Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Into the Soup: Memories and MSG

I made my first chicken soup the other night. I simmer carcasses to make chicken stock all the time, but I have never attempted pure chicken soup. It's a talisman, you see — one of our family's Proustian madeleines.

For decades, in all seasons, every Sunday night supper at my grandmother's house began with a bowl of her perfect chicken soup. It was a beautiful color: not yellow but golden, almost brown. She never made any other soup; it wasn't necessary. If you turned up at her house on any night of the week, you could have a nice bowlful before your ziti or spaghetti with wings. Her soup was "just" broth, usually with Uncle's Ben's rice, but sometimes my Croatian uncle's mother would contribute homemade noodles. There were no vegetables in this soup, and not a fleck of parsley. I grew up not knowing that chicken soup involved onions, celery, and carrots. It still seems wrong to let them stay in there.

When my grandmother died, it became clear that not one of us had been paying attention for even ten minutes during the 60 years or more that she had made that soup. Before I was 20, I'd spent hours every week sitting in her kitchen, playing with the cats, reading or doing my homework, talking with her, and enjoying every dish she put in front of me. We all loved to be in her kitchen, even though it had only four chairs. We took turns sitting at her table, which was pushed into a corner and seated two. It had a white enamel surface, and we could doodle on it, or leave messages in pencil, which were later wiped away.

During all those idyllic hours, it never occurred to me to learn to cook from my grandmother, nor did it occur to her to teach me. This is among my greatest regrets. I also regret not telling my aunts, her daughters, to pay more attention. (I hope I often asked her if she wanted help; I have no idea if I did. I was a spoiled, lazy brat in those days. She certainly never needed or asked for a shred of assistance.)

* * *

My grandmother rarely cooked from a recipe — only when we baked her famous lamb cake together, which was a yellow cake in a 3-D lamb mold that we iced with white frosting and decorated with coconut, and raisins for eyes. When anyone asked her how she cooked something, she grew vague. She honestly couldn't describe it; it like asking how she sewed dresses without a pattern or grew fig trees and grapes in a cold climate. She'd make an earnest attempt, which devolved into hand gestures and a change of subject.

After she died, our family's Sunday suppers continued at her house, with my aunts attempting the cooking. It was a doomed situation. I remember the soup arriving in the dining room the first few times. Everybody quieted down, a bad sign. (Normally the conversation around the table was so loud and contentious that it shocked guests who weren't Italian.)

The soup was the wrong color. It had the wrong taste, and not enough flavor. You might think we'd be charitable since these two grieving women were doing their best. But no. There were harsh, unsparing complaints about the soup and practically everything else, too.

When you've lost the taste of something you loved, perhaps forever, it's hard to swallow.

We felt stupid as well as bereft. Who knew that soup would be so hard to make? We interrogated my uncle, an A&P meat cutter who often did my grandmother's grocery shopping at his store. We learned that she bought a lot of bouillon cubes. We already knew that she used the cheapest chicken: wings, necks, and backs; we all ate lots of wings cooked in spaghetti sauce.* But the rest was a mystery. After a few more failures, our Sunday suppers ended, but not before we'd discovered more losses, of seemingly simple dishes. Her salty, juicy roast beef that fell apart with a fork, for example. Even simple spaghetti sauce was never the same.

Of course, without her, nothing in our family was the same. She wasn't just our cook, she was our mother, and as close to a saint as anyone we'd ever known.

* * *

In 1985, in a restaurant on Hanover Street, and in 1998, in the Piazza Navona in Rome, I tasted a forkful of pasta in tomato sauce and burst into tears. They had made her sauce. I didn't have a moment to realize what was happening: the tears came by themselves both times. And they didn't stop until I finished eating.

Waiters get upset when they see patrons sobbing into their plates. "This is wonderful!" they'd hear me say, as they hovered near my chair. And then, because I could not stop crying, which was wrecking my companion's meal and attracting attention from other tables, I'd exclaim, "This is terrible!" which brought an alarmed waiter running over. Both times I explained, and the Italian waiter instantly understood and left me to my sauce.

* * *

So it seems I can reconnect with my grandmother's spaghetti sauce every 10 years or so. But I've been missing her soup. I decided that this winter's project would be figuring out how she did it. This might not seem like a terrifying endeavor, but it is. It's so fraught that I've been procrastinating over it for more than 20 years. But, nowadays, I have plenty of free time as well as the resources (thanks to my tenured spouse and being too old to get hired myself) to buy all the formerly low-class chicken parts I could ever need. I can make hundreds of pots of soup. And I might need to.

I began by trying to recall everything I could about that soup — its beautiful flavor and color, its purity and clarity, with never a hint of a vegetable. The little globules of fat that floated across the surface. She made it on Saturday mornings, a time when I was usually not around and my aunt was shopping downtown (her timing accounts for a lot). She cooked Uncle Ben's rice separately, in a cheap aluminum pot, and added it to the soup before serving it. I don't remember her soup pot, but I'm sure it  came from a five-and-dime store, too. The most divine food often comes from junky old pots — have you noticed this, too?

