Balt Altbier. The soup was spicy, rich and delicious. The malty ale was the perfect complement both in and alongside it. And as Patrick and I ate, I couldn’t help wonder if Dolores and the sisters would have applauded the use of beer in a soup. Though they loved their wine and spirits most of all, it just seemed like something they would have embraced.