My Jewishness is fraught with complexities and contradictions.
Raised without any religion in the North London suburb of Finchley in post-war Britain, it was white-bread, white-collar and Anglo-Saxon all the way. (This is not the case today, I’ve noted on recent visits, in a neighbourhood where kebab shops, curry houses and the Tally Ho! pub rub shoulders in a somewhat seedy multicultural mix).
My late father Mel Schachter grew up poor and tough on the mean streets of Montreal’s Jewish ghetto to become “my son, the doctor” – a profession he once said he chose because “it was the best racket going.”
Between Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler in age, he was a buddy of writer Ted Allen with whom he attended iconic schools of that period – Fairmont and Baron Byng – located in what was then called “The Main” and today goes by “Mile End”, a much gentrified version of its former self.
Feisty and staunch about his Jewishness, my dad, who had no time for those who changed their Jewish last names, was just as adamant about religion, all of which he was wont to call “hocus-pocus.” When I once asked if I could go to Sunday school with my Gentile friends, his answer was succinct: “No, you’re not a Christian.” When I, then about eight years old, expressed my confusion: “So what am I?” his reply was a prescription for identity crisis: “You’re nothing – but, if you were anything, you’d be Jewish.”
My mother Ruth is the antithesis of a stereotypical Jewish mother. She’s a bookworm who recently re-read Anna Karenina in the original Russian – one of five languages she speaks fluently. Refined and elegant, she’s what I affectionately call “low-maintenance.” In fact, I sometimes joke when I phone her once a week: “Mum, you never write, you never call.”
All of this leads me to the way in which both my parents do fit one criterion of Jewishness that’s dear to my heart: a passionate love of food.
A colleague of mine at the Toronto Star, a fellow Montrealer without religious beliefs, called himself “a culinary Jew.” Likewise for me.
Certainly, the pleasures of cooking and breaking bread with others are undeniable. They’re a universal connector. Just ask Anthony Bourdain. Those pleasures are deeply ingrained in Jewish roots and definitely in mine.
All of this is my long-winded introduction to chicken soup, a dish I’ve been preparing and consuming on a regular basis for several years – and especially now in the depths of winter when ‘flu season is at its peak.
There are theories that vitamins, minerals and other substances in chicken soup actually have medicinal properties. For me, it’s about the soothing, delectable, pure and simple taste of this tried-and-true dish that make it pure nectar for both body and soul.
Here’s my recipe:
Sweet and Simple Chicken Soup
Feel free to use this recipe as inspiration and to vary it as you wish. I like to simmer the soup longer than most recipes dictate to get depth of flavour. I also drain it, then chop the chicken and return it to the soup – not a traditional way to do things as most recipes suggest using the chicken for salad or some other use. The parsnip is essential for sweetness, a trick I learned from Toronto food writer and restaurant critic Joanne Kates. I like to use a free-run/organic chicken, as usual.
The superb matzoh balls are from Bonnie Stern’s excellent cookbook “Friday Night Dinners.” I use chicken fat skimmed from the cooled soup instead of oil but both work.
1 medium chicken (3 to 4 lb)
1 unpeeled onion, halved
2 carrots, peeled, cut in chunks
2 parsnips, peeled, cut in chunks
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste.
Place chicken with vegetables and thyme in large, heavy saucepan. Add cold water to cover. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to very low and simmer, partially covered, about 2 hours. (There should just be a few bubbles that appear on the surface.)
Drain soup into very large bowl. Remove chicken from strainer (it may have fallen apart) and cut or pull meat from breast and thighs into pieces. Return meat to soup, discarding skin and bones along with contents of strainer. (I sometimes return carrot and parsnip chunks to soup if they’re not too mushy.) Add salt and pepper to soup.
Chill soup; remove congealed fat from surface and reserve for matzoh balls.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
1 cup matzoh meal
1 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup chicken soup or water
3 tbsp chicken fat or vegetable oil
Combine all ingrediants in bowl. Chill 30 minutes.
Bring large saucepan of water to boil over high heat. With wet hands, shape mixture into about 20 balls. Gently drop into boiling water. When water returns to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, about 30 minutes or until matzoh balls have doubled in size and are cooked through.
Makes about 20 matzoh balls.