All I really knew was that chicken wings and bouillon cubes were involved. And, although I never saw an onion, carrot, or celery stalk go into the soup, I know she kept all three were around, because my family liked onions, and there were always celery stalks and fancy, curled carrots in a cut-glass dish on the Sunday dinner table. I remembered the layer of fat that topped the jars she'd send home with us whenever anyone was sick, so I knew she didn't skim all the fat (and flavor) from her soup, as some cooks do. And I remember her once thinning her soup with water when more people turned up for supper than she'd anticipated. It had tasted fine.

On Sunday afternoon, I called the family historians, my Aunt Lil and Uncle Bill. Like every elderly relative of mine, they are as deaf as haddocks, or their crappy cordless phones don't work, or both. My aunt and uncle's landline hasn't worked for dialing out for more than a year so they can only receive calls. If they need, say, the occasional ambulance ride to the ER, they keep some minutes on an old track phone.

Our conversation went like this:

"Hello?" says my uncle.

"It's ME! Your NIECE!"

"Just a minute. . . [shouts] LIL!!!" We wait in silence until my aunt gets on the other line.

"I need to ask you about Grandmom's soup. But I'll bet you can't hear me." I yell.

"What?" says my aunt. "This phone is lousy."

Bill and I shout, "Grandmom's SOUP!"

"Huh?" says my aunt.

Soon my uncle is loudly repeating everything I say, and he finally moves to the same room as my aunt so she can hear him, if not me.

I tried to persuade them that Grandmom made her soup without vegetables.

"No, you have to have onions, celery, carrots, and maybe some parsley," said my aunt. "Well, not much parsley."

"Parsnips?" said my uncle, whose hearing is not that much better than my aunt's.

"NO!" said my aunt.

I told them that, in all my years of eating that soup, I'd never come across the tiniest scrap of a vegetable. (If I had, I probably would have been afraid of it.) How could that be?"

"Mom took everything out," said my aunt. "Because nobody liked it. You know us: nobody eats fruit, or vegetables."

We ate truckloads of mashed potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and Birds-Eye frozen veggies. We ate homegrown peas, onions, tomatoes, radishes, and dandelion greens. My grandfather also grew figs, pears, apples, cherries, raspberries, and grapes.** Throwing out vegetables would run counter to our family's ingrained poor-immigrant and Depression-era habits. But she was insistent, and I was too hoarse to argue that point on top of my others.

It seemed to me that the key to understanding the soup was its distinctive color. Chicken soup is usually yellow, bright or pale. My grandmother's was mellow, bronzy gold. If I could figure out how her soup got its color, it might also provide me with its flavor. It can't be complicated; she was a very simple cook.

I have long had this idea that my grandmother might have roasted or browned her chicken parts first, to get that golden color. In Savenor's market on Charles Street, where I'd recently bought a couple of pounds of chicken backs, the man behind the meat counter liked my theory.

My aunt and uncle vociferously disagreed — it was as if I'd suggested dusting my chicken backs with cyanide. It's surprising how loud and forceful my very old, frail, deaf relatives still become when they are riled.

But if you make stock from a roasted carcass, you do get a richer color than when you use a raw bird. I kept insisting, and they kept protesting as if I was contemplating a felony. They disavowed any responsibility for the resulting soup.

* * *

Feeling guilty, I roasted my chicken parts, and put it in my fancy French cast-iron soup pot. I added mirepoix — finely chopped onions, carrots and celery, neatly layered in a tub, from Trader Joe's. (I'm sure my grandmother never made mirepoix, but celery is celery.) I filled the pot with filtered water and threw in some kosher salt. Cringing, I added two bouillon cubes, which are mostly salt, MSG, artificial flavors, and other garbage. I wanted "her" soup to be pure. But I know they were in her recipe. After the pot came to a boil, I let it simmer and ignored it for a few hours.

The result, after I strained out every particle of vegetable, was suggestive of the amazing color I remembered. It wasn't yellow, but its gold was a little too faint. (More chicken next time.) I added cooked Italian noodles and poured my experiment into old canning jars, similar to the kind she had.

Did I taste it?

Of course not. I was nervous. I waited two days. (I remember that her soup might sit around for a week in her fridge.) On Tuesday night, I heated some, and brought it to the table.

It was good. So good that one of my eyes suddenly began to water and I felt a hint of a catch in my throat.

That's a start.

* I've been told this was my favorite breakfast when I was 3 or 4, with a glass of chocolate milk.

** One of my earliest memories is of being placed, barefoot, in a metal tub full of grapes, to crush them for wine. I believe the wine was always terrible, but still better than the homemade cigars my grandfather tried to make from his own tobacco.


  1. My mother is Sicilian and her chicken soup never has any veggies (although the broth is cooked with them). It's just broth, chicken and ditalini pasta. The one thing she does that gives the soup a golden orange color is put in a little tomato sauce. I swear it makes all the difference.

  2. I too had a Nana, a marvelous cook whose two daughters (one my mother) wanted NOTHING whatsoever to do with cooking, ever. Skips a generation, I guess. The things I didn't pay enough attention to and now want to make: gnocchi w/out potatoes, 2 Easter pies made with rice (one savory, one sweet), and a basic green salad (mine never tastes like hers did). Love your blog, BTW.

  3. You have an amazing way of writing and even brought a tear to my eye...


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