Split Jaw • Split Pea

By Garth Grimball | Illustration by Jessica Caisse


“You know how I always say I’ve never met a soup I didn’t like?”

It is remarkable how many stories my grandfather begins with this rhetorical question. The man lives for soup and talks about it at length to anyone, so much so that my family considers it a viable option for his epitaph: Never met a soup he didn’t like. I’ve never found any of his soup stories to be memorable. There are only two outcomes. A soup was good. A soup let him down. I do enjoy how much he values soup as a food group. It’s his barometer for logic and soundness. If a soup makes sense, the world makes sense. He’s a complicated man beyond this soup reductionism, but I do envy him the direct equivalence he maintains between his meal and his day.

I love eating. I don’t have food allergies, and I like trying new things. But I’m not devoted to a single food type; good or bad, the quality of a meal doesn’t subsume my day. I thought I’d never mirror my grandfather, never be equated with soup.

I was wrong.

In August of 2009, I was attacked two blocks from my home. A single punch split my jaw in two places. I went into shock as my tongue felt a gap between my two bottom front teeth. I kept repeating, “I lost a tooth,” in a paralyzed mantra. I didn’t lose a tooth. The break went through my gum. Many more punches later, and without a wallet, I was left on the sidewalk alone across the street from a gas station. After intensive surgery, two titanium plates screwed into my mouth, three months of not speaking, therapy, anxiety attacks, many miles and many years, the experience is so raw and present that writing this does not feel reflective. It is an experience refusing to become a memory.

The unpredictable present-ness of traumatic experience defines trauma. Trauma doesn’t filter through the brain’s pathways to become another memory. When revisited it is re-lived, not remembered.

Other than an occasional clicking and thrusting of my jaw, there are no external markers of the experience or the injury. My skin cannot be a diagram to show what it felt like or how it heals. No visible scar tissue to point to and defend, ignore, or showcase in the eyes of others. There is only internal pain, physical and psychic. Pain refusing to be anecdotal. As I write this my pulse quickens, my stomach knots, my vision tunnels.

After the attack I disconnected from myself. After the surgery I lost 18 pounds. My body became foreign to me. The breaks in my jaw severed my connection to all connecting parts. Two tiny ruptures radiating division. I couldn’t speak, eat, or feel safe. Drugs and lack of food lulled me into a slow-motion existence. Each day was a slog of medicinal haze and willing feeling to come back to my lips.

Finally, a turning point comes. I’m ecstatic. I’ve graduated from liquid hydrocodone and Ensure to a diet of puréed boxed soups. It’s the return of flavor, even if limited in variety, and the return of choice, no matter the lack of options.

But the excitement soon sours. The act of feeding myself is violent and clinical. After heating up the soup to an acceptable temperature, testing it like milk for a newborn, I fill a syringe with the flavor of the day and connect it to a 6-inch tube, which I snake through my lips, past my fenced-in teeth, and behind my molars to pump the soup down my throat. I maintain a slow and steady speed so I don’t choke myself. Halfway through this process the soup has cooled and I’m too frustrated to reheat it. Lukewarm black bean, carrot ginger, and mushroom soups fill a hunger repulsed. Beyond consistency and flavor fatigue I grow resentful of watching others eat. My best friend makes me homemade soup. In her bowl, maritime collisions of chicken and potatoes and vegetables. In my bowl, a placid calm with no surprises below the surface. I don’t appreciate her kindness. I want solidarity.

Hardware removed, I vow to never eat puréed soups again. Acceptable soups demand chewing. Italian wedding, chicken noodle, gumbo—yes. Tomato, lentil, avgolemono—no. My eagerness for texture and crunch is hampered by recovery time. It is a full year before I can safely eat a raw carrot.

Two years after the attack I’ve left North Carolina for graduate school in Oakland, California. My post-traumatic anxiety attacks are infrequent and I can anticipate triggers. Until I can’t. One day in the department’s lounge a fellow student walks in, carefully holding a bowl of hot soup. It is carrot ginger. The smell and the color induce visceral panic. I know what’s coming. I leave the room with labored breathing as tears soak my face. Following trusted advice, I begin counting my inhales and exhales to ensure I don’t lose feeling in my hands.

……..1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10………
……..10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1………

A through-and-through extrovert, I call my mom to externally process the experience in a conversation all too familiar. Words spill out of my mouth, constant and uneven like a wind chime in a storm. My mouth is recovering all the syllables lost to forced silence. I don’t know what I’m saying, but I know I can’t stop. If I stop I’m alone in panic. I need help.

One year later I find help in my dream man. He went to culinary school. He’s a tactile virtuoso. Cooking, pottery, gardening, sewing, fixing all come naturally to him. He has healing hands. Everything he cooks is delicious and I can’t believe my luck. When we meet I’m still subsisting on my graduate school diet: instant ramen, rice, and chips and salsa. A menu reflective of budget and ability. He is talented in the kitchen. He enjoys cooking. He loves sharing whatever he’s prepared. I take advantage of his skill and generosity as he marvels at my appetite.

After a dinner of the Peruvian dish seco, of which I’ve had three helpings, he asks, “Is there anything you don’t eat?” The question is curiosity as well as commentary. We’ve been dating six weeks and I know it’s time to tell my tale. I reply, “Easy answer: puréed soups,” and then launch into the long answer. He listens, strokes my hand, and says, “Ok, no puréed soups.” My pulse quickens. But in a good way.

Dating becomes a relationship and I become accustomed to his roster of go-to recipes. The weather chills. He makes a soup I have yet to try. He presents it with caution: It’s not a puréed soup but maybe in the same family. I’m reassured that if I don’t like it or can’t eat it, no offense will be felt. Every dish this man makes me I love. I want to love this one. I don’t want a repeat of the grad school lounge incident. At first sight I am calm. At first smell my gut remains relaxed. The first taste is salty but subtle. Its flavors are familiar and distinct. I smile as I find myself chewing ever so slightly. It is split pea soup with ham.

Split pea soup is not sexy. Its dull green color doesn’t do it any favors, and it’s not popping up on destination menus as a retread of homestyle cooking. It is comforting. Split pea soup is the culinary equivalent of receiving a voicemail. It seems useless, of a different era, but hearing a familiar voice is curative. It was for me.

This man is now my husband. My own private Jacques Pépin meets Franco Noriega. Split pea soup is not my favorite of his recipes, but it’s significant in my life. It’s the first soup I’ve loved since the attack. It defines a new era in my life. Falling in love and healing wounds. It’s not a barometer for how I value my day and myself. Split pea soup is a breakthrough in my recovery, a culinary tonic of trauma. A soup that defines me. ♦

PelÉ Aveau’s Split Pea Soup with Ham

Serves 8

1 pound green split peas
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon curry powder
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
2 quarts chicken stock
1 smoked ham hock (or other cured meat)

Rinse and drain peas, sorting out any small stones. Melt butter in a 4-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Sweat until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in cayenne, curry powder, thyme, and bay leaf. While stirring, add stock and peas. Add ham hock whole, bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook for about an hour or until peas dissolve. Remove ham hock to plate. Once cool to touch, pull apart and chop meat into bite-size pieces. Return to soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste.