I have been trying to re-create my grandmother’s chicken soup for more than 15 years. Though my chicken soup is not her chicken soup, I like to think they are close.
First, I cut up onions, carrots and celery in large pieces. (When my son sees me cutting the vegetables, he tells me my knife skills are lousy, which they probably are but I get the job done — and the soup is forgiving.)
Next, I sauté the vegetables in oil in a large soup pot. After 10 minutes, I put the whole chicken in the pot and instead of water to cover, I use store-bought kosher chicken broth in a carton. (The brand I buy is called Imagine and, in truth, that’s exactly what I do: Imagine my soup will taste just like my grandmother’s.)
Maybe it’s cheating to use broth instead of water, but it helps make the soup a little richer, closer to the way I remember my grandmother’s tasted. I don’t use the feet or the neck or other parts of the chicken my grandmother may have used. I don’t know what she put in her soup to make it taste the way it did.
I wish I knew.
After bringing the soup to a boil, I simmer it, covered, and forget about it for a couple hours. I know the soup is ready when the meat falls off the bones. I take the chicken pieces out of the pot and let them cool on a cutting board. What’s left—the broth and vegetables— I pour through a fine mesh strainer.
The clear broth goes back in the soup pot. I pick out the carrots from the strainer and slice them up, this time in neat small slices and put them back in the pot with the clear broth. I shred some of the chicken and put that back in the broth, too. I don’t skim the fat because that’s where the flavor is and, besides, the kids should have a little fat — everything is too healthy these days.
I do make matzah balls, buts that’s another story for another time.
It was in Lakewood, New Jersey, around my grandparents’ kitchen table where I first learned that food isn’t something that just fills your belly when you’re hungry — it can also nourish your soul.
When my grandmother placed that magnificent bowl of chicken soup in front of me, I was transported. All my childhood and adolescent worries temporarily ceased to exist and I felt connected, part of something bigger, protected and loved. That soup was just the beginning, too, the gateway for all the Jewish food my grandmother cooked that was to follow.
My chicken soup is not fancy, but the essential elements of my grandmother are in there: the magic that makes my kids feel better when they are sick, comforts them when they are run down or having a bad day. It settles cranky teenagers and, whenever I make it, it even settles me.
My chicken soup is Passover and that sweet relief at having finished the Passover story and the meal has begun. It’s Shabbat reminding my family the work and school week has ended. It’s our link to the Old Country, to what was sacrificed and what has endured. And, of course, it’s home.
In the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” Gil Marks sums it up best when he writes “Jewish foods remain an intrinsic part of our individual and communal identity, helping us deal with change and loss, and helping us to transmit our values and hopes to the future.”
I like to think that my grandmother would be proud that the chicken soup that soothed and comforted me now warms and fills her great grandkids (even though the recipe isn’t exactly the same). I’d like her to know that even though my life has taken me across the country to California, where we now live, her traditions have followed. And lastly, I want her to know my kitchen table is sacred and special like hers was.