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This Simple Stew Is A Battleground In A Bowl

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This Simple Stew Is A Battleground In A Bowl

This Simple Stew Is A Battleground In A Bowl

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sometimes, just a whiff of a familiar recipe makes you feel that all is right with the world. That's not the case for John Currence, the James Beard Award-winning chef from Oxford, Mississippi.

JOHN CURRENCE: My mother, who was a school teacher, one of her go-to recipes that my dad and my brother just loved and loved and loved over was this pot of beef stew.

CORNISH: And John Currence cannot stand it. He calls it Punish Stew.

CURRENCE: Punish Stew is my purgatory on Earth. And I love to hate it and I hate to love it.

CORNISH: John Currence, you had us at purgatory, which is why Punish Stew and the epic standoff between mother and son is our Found Recipe story this week.

CURRENCE: It's a wonderfully simple recipe that goes back to an early part of my life and I was just traumatized by it. It's a brothy stew with some potatoes and some pasta and tomatoes and butter beans and carrots. And, frankly, it just ticked me off because, to me, soup was an appetizer. As a young kid, it's like...

(LAUGHTER)

CURRENCE: ...it's not a meal. I don't care how much bread you put with it, how much stuff you can eat with a fork out of it. It comes in a bowl, that's not a meal. A meal comes on a plate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRENCE: This all really came to a head on a chilly evening in the late '60s. I grew up in uptown New Orleans, just off of the parade routes. And, you know, families would have gatherings and get all the kids together. And everybody was coming to our house. The soup bowls came out and we were having this god-awful stew for dinner.

The little MacArthur that I was, you know, sort of saw this as a battle and a place to really, you know, make a statement and fight the ultimate battle with my mom. So I, you know, sort of pushed my bowl and said: I'm not eating that. And she very resolutely said: If you don't eat, you're not going to the parade tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME MUSIC, "THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY")

CURRENCE: You know, I thought, there is no way she was going to do that. There is always other kids here. And so, I crossed my arms and instead: I'm not eating it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME MUSIC, "THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY")

CURRENCE: So, sure enough, it came time for everybody to leave and go to the parade and she sat there at the table with me. And I sat there and she sat there, and I sat there and she sat out there. And I refused to eat and she refused to get up. So we sat and sat and sat, till my brother and dad came back from the parade probably an hour and a half later.

(LAUGHTER)

CURRENCE: And I'm still at the table and my mom finally excused me. And when I came down the next morning, before went to school, that soup was at the table. And she made me eat that cold soup for breakfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRENCE: Flash forward about three decades and I am in the car with my then-girlfriend, to-be-wife on a trip to New Orleans to visit our families. On the trip, she announces to me that she has had her mother prepare for us for dinner her absolute favorite meal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRENCE: We got to the dinner table and there was this steaming terrine of soup on the table. And just the smell filled the room and I was like: Oh my, God, it's that awful beef stew.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRENCE: But I sat there like a good boy and ate my bowl and sopped it up with bread, and immediately asked for seconds to make sure that my mother-in-law knew how much I liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRENCE: But that was my dirty little secret for a while from my wife.

(LAUGHTER)

CURRENCE: I just told her: Look, I have to confess to you, I hated that soup. She thought that I didn't like it because there was something fundamentally wrong with the flavor - something that simple. And I was like no, no, no, no - there's a very long story. And so, I shared the story with her and she just was so tickled that she named it Punish Stew.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CURRENCE: OK. So unless something really is truly and deeply just awful, you need to just shut up and eat because somebody who loves you has prepared something for you that's giving you life and helping you move forward along the timeline. And it only took me about 45 years to come to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: That's John Currence, author of the cookbook "Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey." You can try Punish Stew yourself, maybe rename it Reward Stew. Find the directions on our Found Recipe page at NPR.org.

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