Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Into the Soup: A Saga of MSG and Memories

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 several decades, Sunday night supper at my grandmother's house began with a bowl of her perfect chicken soup. She never made any other kind of 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. 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 10 minutes during the 60 years or so that she had been making soup. I probably spent the equivalent of a year sitting in her kitchen before I was 20, playing with cats, 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 three chairs. We took turns sitting at her table, which was pushed into a corner and seated two. It had a white enamel surface, and everybody liked to doodle or leave messages on it in pencil, which later were wiped away.

During all those idyllic hours, it never occurred to me to learn to cook from my grandmother, and this is among my greatest regrets. Another regret is that I didn't force anyone else to pay attention, either. (And I hope I often asked her if she wanted help; I have no idea if I did. But I was a spoiled, lazy brat in those days, as now. She certainly never needed even 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, decorated with white frosting, coconut, and raisins for eyes. When anyone asked her how she cooked something, she was vague. She honestly couldn't describe it; it like asking her how she sewed clothing without a pattern or grew fig trees and grapes in a cold climate. She'd make an earnest attempt, which quickly deteriorated into hand gestures and a change of subject.

After she died, the family Sunday suppers continued at her house, with my aunts, her two daughters, pitching in to do 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. It was the wrong color. It was the wrong taste. You might think that we would be charitable since these two grieving women were doing their best. But no. There were harsh, unsparing complaints about the soup. When you've lost the taste of something you loved — perhaps forever — it's hard to swallow. So to speak.

We felt stupid as well as bereft. How could soup 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, because we all ate lots of wings. 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 plain spaghetti sauce was never the same.

Of course, without her, nothing in our family could ever be the same. She wasn't just our cook, she was our saint.

* * *

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 think: the tears came all by themselves both times. And didn't stop until I was 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 simply 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 to my side. Both times I explained, and my Italian waiter instantly understood and graciously left me alone with my sauce.

* * *

At least I can reconnect with my grandmother's spaghetti sauce every 10 years or so. 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 and the resources (between my tenured spouse and being too old to get hired myself) to buy all the low-class chicken parts I could ever need. I can make hundreds of pots of soup. And I might do that.

I began by trying to recall everything I could about that soup — very little besides its beautiful flavor and color. She made it on Saturday mornings, a time when I was usually not around and my aunt was shopping downtown (aha: her timing explains a lot). She cooked Uncle Ben's rice separately, in a cheap pot, and added it to the soup before serving it. I don't remember her soup pot, but I'm sure it was cheap, too. The most divine food often comes out of junky old aluminum pots from a five-and-dime store — have you noticed?

I also knew 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 they were around, because there were always celery and carrots in cut-glass dishes 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. And I remember her once thinning her soup with water when more people turned up for supper than she'd anticipated.

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 a haddock or their crappy phones don't work, or both. My aunt and uncle's land-line hasn't worked for dialing out for more than a year. 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.

When my aunt is on the phone, she can't hear. Our conversation went like this:

"Hello?" says my uncle.

"It's ME! Your NIECE!"

"Just a minute... LIL!!!" Then we wait 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 whatever I'm saying, 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.

"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, fresh peas, sweet potatoes, homegrown tomatoes, succotash, radishes, corn on the cob.... Throwing out vegetables would run counter to our family's strong Depression-era habits. But she was insistent, and I was too hoarse to argue.

One unique aspect of the soup was its beautiful color. Almost all chicken soup is yellow, bright or pale. My grandmother's was rich, mellow gold. I figured that the secret was to figure out how her soup got its color, and that might also give me its flavor. It can't be rocket science; she was a very simple cook.

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

My aunt and uncle vociferously disagreed. It was as if I'd suggested dusting my chicken backs with cyanide. But if you make stock from a roasted carcass, you get a richer color than when you simmer a raw bird. I kept insisting, but they acted like I was about to commit a felony. They disavowed any responsibility for the resulting soup.

* * *

Feeling guilty, I roasted my chicken, and put it in my fancy French 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. 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. It wasn't yellow, although its gold was a little faint. (More chicken next time.) I added cooked Italian noodles and poured my experiment into old canning jars, the kind she had.

Did I trouble myself to 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.) 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.


  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...


Spam goes right into the trash but I appreciate relevant comments from non-spammers (and I can always tell the difference). I do my best to follow up if you have a question. ALL spam, attempts to market other websites, and anything nasty or unintelligible gets deleted instantly. The cats and I thank you for reading — and please feel free to comment on what you read.