Family Matters: Rx From the Rambam
It is the golden elixir of Jewish childhood, but not everyone cares for the broth’s distinct taste. Yet love it or loathe it, for Jews, chicken soup cures all ills.
I may be the only 80-year-old Jewish grandmother in the world who has never made the magic broth; however, like my father, I do believe chicken soup is Jewish penicillin.
I eat chicken soup’s many variations with pleasure; Greek, made with egg and lemon; Thai coconut curry; Mexican tortilla; and the myriad East European versions with noodles, rice, kreplach, kneidlach.
I simply do not care for the plain broth. And with very good reason.
As an adolescent, I became something of an authority on chicken soup’s medicinal powers because my father lectured us frequently on the subject. Long lectures, because this was one of the very few topics on which he and my mother agreed, so she let him finish talking.
At supper, my mother would put a great basin of soup—cabbage, lima bean, split-pea or borscht—before each eater and say, “Finish to the last drop. It’s good for you.” We were, of course, not allowed to leave food on our plates. “The children in Europe are starving!” was the stern reminder. Anyone bold enough to mutter the likes of “Let the children in Europe have my mashed lima beans” got a good smack.
Each night my mother’s basic culinary ploy was to fill us up with soup. And on Friday nights it was always chicken soup served along with portions of my father’s learned commentary: “Maimonides, the great Jewish doctor in the 12th century, already knew chicken soup was medicine for colds and flu and upset stomachs. And leprosy.” Papa would pause to tap his brow significantly. “A Jewish head!”
When I was old enough to know what leprosy was, that gave me the creeps, but I was impressed with Maimonides. To know so much in the 12th century!
Jewish penicillin—my daughter is a doctor and I doubt she would disagree.
The two main Shabbos meals were boiled chicken prefaced by soup. This menu was fixed while we children lived at home and forever after when my parents ate alone.
There was good reason for this routine: The cooking for both days had to be accomplished by sundown on Friday night. One gas jet on the kitchen stove was kept on low, overnight, so food could be warmed.
As a result, there were a fair number of weekend kitchen-curtain house fires in our neighborhood. More affluent families hired a Shabbos goy to turn the gas on or off. The pay was a nickel or dime a week. My family was not in that income bracket.
The weekend was naturally the high point of the week. Early Thursday morning, my mother took her cloth shopping bags and set out. We lived in Brooklyn, but she headed to the pushcarts on the Lower East Side, because in the 1930s prices there were lower. The Williamsburg Bridge trolley fare was three cents, so she walked the several miles each way—slower on the return trip laden with full shopping bags. On school holidays and during vacations, she took one of us along to help carry the load.
First, she stopped at a kosher butcher, her fingers reaching through feathers to pinch and knead various dead hens. She would choose a plump one and pluck it in the shop. There was a professional feather plucker, but the services cost a nickel.
Then my mother proceeded along the pushcart-lined streets, slowly handling and appraising fruit and vegetables. She had a good eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of prices. And she was expert at haggling.
The drama was intense. “How much?” she would demand. The peddler would tell her. She would shake her head and turn away. “Lady…” he called her back. They’d argue.
I think she enjoyed the give and take of the street’s tradesmen. When she saved a few cents, she was jubilant. “He thought I was born yesterday,” she would whisper much too loudly, carefully adding the new purchases to her load.
Once home, she would start the Friday race to get all the chores done before candle lighting. The chicken was the major task. It had to be cleaned, washed, cut up and kashered; that is, the blood had to be removed by soaking and salting. She immersed it in cold water for a half hour, salted it with coarse salt and left it to drain for an hour. It was then rinsed three times and was ready for cooking.
My mother was truly a protoecologist. She knew how to use the entire chicken: the liver became chopped liver; the neck, stitched and stuffed, helzel; fat and skin turned into gribenes, cracklings; and the gizzard, pupik, was roasted. She rendered the fat into schmaltz for cooking. The meat went into the soup along with the feet, which she ate herself. If there were unlaid chicken eggs, a particular delicacy, she threw them into the pot as well. A pinch, literally, of salt, carrots and onions, a garnishing of parsley, parsnip and dill (bought for three cents in a newspaper cone packet), gave my mother’s soup what she called its “delicate bouquet.”
No one, not even my father, dared to alter the flavoring, though the saltcellar always sat on the table. To add salt to her chicken soup was to criticize her, to imply that somehow she had failed. You ate it as is, as a testimony and tribute to her dedication as the balabuste.
Thus from one chicken she created two full meals for five people. Since we never ate out, I grew up believing that God had ordained that we should eat tasteless chicken soup and boiled chicken on the day of rest.
Revelation came in adolescence. And then rebellion.
Once I was on my own, I made it a particular point not to visit my parents during mealtimes on Shabbos. I was done forever with chicken soup. Or so I thought.
Decades later, in August 1964 when I was 37 years old, an anthropologist’s wife and the mother of two young children, I was moved to recant. We had found ourselves in a serious predicament. Our family was staying in the dormitory of Moscow University for a conference. We had just come from a year living in rural India and were on our way back to the United States. Our 4-year-old son, David, suddenly became ill: His symptoms were vomiting, diarrhea and a 104.2-degree fever.
We opened the window in our hot, stuffy room and applied cold compresses. The interpreter explained that Russian medical care was free; an itinerant doctor-nurse team would appear in our room every two hours (different ones each time) to examine the patient and treat him. We waited.
The first doctor, appalled by the open window and the cold compresses, ordered us to seal the window and bundle David up. “Pneumonia,” she diagnosed and gave him a penicillin shot. “He must be hospitalized.”
We waited anxiously for the next medical visit. This time a male doctor. David seemed much the same. “Keep the window shut,” he cautioned. “Not pneumonia but grippe. An ambulance will come in two hours to take him to hospital.”
We were terrified. We packed a suitcase, documents, money. The next doctor thought it was a combination of grippe and something he had eaten. “Why don’t you open the window? It’s too hot in here,” she noted. “We will take him to hospital,” she declared, then, as an afterthought, “…if you like.”
“If he were a Russian child, would you hospitalize him?” my husband asked.
She smiled. “No, but you are our guests. We must do our best for you.”
We thanked her and begged off. She dosed David with aspirin and a medication for his stomach and gave us a list of what we could feed him: tea, yogurt, rusks, plain rice, compote.
Weak with relief, we saw her out. Right after she left, there was another authoritative knocking on the door. This time it was an older woman in a black work dress, her hair in a bun, bearing a sizable pot.
We did not need the interpreter; she spoke to us in Yiddish. “I am the housekeeper of the dormitory. I heard there was a sick child here. I have brought him homemade chicken soup,” she explained, setting her pot on our table and lifting the lid. Immediately, I smelled the “bouquet” of every childhood Shabbos. Floating in the clear broth amid parsley and carrots were two pieces of white meat.
“Thank you,” I said, “but the doctor left a list of foods the child is allowed—”
She frowned then drew herself up indignantly, arms akimbo. “What do doctors know?” she asked. “I raised four healthy sons, and I know what this child needs. Give him chicken soup.”
My father’s Shabbos tributes to Maimonides echoed in my head. Gratefully, I thanked her—and we fed David the soup. He ate some chicken, too, and then he slept. In the morning he was much better.
Later that day, the eminent anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who was attending the conference, asked after David, and we told her the story.
“Wise move,” she said about feeding him the soup. She knew about folk magic. She also knew about Maimonides and mention of him led her to a philosophical twist on the whole affair: “Look at it this way. You’re lucky David wasn’t one of the Russians’ more important foreign guests because, in that case, they would have operated on him immediately.” H