Chicken Soup for the Soul

Chicken Soup for the Soul - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 3

Why the very act of making this traditional soup improves our well-being.

by Kimberly Belle

I’ve been known to use my prowess in the kitchen to heal any number of ailments: from sweet beets that have helped to mend my broken heart to hourglass pears that have eased my melancholy about summer’s descent into fall, I find cooking and eating to be as accomplished at soothing my worries as it is at celebrating my triumphs.

Of course, and rather obviously, food also nourishes our bodies. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the healing foods is chicken soup, and if you have Jewish heritage like I do, then you know from chicken soup (and you know that in a Jewish home, the chicken bit translates into matzo balls). When I made an emergency trip home to Buffalo last October to visit my ailing Mamma, the first thing I did was get to work in the kitchen. Homemade chicken stock, made with tons of nutritious veggies and locally raised, organic chicken, is just about the most perfect food to feed someone who is sick and has lost her appetite. To this velvety broth I added matzo balls—dumplings made from matzo meal, fresh herbs, a healthy pinch of salt, and rendered chicken fat, or schmaltz. This last ingredient is key to nailing the taste and texture for these light-as-air dumplings that can quickly turn too dense if you use another fat, and besides, schmaltz offers real deal authenticity and comes free with every pot of stock you make!

Chicken soup fortified with loads of vegetables and lots of homemade matzo balls brings with it the healing powers of all the best components of the real foods it’s made from. It’s easy to do, though it takes a good deal of time for the stock to reduce and develop flavor, so give yourself an entire afternoon and settle into soup for supper later that day. I promise that even the sickest person will manage to sip down a few warm gulps of broth and at least nibble on these nutritious dumplings. Watching my ailing Mamma slowly sip a coffee mug filled with matzo ball soup, I knew I was doing good by coaxing her into eating something that would help her body fight whatever was plaguing her.

It wasn’t until weeks later—back in New York City and back behind the stove, while catering a wedding in a West Village townhouse—that we got the news, and the news wasn’t good: it’s cancer. Finding out my Mamma has cancer felt a bit like finding out the sky is falling. Nothing felt good, nothing felt fair, nothing, not even my Ex, broke my heart so badly. But Mamma’s strength and optimism have been an inspiration, and I know we will fight this thing. And beat it.

Coping with the diagnosis and the seemingly debilitating fear it at first inspired, I immediately turned to the kitchen, but found myself unable to cook up anything that could make me feel better. Stumped, I started thinking about my week with Mamma and the matzo ball soup that ties us to generations of cooks before, generations of women from our own blood line who have been bakers, caterers, mothers, daughters, sisters and soup makers, all.

My Great Aunt Frances sprang to mind. She lost three fingers in a bakery accident slicing rye bread; she lost a son and many ancestors to war; she survived a fallen child, her tiny tenement apartment, backbreaking labor and a cheating husband, yet she never failed to host a holiday feast of munificent proportions. An utter inspiration, at age 50 she started a career of her own as a kosher caterer, and the year before she passed she gifted me her stockpot, a well-worn wooden ladle and our secret family recipe for sweet kreplach stuffed with farmer’s cheese and smothered in cherry sauce. With a knowing smile on her face, I now realize that what she actually gave me were the tools to strengthen my stricken spirit and feed Mamma’s hope.

That’s when I realized that reminiscing about favorite family memories shared over stoves, around tables and with glasses raised (soup spoons at the ready), is just as important for our well-being as are the nutrients any recipe has to offer. So I set about doing what the women in my family have always done; I simmered meat and vegetables in an heirloom stockpot, rendered chicken fat to make schmaltz, rolled matzo balls enhanced with fresh herbs and spices, and tossed them into a bowl of bubbling broth. It was an act that suddenly seemed ritualistic and deeply important—beyond coaxing Mamma’s fickle appetite.

Cooking, ultimately, is about more than food and eating. It’s about sharing, and giving, and teaching, and rejoicing, and loving, and living. After all, there’s good reason why we call it chicken soup for the soul.

The essay above was reprinted and adapted by Kimberly Belle from her Food Maven blog on Kimberlybelle.com.

About the Author

Kimberly BelleKimberly Belle
Having previously taught as a tenure-track writing professor, Kimberly Belle is a freelance food writer and the co-owner/executive chef of The Dinner Belle boutique catering company. She also writes the eponymous food and lifestyle blog Kimberly Belle: Food Maven. A foodie destination on the web, Belle’s blog offers loyal readers a platform to search her recipes and get the inside scoop on farmers’ market trends, restaurant reviews and invitations to Dinner Belle soirees.

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