Each year, as I put mums, pumpkin-flavored everything, and allergies behind me, my chicken soup cravings kick in. I cannot imagine contending with our winter colds, flu-scares, and frigid temperatures without this tried-and-true concoction. While the soup is time-consuming to make, it’s fairly simple and worth the effort. Scents are deeply rooted in human memory and emotion and, for my family, this soup’s aroma conjures tradition, comfort, and connection.
As a 20-something, newly-married feminist, it was hard for me to fathom stirring a gigantic pot of soup all day rather than catching up on work or indulging in some much needed me-time. New York City conveniences all but obviated the need to spend hours in the kitchen, yet the urge to nest arose in me each time I tasted my mother-in-law’s chicken soup. The smell alone evoked an image of generations of strong women fending for their families with little resources, and producing the original Jewish cure-all. It’s no wonder that chicken soup has been dubbed “Jewish Penicillin,” and is the central theme of a series of self-help books. Chicken soup truly feeds the soul.
My mother-in-law’s recipe was passed down from her mother, who in turn learned it from her mother and grandmother. In her family, it was traditionally served on the eve of Yom Kippur before the fast, on Passover, accompanied by matzo balls, and any time anyone was sick. Its secret powers are believed to shorten and, in some cases, cure a cold. Who was I to argue with such delicious medicine?
When I expressed a desire to learn the secrets of the soup, I didn’t realize the recipe’s benefits would go beyond the culinary preservation of tradition. I scored big-time points with my new mother-in-law, whose own daughter had no interest in cooking or perpetuating ritual customs. Equipped with my type-A personality, I was determined to get it right.
As far as skill level goes, the recipe is easy. All the ingredients are thrown into a pot where they simmer for hours. There are no real proportions or measurements, but I learned that rapid boiling causes an undesirable foam across the top, that vegetables can easily become mushy, and over-cooking the chicken produces a rubbery bird. Not enough salt is a rookie mistake, but so is a briny broth.
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel inadequate sharing my newly-boiled brew with my mother-in-law, even when it was in its infancy and trial stages. She was encouraging and kind, and overwhelmed by my desire to conserve this piece of her family’s heritage. She gave it her stamp of approval rather quickly, and I sometimes wonder if she did that strictly to incentivize me, but I was only too pleased to not question it.
Years later, the soup has become a staple in my children’s diets and on our holiday table. At the risk of tempting fate, I admit that I’ve tampered with the recipe over the last 25 years. I’ve added fresh thyme and garlic powder, and have ditched the celery salt. I think my mother-in-law will forgive me, as I doubt her great-great-grandmother had access to pre-packaged spices, which sort of proves that each of us has messed with the recipe just a bit over the years.
Sometimes I wonder if my kids will be interested in learning this recipe and passing it along to their children, or if my job as grandma one day will always entail making and schlepping this soup. The thought of my finicky 16-year-old handling raw chicken makes me laugh, but you never know.
Throughout the winter I keep containers of this magic broth in my freezer to combat colds, stomach viruses, and general winter malaise. There is something historically gratifying about nourishing my kids with a recipe that has fed so many generations before them. Their lives bear no resemblance to their Eastern European ancestors for whom a skinny chicken and some stale vegetables provided sustenance for days, but the connection to the past is grounding. Over the years we’ve managed to perpetuate the myth of the magical healing powers of the soup – and who doesn’t need a little magic in their lives?