By: Sarah Hudes
My grandmother’s chicken soup is only adorned with matzo balls on the highest of holidays. On these special days, we roll them together from a box of Manischewitz matzo ball mix; hers are always smooth and perfectly sized (the size of a walnut is ideal, she says), while mine always turn out large and lumpy. I’ve never ceased to roll these imperfectly ginormous balls, and my grandmother has never ceased to remind me, pronouncing my name Sah-rah, rather than the typical gentile pronunciation, Sair-ruh, that the size of the balls will double in the pot. The stainless steel pot is the largest pot you will encounter in your lifetime, so I’m never sure why she is so concerned with their size.
The chicken soup days sans matzo balls are still special. The matzo balls are more about the making than the eating to me, anyway. When I was growing up, my grandmother used to bring her delicate soup to my house every week. I remember how she used to make huge batches of chicken stock in advance, her basement freezer stocked with cleaned-out pickle and gefilte fish jars filled with the soup. When the soup froze, a distinct layer of white fat always coalesced at the top, which she would then skim off before reheating.
I’ve always known that my grandmother’s secret is time (and also wrapping the chicken in cheesecloth), and that the perfect chicken soup could only be made by someone with patience. My mother, in the rushed manner moms always seem to cook with, has tried to replicate the soup a few times––but it never works. In a way, my Jewish grandmother’s chicken soup, rich with parsnips and turnips and dill and slowly cooked chicken, has caused me to live in a chicken soup bubble. Diners’ chicken soup tastes like bland salt water, and I can never get over their sad looking pieces of celery and carrots. My grandmother wraps the whole vegetables (which usually includes carrots, celery, onions, parsnips, and turnips) in a cheesecloth and lets them simmer with the stock to flavor it. She removes the cheesecloth, a trick she learned from my great-grandmother, the woman who taught my grandmother this recipe, and then cuts the vegetables into hearty chunks. She adds salt, pepper, garlic, parsley, dill, and sometimes even ginger.
In this weird intermediate stage called seventeen, in which I am attracted to the security of childhood yet simultaneously charmed by the allure of adulthood, I lack certainty about most things. I am certain, however, that the love, patience, and delicate care my grandmother puts into creating her chicken soup are the same qualities I know I want to carry into everything I do.