When I was twelve years old, my neighbors, the Kiters, were locally infamous for two things: having an Afghan Hound and having hepatitis. It is difficult to say which was the most noteworthy distinction, but the dog was certainly the most visible. At nearly three feet high, Abbie was impressive. No one else in the neighborhood had such an exotic and pedigreed animal. She was not a pampered show dog, however. Her coat was dirty and matted because the Kiters never washed or brushed her. Nor did they walk or play with her. She was such a solitary creature that she seemed more like a neglected zoo animal than a family pet.
Once, my brother and I threw some cheese over the fence for Abbie, thinking that she might be hungry. Almost instantly, from inside the Kiter’s darkened house came the sound of a quiet rapping on one of the window panes, a sound that became increasingly insistent and angry. We fled to the safety of our own yard and watched while the oldest Kiter boy shuffled outside to check on the dog.
It was the first time in weeks that we had seen any member of the Kiter family.
All that Spring, we had heard about how Mrs. Kiter and her sons, Kippy and David, were suffering from an illness called hepatitis. Partly because the Kiter family had not lived on the street for long before they became sick, hepatitis became one of only two clues to the family’s identity: a neglected dog and a troubling illness. Neither much helped their stature.
Not the most medically sophisticated people, folks in my neighborhood believed almost anything we heard about hepatitis, whether true or not. Apparently, the illness turned the whites of the Kiters’s eyes yellow and caused them to become sensitive to even the dimmest lights. We learned that the Kiters could not leave their house for six months, that their stomachs were too swollen for them to wear clothes, that they slept all the time, that their skin itched constantly, that they might lose their livers.
The sickness, we knew, was so contagious that a person could get it from even minimal contact. Precautions were taken. The mailman stopped collecting the Kiter’s mail. The boys’ teachers did not assign or expect makeup work. My brother and I were under strict orders to stay away from the Kiter’s house and even the boys’ abandoned school lockers.
Fortunately, however, not even irrational fear could stop the neighborhood old ladies from bringing over their customary offerings to the sick: good, simple, comforting food. Throughout the spring, about five ladies took turns bringing the Kiters basic and delicious soups — lima bean, chicken, split pea, vegetable, potato — along with homemade bread and old fashioned desserts like vanilla pudding, tapioca, and custard pies. The ladies overcame fear and squeamishness and nursed these people along while the rest of us shrunk away and whispered. And, these ladies did this for people they barely knew.
One really nice thing about living in a close-knit community is the way that neighbors take care of each other and express their concern with acts of kindness both small and large. Mowing the lawn; watering plants; picking up a child from the bus stop: these are the kinds of gestures that make a neighborhood a community. Bringing over food for those in need is my favorite, one that suggests such profound care and concern.
I think about the Kiters sometimes when I consider my current neighborhood, which is not exactly a close-knit community. We are divided in more ways than I can count. The family on the other side of our fence has proudly erected yard signs announcing their support for Ron Paul in the 2012 election; the people across the street routinely burn garbage in the front yard; the couple down the street have bumper stickers on their cars denouncing gay marriage,“Obamacare,” and, most bizarrely, recycling.
These are not my people.
And I can’t imagine feeling any kind of joy in cooking for them in their hours of need. In fact, a small, dark little part of me might even feel some pleasure in withholding such kindness.
So, what to do when I learn that one of them has died, unexpectedly and tragically, leaving behind grieving family members that I can sense lurking behind drawn curtains when I go to get the mail?
Clearly, a three course meal is not in the cards, but perhaps I’ll make some soup.
Curried Split Pea Soup
This recipe can be made without the sausage for a vegan version. And, it improves with age.
2 tbs. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large white onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
6 oz. sausage (anything works here: turkey, pork, chicken, soy, hot, mild, etc.), diced and divided
1 tbs. sweet curry powder (or to taste)
1 pound of split peas, rinsed and picked over
About 4 cups of chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
In a large dutch oven, saute over medium-high heat the garlic, onion, carrot, celery, and half of the sausage (if using) in the olive oil until soft and fragrant (about 4 minutes). Add the curry powder and continue sauteing (stirring constantly) for 1 additional minute. Add the split peas and enough stock to cover the split peas by about 2 inches. Simmer until peas break down completely and become soft, adding liquid as needed. Add remaining sausage and cook until just warmed through. Add salt and pepper to taste and additional curry power, if desired. Sprinkle cilantro over soup in bowls. Serve with crusty French bread and salad.