The story behind the original VI cheese soup.
Story by Cally Robinson Hoyt ’76 H’95; recipe provided by Polly Grossman.
The feature article on the Village Inn and its history in the Fall 2022 Kenyon Alumni Magazine was interesting to read, but I was particularly struck by the hue and cry to get the recipe for the famous cheese soup that so many of us remember. I was surprised that no one seems to have the recipe. But fortunately, I do.
I was offered the recipe by my mother-in-law’s mother, Pauline Grossman, back in the 1980s when it became obvious her grandson and I were staying close. Polly, as I knew her, was a lifelong resident of Gambier and owned the house next to Peirce Hall now known as the Edelstein House. She was the oldest of four sisters (one of her sisters, Edith Horn, is who the Horn Gallery is named after) and three of the four sisters worked for Kenyon in some capacity over the years. Polly also was a cook at the VI.
After WWII, many servicemen went to college on the GI Bill, and one of those was a marine by the name of Bernard S. Hoyt ’49. During his time at Kenyon, Bernie met Polly’s daughter, Jane Grossman. Jane and Bernie married in the summer of 1949, and he whisked her off to other parts of the country in pursuit of his medical degree and training. They eventually settled in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Their youngest son, Doug Hoyt ’81, followed in his father’s footsteps and went to Kenyon, after taking time to sail about the European coast and other places. Doug was a good friend and roommate with my brother, Tom Robinson (’81), which is how we met. And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s also how I got the VI Cheese Soup recipe from Polly without even knowing she had it.
During my last year-and-a-half as a Kenyon student, I worked at the VI as a server and barkeep. I knew enough of the soup-making process to know the recipe Polly shared was valid. Over the years, I’ve changed a thing or two, and I will explain why as you read further.
The recipe calls for parboiling vegetables in chicken broth. The broth and veggies are not a big deal unless you are a vegetarian, as I uncomfortably found out. During one of my waitress shifts, a couple of classmates came in who I knew were vegetarians, but I wasn’t clear at the time how restrictive (or not) their diets were. They always came in for the cheese soup. On this occasion, they said they were so pleased there was something on the menu they loved that wasn’t tied to meat. I naively informed them chicken broth was used to cook the vegetables. They looked at me with horror on their faces and I looked back similarly horrified! “Oh no! What have I done?” I thought. But they graciously thanked me for letting them know and immediately left. I’m not aware that they ever went back to the VI.
I have since played around with broths, and a vegetable broth can certainly be substituted for the chicken broth. I don’t taste much of a difference. However, what my family really loves is the homemade turkey broth I make from the Thanksgiving carcass. It provides a richer base that comes through nicely, and is now a post-Thanksgiving staple; cheese soup with a turkey broth base. Lastly, I don’t hold to the ¼ cup amounts of vegetables. I put as much in as I want.
This is pretty basic, and there are only a couple caveats to add here. Use whole milk, nothing less. The cream sauce comes out best this way, and besides, you’re making cheese soup. This is not the time to care about calories. I prefer unsalted butter but you can use either. However, and here is where I deviate from the original recipe, I’ve markedly cut back on the salt added. Anyone who’s read older recipes from the ’60s or earlier can’t help but notice the amount of salt used. Modern-day palates don’t care for it, and that includes me. I have taken the amount added from the original one tablespoon to a teaspoon. I’ll also note that when I double the recipe, I don’t add more. You can always adjust to your preference.
The original recipe called for half cheddar cheese and half Old English. Around the late ’80s/early ’90s, the Old English bricks disappeared. No Old English to be found anywhere except on a Velveeta processed cheese label. Well, that just wasn’t going anywhere near my soup! But I now wonder: If it ever did find its way into the soup served at the VI, was it because Velveeta’s Old English was the only thusly titled cheese in stores, and so became the go-to product? Pure speculation if it did happen.
When the Old English cheese bricks disappeared, I discovered the other name for Old English is Extra Sharp Cheddar, and thankfully, bricks of extra sharp cheddar are everywhere. For a while, I split the two cheeses as called for in the recipe. Today, I just use the extra sharp for all of it because that’s how I prefer it. Your choice.
As is true for so many dishes, letting something sit allows the flavors to meld. It’s no different with this soup. When freshly made, one can taste some of the separate parts. But if stored and reheated the next day, all of the flavors have melded and that’s when it tastes most closely to what I remember. Polly also told me you could make the soup up to the point of adding the cheese and then stop and store. Reheat when ready and then add the cheese. I saw that happen more than a few times in the VI kitchen.
Makes 8 cups
• 1/4 cup each of onion, green pepper, carrot and celery
• 2 cups of chicken stock
• 1 stick of butter (1/4 pound)
• 1/4 cup of flour
• 1.5 cups of milk
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• A dash of white pepper
• 8 ounces of extra sharp cheddar cheese
1. Dice vegetables
2. Add to chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes or until tender.
3. Melt butter, then whisk into flour.
4. Increase heat, add milk and whisk until thickened.
5. Add salt and a dash of white pepper once thickened.
6. Combine the vegetables and broth with the cream sauce.
7. Grate in cheese and allow to melt completely, stirring often. (Best not to use pre-grated cheese.)
8. Garnish with paprika and serve. Enjoy!