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I write, mostly to keep my head from exploding. It threatens to do that a lot. My blog is the pixelated version of all the voices in my head. I tend to dive into what connects me to God, my community, my family and my doubt. I do a lot of searching, not as much finding. I’m good with that. I have learned, finally, to live comfortably in the gray. In the meantime, I wrestle with God, and my doubt and my joy.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Making Shabbat. And Soup.

We did not keep kosher when I was a kid. The closest we may have gotten was the story my mother used to tell, about how, when she was growing up, her father yelled at her one day, as she went to pour herself a glass of milk to go with her Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich: “We don’t mix milk and meat!” Funny how that works – I still don’t keep kosher (though I toy with the idea these days), but I also don’t mix milk with meat.

 And, while we didn’t keep kosher, my mother always used a kosher chicken when she made chicken soup. “It tastes better,” she would say with a shrug. I have to say, she made amazing chicken soup. It was mostly for holidays, like Rosh Hashana or Pesach – big, extended-family meals that came out in a thousand courses. At least, it seemed that way. Every one of them started with soup. And noodles - lokshen – unless it was Pesach, and then it was matzoh farfel instead. Knaidelach were best when they were hard as rocks; my family held no truck with soft and fluffy matzoh balls! When my bubbe was still alive, there were always kreplach, too: chopped, spiced meat and dough, a cross between ravioli and a knish. God, but it was good!

It was heaven in a pot.

Every once in a while, my mother got it into her head to make “Shabbos dinner.” To her, that meant the whole shebang: brisket and roasted potatoes, challah, candles and wine. And it always started with soup. Homemade chicken soup. In the midst of running around – dealing with kids and carpools and family and home – she would stop. Pause for a minute, and return to something that had traveled up through the generations, a symbol and sanctification, contained in a pot of soup.

I didn’t have a huge connection to Shabbat s a kid, and that held true even as I moved into my adulthood; that connection came much later. Even so, I remember when I moved out of my parents’ house into my own apartment, every so often, when I wanted to feel connected to something older and more than just the passing of weeks and the rushing of time, when Friday started to slip and I could feel it tug at me, inviting me to slip with it, I would take out a pot and prepare to make soup.
These days, Shabbat is less about soup and more about --

Huh. I was about to write, “More about Shabbat. More about celebration and community and prayer.”
But you know – that’s the chicken soup of my Now. For me, for my family, the soup was the divider: it was special, out of the ordinary, a ritual that separated the everyday from something fine and rare, but connected me to family and tradition and love. It was Shabbat, in the same way that going to synagogue and being part of my community is now. It is the symbol, the sanctification of the moment, the pause – for breath and rest and peace – that welcomes in the holiness of Shabbat.

And, in case you’re wondering about my mother’s (and her mother’s and her mother’s mother ad infinitum) recipe for killer chicken soup, here’s the recipe (as it was given to me by my bubbe, with translation):

Bubbe’s Recipe
Stacey’s Translation
A pot, big enough to make soup
Use an 8qt pot or larger; I only know how to make a lot of soup, enough to feed a small third world nation. God forbid there only be just enough to go around.

A chicken
At least one, cut up. Kosher is good, but if you go kosher, don’t forget to pluck off all the tenacious feathers that seem to cling to the bird. Include the gorgle (neck bone), because that’s how bubbe did it

Cut in chunks or a bag of baby carrots – but they have a different taste altogether than the “real” carrots

Cut in pieces, about 3 inches each, sometimes forgotten altogether

An onion
Whole; yellow preferred; don’t use Bermuda or sweet

Green pepper
A later invention taught to us by my cousin, the sabre, for flavoring only. This is optional, and certainly not part of the original recipe

Forget it. My bubbe did not know from turnips in chicken soup. And if she didn’t know from them, they don’t belong.

Salt and pepper
Kosher, of course (the salt, not the pepper)

Fresh dill
The actual secret (as I’ve been assured) to real Jewish chicken soup. You need about 5 or 6 sprigs, not that huge bouquet the grocery store insists on packaging. Don’t be fooled; take only what you need and leave the rest at the store.

Put chicken in the pot, add water to cover, plus some more, over medium heat. Remember, the volume will boil down, and all the added ingredients only seem to make more broth because of displacement. Trust me; there will rarely be as much broth as you think you need!

Bring to a boil, skimming the bubbly, frothy, scummy stuff off the top every so often. After the first boil, lower the heat, add the rest of the ingredients. Remember – the slower the boil, the clearer the broth. Continue to skim the bubbly stuff, and simmer. Simmer for a really long time, until it smells like soup throughout the house. Taste occasionally; you’ll need to add salt to taste. Keep simmering. Taste it. Don’t forget to blow; it’s hot! When it smells like soup, and tastes like soup, it’s almost done. Simmer it more (you can’t over simmer it). When it is finally done (“How will I know when it’s done, bubbe?” “You’ll know,” was her knowing reply; and surprisingly, I did, every time), remove from heat, let cool.

Remove all the stuff – chicken, carrots, onion, etc. Strain the soup through cheese cloth and a colander. This will help “clean up” the broth, but it’s optional. Discard onion and whatever dill is still hanging around, that is usually tangled on the spoon. Remove bones from chicken**. I keep the broth separate from all the other stuff, mainly because my bubbe did, and my mother does. Certainly, if you’ve made noodles or matzoh balls, keep those separate from the broth. They are starchy, and that’s not good for the long-term health of the soup.

Here’s the important thing, the essential thing: do all this with someone – your kids, a friend, your mom. Someone. Talk about stuff while you’re making the soup – cutting things, skimming things, watching it simmer - like life and God and Shabbat and justice and how you’re feeling and love and memory. These add a particular flavor to the soup that cannot be had in store-bought items. Even kosher ones.

Chill overnight – because it’s always better the next day. As it warms for your dinner, light the candles to welcome in Shabbat. Say a few words over bread and wine – to remind us to be grateful for all that we have, all we’ve been given. 

And let us say: amen.

** In addition to having chicken to put in the soup, the absolute best meal of all was usually made for the dinner after Shabbat dinner: chicken-from-the-soup chicken sandwiches, on white bread with Miracle Whip and thick sliced tomatoes, potato chips (always Ruffles, because they had ridges, and it was the only time we were ever allowed potato chips), and cream of tomato soup, served in a coffee mug.

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