My mother, a full-time working woman, a single parent, an intellectual, politically active, who was raised by a woman who thought Jewish cooking was for peasants, made chicken soup that caused the angels to sing. It was absolutely clear, the essence of chicken, no unsightly globs of fat floating but rich and so full of flavor – perfection in a Wedgewood rimmed soup bowl. Her matzah balls—light, plump and toothsome had no special ingredients, just the recipe off the back of the Manischewitz box and a light touch.
Every year I watched her make soup—a three day event. She simmered the chicken (a fowl, not a roaster) with the requisite vegetables, skimming the liquid all the while. She strained the soup, refrigerating it, and then skimmed the fat the next day. Finally the soup went into clean glass jars and into the freezer. Sure I helped, but mostly I marveled at the end product. How did she do it? I never thought of my mother as magical, she was rather cynical and a bit bitter; but her chicken soup was magic.
Every year before Pesach I decide not to make chicken soup. I don’t have time, there’s no room in the kitchen, and it’s too much work, AND it never tastes as good as my mother’s. And then every year after the kitchen has been kashered and it’s 24 hours until Seder, I run out, buy a chicken and make soup. It’s good, but it’s not clear and elegant like my mother’s and I still can’t make matzah balls as fluffy as hers.
Last year for the first time I didn’t make chicken soup. I made vegetable soup—fresh, springy, light, and green – a perfect start to a long, heavy, rich and delicious Seder meal. Not being able to abandon tradition completely, I made matzah balls albeit with dill and Meyer lemon zest, to complement the soup. They weren’t nearly as good as my mother’s.
My mother is still alive, but in a heavy fog of dementia. She hasn’t made chicken soup in 10 years. At the last Seder she could attend at our house, I sat with her in the living room because the Seder was too confusing. She ate the soup I made and praised it to the heavens.
My mother is always on my mind. This acerbic, witty, incisive woman now sits in a chair and looks out the window most of the time. We visit and hold hands and she talks a little—word salad, not making much sense. I tell her what I’m cooking for Pesach—brisket and capon, cauliflower and leek kugel, prune and sweet potato tzimmes with chipotle peppers and cilantro, lemon and thyme olive oil cake, fruit compote, and biscotti. As I tell her my menu, she strokes my hand and I realize that all my cooking is a tribute to her. Food and memory are so strongly linked, especially for Jews, and especially at Pesach.
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