A Salute to Chicken Soup

January 24, 2013

6 min read


Our relationship with chicken soup runs deep.

During a performance at a Yiddish Theater the leading man keels over. A doctor rushes to the stricken actor, when, from the balcony, they hear a bubbe’s voice:

“Give’em some chicken soup. Give him some chicken soup!”

The doctor looks up. “Madam, it wouldn’t help.”

“It vouldn’t hoit.”

And so goes maybe the oldest Jewish joke in history.

We Jews have an intimate relationship with the chicken. It goes deep. We possess a “C-nome” for the little clucker and of course it’s magical elixir … chicken soup! Ask anyone. Mention those two words and people from fifth world nations will say: “Yuwish?!”

We feel chicken soup in our kishkes.

How could this be? Simple. While chicken soup to most other groups is, well, soup, we feel it in our kishkes. Picture it: As children, on Friday morning we awoke to the wafting, aroma of this Ashkenazic marvel pervading the house, then plunged our little faces over the steaming broth, khalishing till sundown for a spoonful.

In our home, my Bubbe was the super-souper. I’d sit and watch, fascinated, mostly because, as in the old country, whatever veggies, meat, bones, herbs, she had around she “put” in a “pot.” And somehow, it was delicious -- even if it never came out the same way twice. “How does she do it?” my mother wondered till the day she died, never quite getting quite the right layer of oily film on top. But, alas, Bubbe never shared her recipe. Mostly because … she didn’t use one. Bubbe “felt” her food.

From this Jewish comfort food, memories were made and traditions carried forward for generations.

So, while soup has been around for centuries, We Jews claimed chicken soup! After all,

the shtetls of Eastern Europe weren’t teeming with smoked salmon, rib eye … or Oreos. And as Shabbat, among other holidays, should involve a hot meat, the chicken, like the egg, was versatile. The first Ashkenazic chicken soup was made in the poor Jewish

villages of Russia where the thrifty balaboosta could use every part and stretch one chicken to many delightful dishes: chopped liver, helzel, gribbenes, pupik, p’tcha, and of course shmaltz! The prize in the soup was – Ai Ai Ai! – an unlaid chicken egg! According to the late comedian Sam Levinson, this treat was usually given to one of the girls – for “fertility.” More, in the shtetls, not only were chickens cheap to raise, but transportable should our people have to pack up and run at a moment’s notice, which has been known to happen now and then.

Jewish Penicillin

Soup was considered a “curative” down through the ages, but it was Maimonides (12th century) in his book “On The Cause of Symptoms” passing down this wisdom from his own teacher, Abu Merwan ibn Zohar, who claimed it had the power to “neutralize body constitution.” (In addition to curing a stuffy nose, leprosy was also mentioned.) Naturally, diligent balaboostas prescribed the goldene yoich for any upset from a cold to yes, heartbreak! And so, with it’s combo of bones, carrots, herbs, spices, the potent potable potion became known as “Jewish penicillin.”

Let me ask you this: would you dare question generations of Jewish Mamas?

I know you wouldn’t. But scientists did.

Over 1000 scientists in respected institutions such as Mt. Sinai Hospital (Miami), the University of Los Angeles, the University of Nebraska, not to mention various European institutions have finally concluded that chicken soup works for upper respiratory ailments. Scientifically, it stimulates neutrophil activity which helps loosen mucus, clears congestion and opens sinuses. So forget the 80 dollar herbal shmerbals. (They had them in Vilna?) The carrots in the soup alone contain ganza amounts of Vitamin A, the high protein content builds muscles, and the bones may increase calcium content --as if We Jews didn’t already know.

And our pride grows! Celebrity chef Jeff Nathan, owner of Abigael’s, the New York gourmet kosher restaurant, has hosted highly prized chicken soup contests, sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program. The first, in 2004, was won by the “Kveen” of Chicken Soup, Rosaley Himmelstein, who reluctantly gave up her crown in 2009, when 31-year-old Michael Cohen, a music writer, won with an Israeli-inspired self-creation. Yes! A creative male with CSC (Chicken Sup Chops)! Naturally, one of the women in the audience yelled: “Is he single?” (He is – or was.) Chef Jeff, cookbook author, and host of the PBS series “New Jewish Cuisine” also proved his soup nuts and yichus by beating the Irish Chef Bobby Flay on January 21, 2011 when Flay challenged him to a chicken matzo ball “Throwdown.” (The repeat will be shown on Feb. 21 at 9:30 a.m. Eastern and Pacific time.)

Fascinating Fowl Facts: Soup to Nuts?

*In the Americas chicken soup, brought over by Europeans, existed from the 16th century. In the U.S. recipes for the golden elixir were first published since 1824. But the term “chicken soup" was uncommon until the late 19th century.

*The Place? The MGM private dining room. The food? Chicken soup. Not just any chicken soup. Mayer’s Mama’s! Louis B. Mayer insisted chicken-matzo ball soup, a duplication of his mom’s, was served daily. If the soup didn’t include a fresh-killed chicken, waddles rolled.

*Chicken soup has become synonymous with Jewish hearths and comfort for people of all backgrounds. For example, there’s the series “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” and Maurice Sendak’s “Chicken Soup with Rice.” “Chicken Soup” was also the title of a short-lived 1989 ABC sitcom starring Jackie Mason. “Chicken Noodle Soup” featuring Young B. was made into a popular hip-hop song by DJ Webstar. "Chicken Soup with Barley," was a 1956 play by British playwright Arnold Wesker, the first in a trilogy of plays exploring the challenges facing a family of Communist, Jewish immigrants to the UK in the 1930s.

For We Jews, this soup isn’t a mere broth, but much more. It’s a metaphor for not only the Jewish-American experience but for passing down our Jewish heritage.

So the next time, some nudnik calls your David or Molly a “chicken!” Tell them to simply say: “Thanks for the honor!”

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