The bigger story behind my mother's "hamburger soup"

How this Peruvian dish got its American name

Published May 18, 2019 6:59PM (EDT)

 (Photo by Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Photo by Ty Mecham / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Barely two years after having moved to the United States from Peru, my mother woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to grab my things. All of the lights were on in our Miami apartment, and a police officer was questioning my father in the living room. My mother didn’t let my siblings and me linger long enough to find out what was going on. She just loaded us into the minivan and explained that we were going to a sleepover that night.

We went to stay at my favorite “aunt’s” house. She was my favorite because she had a lot of kids and a parrot, and always ordered Little Caesars’ “Pizza by the Foot” whenever we came to visit. She and her husband were honest-to-God hippies who converted to Catholicism. Illustrations of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart shared wall space with photographs of Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia. They had adopted several kids and raised them on a vegetarian diet, never cut their hair, and didn’t believe in corporal punishment. It was at her house where I first heard the phrase “Animals are friends, not food” (when I suggested cooking a dinosaur doll while we were playing house).

I celebrated my birthday with this family, and everyone tried to make it extra special to counter the fact that my life had suddenly become very unstable. I received a lot of Bart Simpson swag (he was my hero back then) and a toy electric guitar. The grown-ups’ efforts worked, because I remember feeling like this whole ordeal was a kind of adventure, although I was starting to wonder why my dad wasn’t around.

While everyone tried to keep things as normal for me as possible, I guess my body could tell that things weren’t right. I was also still trying to adjust to life in the United States and had a racist first grade teacher. It all became too much for me, and the hair was falling out of my 7-year-old head in large clumps every time I ran my fingers through it.

My mom finally had to explain what was going on and why I wasn’t able to see my dad for a while. They were in the middle of getting a divorce. Many, many years later I learned that the police officer was at my house because my mother claimed my father was physically abusing her. My father denies the claim.

What I do know is that my life changed forever, and things quickly became very difficult for us. Fortunately, my mom had a master’s degree in social work and was able to find a job. She also had built a small but loyal network in Miami, and her parents in North Carolina were able to offer financial and emotional support. She eventually found an apartment for us that was walking distance from our school, and I started to adapt to this new life. I even got to see my father again, too (albeit two evenings a week and every other weekend).

My mother had to think hard about how her life would be impacted once she left my father. Having married a machista, she knew that she would receive zero financial support from him (my dad actually ended up owing her thousands of dollars in child support that he staunchly refused to pay). She’d be solely responsible for caring for us, working, and trying to regain some of her lost youth. I can’t say she did it all seamlessly, but I’m still here, so I guess she did a pretty good job.

One of the things I remember fondly was her cooking — not because it was particularly good. My mother’s cooking was the product of a time when manufacturers advised American consumers that canned and processed foods were actually better for you because the nutrients were “locked in,” while those in fresh fruits and vegetables evaporated with every passing second that they sat on the shelf.

As such, many of her recipes involved canned or frozen vegetables, and she always followed her mom’s advice of making sure there were at least three different colors on the table and in our lunch boxes. As an adult I can understand how she was really looking out for our nutrition. But as a 10-year-old, it was hard to understand why she packed three tiny plastic containers in my lunch box, each containing one of each: canned peas, canned corn, and canned carrots.

The most memorable thing about my mom’s food was the way she could talk up simple dishes to make them seem exciting and almost magical. Announcements of “children’s chili” and “skinny steak” made me look forward to dinner. She would even serve us enthusiastically, making us believe we were in for a real treat. She might make up a story about how this or that was her favorite dish as a little girl, or how the recipe had been passed down through generations and was given to our family by a nobleman in Ireland or Denmark.

This was all a performance, of course, to conceal the fact that she was using cheap ingredients to feed us the best she could. She didn’t want us to think we were lacking (it was difficult to think we weren’t eating well while digging into huge bowls of chili made from some elusive, ancient recipe formulated especially for children).

One dish she made for us regularly was hamburger soup. It consisted of a clear broth with spaghetti and little bits of ground beef. She would empty a can or frozen bag of mixed vegetables into the pot along with a bay leaf and a bouillon cube, or cubito(“little cube”), a term she picked up while she was living and cooking in Peru.

My mom is a gringa — a white American. On her father’s insistence, she learned to speak Spanish while growing up in rural Texas. After she graduated from college, she moved to Peru where she met my dad. There she learned how to make a few simple Peruvian dishes, like tallarines verdes. Most of the Peruvian dishes she would recreate in the U.S. were based on her own taste memories and her knowledge of American cooking methods. She never really learned how to cook Peruvian food properly. As such, her recreations were inauthentic at best and practically inedible at worst (her arroz con pollo would sit uneaten in the refrigerator until it grew mold). Eventually I think she took the hint and stuck to the American food that her own mother cooked for her, like casseroles and hamburger soup.

Or so I thought.

* * *

I had forgotten about my mother's soup entirely until one day, I developed a craving for it and decided to seek it out. I had never really learned how to make it, so I turned to the internet. However, none of the photos or recipes looked anything like my mother’s; they were all much thicker, like chili with bits of macaroni and a tomato base. My mom’s version was a clear broth with ground beef and spaghetti noodles. Maybe hers was just a thrifty version, I thought. Even more, I thought it was one of those entirely American recipes that she inherited from my granny. After all, it had the word “hamburger” in it.

It wasn’t until I was browsing through a Peruvian cookbook that I found out the bigger story behind my mother's "hamburger soup."

According to the cookbook, sopa a la minuta isn’t something you’ll commonly find at a restaurant, even in Peru. It’s a classic example of limeño home cooking. It translates to “minute soup” because it’s something you can whip up in a figurative minute (at least compared to many of the more complex, labor-intensive, and time-consuming Peruvian soups). It consists of chopped beef or ground beef, aromatics, and spaghetti in a clear broth with the addition of milk and some beaten egg. It’s like a combination of egg drop soup, chowder, and beef and noodle soup.

And it’s Peruvian, not American.

This sounded a lot like my mom’s soup, except for the eggs and milk and the fact that she’d add vegetables to hers. In effect, she created a fusion of her American traditions and her experience in Peru. Throw in single-mother thriftiness spurred on by the need to feed the three most difficult children in Miami, and you have a dish that is truly representative of my family’s earlier years in America.

In writing a recipe for hamburger soup, I recreated it from taste memory. Strolling through the grocery store aisles, I had to try and remember what my mother put in it but allowed myself to make my own adjustments. I did away with the cubito and called for beef broth instead (although you can definitely use it if you'd like; I recommend Maggi). I also did away with the canned and frozen vegetables that were her go-to (again, please feel free to use them if they're more convenient to you). And while she never bought fresh garlic because she thought it was prohibitively expensive, I included two big, fat cloves in my recipe. The bay leaf she always insisted on throwing into every pot (another thing she picked up in Peru) was probably one of the only ingredients that stayed in the recipe.

I wonder what my mother would think of my version of her soup. I hope it makes her proud, though I’m sure she'd just preface any compliment with “Well, it’s not how I would do it...” and then chastise me for nixing the cubito.

Sopa a La Minuta (Peruvian "Minute Soup")
Serves: 4

1 russet potato, peeled and diced into 1/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large bay leaf
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 medium carrots, finely diced
6 cups beef broth
1/2 pound lean ground beef (preferably 85/15)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 pound spaghetti, broken into 4 pieces

By Carlos C. Olaechea

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