My Grandmother’s Chicken Soup: The Secret Ingredient
My interest in cooking began in early childhood when I learned from my maternal grandmother the complexities of making chicken soup, the panacea for all ills and the sine qua non of many a Jewish table. The preparation started at first light, silence and solitude, which concentrated the mind, being two key ingredients. I can see my grandmother now, a formidable woman who, given the opportunity, could have masterminded a business, run a bank, removed an appendix or captured the Falklands, a veritable ladle-wielding Boadicea, standing in her kitchen with its free-standing enameled gas-cooker and oil-cloth-covered table overseeing a black enamel pot large enough to bath a baby in.
In those far-off days the scrawny poultry arrived, unprepossessingly, not only with complimentary residual stubble – overlooked in the plucking – which must be removed over a flame, but with its full set of giblets (including a pair of scaly feet) and, if you were lucky, a slithery handful of golden eggs. The preparation of the bird, still in possession of its innards, was not for the faint-hearted for whom today’s prepared, pre-packed, cellophane-wrapped portions are a doddle. My grandmother took it in her stride and once the bird had been groomed to her satisfaction, held it up by the legs for a final inspection before tossing it nonchalantly into the pot, covering it with cold water and, in a Herculean effort, heaving it on to the stove.
Only then did the ritual, which required the eyes of a hawk and the skill of a prestidigitator begin. In devotional silence, eyes never leaving the cauldron, we waited for the water to boil. Too slow and the anticipated scum would have come and gone, too quick and it would not yet have formed. Silence and timing were key. When the moment was right, the lid would be whipped off and the ritual, (which would ensure a translucent broth rather than a muddy and opaque liquid), would begin.
Holding the lid aloft in her left hand and with a ladle in her right, this maîtresse de maison, this master-chef of her day, would, with votive patience remove the unappetizing grey foam which had formed on the soup before adding half-a-glass of ice cold water and a pinch of salt. Three times, with the solemnity of a priestess at the altar, my grandmother would repeat the process. Three times before she would allow that all was well. When the broth was cleared to her satisfaction, my grandmother would breathe a sigh of relief, lower the gas flame and turn her attention to the vegetables of which a minimum of eight were required.
In addition to the run-of-the mill parsnips, celery, leeks and swedes, my grandmother swore by something called `root’ – a pungent cross between a carrot and a turnip – which I believe originated in Eastern Europe and today has faded into oblivion. Salt and white pepper and a few threads of genuine saffron, soaked in hot water, enhanced the flavour as did a cube of sugar by whose magical powers my grandmother swore. The correct rate of simmer having been assessed – one languid bubble breaking the surface of the liquid every few minutes – stage one of the ritual was complete. Breathing a sigh of relief my grandmother removed her apron leaving the soup to simmer for eight hours by which time it would have transmogrified into a translucent and golden liquid which would pervade the whole house with a fragrance guaranteed to stimulate a remembrance of things past.
Some three hours later, according to the age of the bird, the chicken was removed from the broth, the meat taken from the bones – later to be disguised with a tasty sauce – and the carcass returned to the saucepan. When the cooking, preferably carried out a day before the soup was needed, was done, and the contents of the saucepan cooled, it was strained through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean bowl. The flaccid vegetables were discarded, and the giblets – for those who fancied neck, stomach and feet – were returned to the broth which, when cool enough, I was allowed to place gently into the ante-deluvian fridge where it would have turned into a jelly, the fat solidified into a rich layer at the top. This was carefully removed and (in the carefree days before the link between hydrogenated fats and high cholesterol was recognized), used for frying or baking.
The soup, now ready, was not yet complete and it was here that, as sous-chef I came into my own. The addition of `matzoh balls’ – matzoh meal, beaten egg, chicken fat and water – rolled with wetted hands and solid as bullets or ethereal as gossamer, according to your skill, was mandatory: it was my turn to shine and when the soup was served and a dozen spoons tackled the motley collection of spheres, I held my childish breath. My grandmother’s chicken soup was a two-day job. Was it worth the effort that went into what was, at the end of the day, a bowl of soup. Eating is a basic activity that is necessary not only for survival but is inextricably connected with social function. Eating habits, the choice of companions and the reasons behind these choices are fundamental to the fostering and understanding of our society. Eating rituals provide a framework that directly reflects human desires and behavior.
I would not wish the old days back. Today’s women have better things to do and chicken soup does not rank high on their agendas. On family occasions however, when I look round my well-filled dining-table, when I politely declare my daughters’ culinary efforts superior to my own, I wonder whether we have locked the door on a heritage informed by culinary tradition and thrown away the key. While the French have their frogs legs and their cassoulet, the Italians their pasta, the Germans their Tafelspitz, the Bangladeshes their rice, the Hungarians their goulash, the Pakistanis their chapattis and the Indians their sambas and rasams, will my own occasional efforts to perpetuate my grandmother’s chicken-soup preserve, for a generation at least, not only my inextricable links with my maternal grandmother, but with my own past? `Chicken soup’ is now found on restaurant menus world-wide. It has become a cliché and is bandied about as a cure-all by stand-up comedians. Were my grandmother to taste some of the efforts to reproduce her ambrosia they would not pass muster. Not because she has taken her recipe to the grave with her. There was no recipe. Merely a secret ingredient. I am willing to bet it was `love’.