I hear my daughter Sammi’s steps on the stairs before her voice calls out to me. Still, I don’t run to unlock the door; she has keys, and my hands are covered in a sticky mass of egg and flakes of matzo meal. When I hear the key turn in the lock, I know what I’ll hear next and, still, it thrills me every time.
“Mommy!,” is the beginning and then, barely as that first word ends, the deep inhale begins, followed by, “Oooohhh! Really?!! Matzo ball soup!!! YES!!!”
This is my legacy, every bit of it, from the key in the door to the recognition of home to the smell of what’s cooking and what it means. This is how I want to be remembered.
Sammi has always loved soup. As a toddler, struggling to gain weight after her first cardiac surgery, she deigned to take tiny sips of a soup whose recipe I’d found in an old magazine and adapted. Chickpea soup became our savior, keeping her weight from dropping to the magically low number that would mean feeding tube. We spiked it with extra virgin coconut oil and kept a batch in the fridge at all times. It got so that I could not eat it myself, but never mind that — Sammi ate and did not wither, sipped and did not die.
When Sammi was only two, I brought a batch of that soup — a recipe I could make in my sleep and, half-crazed with insomnia in those years, often nearly did — to the home of parents who had just accepted two little boys as foster children. Sammi sat in her car seat as I hoisted the pot up the stairs and handed it over. There was, of course, another pot at home for her. These days, when I run into that other mother, she often mentions that soup, usually with the two words we use: “I made The Soup. Your soup. You know? The Soup.”
And I know. Of course I know. It’s powerful soup.
I make another kind of chickpea soup and think of my friend Clare, with whom I shared the recipe many years ago and celebrated when she made her own first batch to bring to her ailing mother in another city. “I filled two quart jars with it,” she said. “My mom is going to be so happy.” I pictured the jars full of my version of this Aloo Chana Soup, a tomato-y broth bathing a host of chick peas, potatoes, onions and a half-dozen spices, topped by bright green steamed broccoli, and smiled. Now, even when it sits in a pot on my stove, I picture it jarred and offered in the spirit of caregiving.
What’s best is that in the golden moments of early fall, when the area farms provide both tomatoes and potatoes, careful planning allows for nearly all the vegetables in this soup to come from local sources. When the box comes from my CSA, I wash the dirt from the potatoes in my kitchen sink and chop them lovingly. The spices — an assortment of warming ones from far-flung places — finish off the harmony: food sourced from near and far, fresh and dry, familiar and foreign.
Sometimes we eat this soup with basmati rice; sometimes with challah. It’s delicious either way.
I make all kinds of other soups, of course: a vegan-cheese-sauce-based broccoli soup, black bean vegetable soup from a beloved cookbook, and many lentil concoctions that, with added broth, could pass for soup. The most venerated soup in my house, however, is a humble matzo ball soup.
A matzo ball, says Wikipedia, is “an Ashkenazi Jewish soup dumpling made from a mixture of matzah meal, eggs, water, and a fat, such as oil, margarine, or chicken fat. Matzah balls are traditionally served in chicken soup.” As a vegetarian household, we serve them in vegetable broth, but the beauty in the finished product transcends the source of the broth. I shamelessly form my matzo balls from a store-bought mix — any will do — and float them in an ever-changing delivery system made up of broth and an assortment of vegetables.
There can be no matzo ball soup without carrots, sliced or chunked, and an onion, dropped trimmed but largely whole into the pot. The absence of potatoes is acceptable to me but not to my oldest daughter, who counts them as crucial to a successful batch. There’s always a clove or two of garlic squeezed into the broth, and dill if it’s handy. Cabbage — cut thick and crudely — belongs in the pot if it’s available, but not in quantities too high for my husband who would need to pick around it.
Sometimes I add celery, or celery root, or neither.
It doesn’t seem to matter exactly what’s in this soup so long as it has matzo balls and carrots, and so I have no recipe, no proportions, no other rules, no measuring cups or spoons. What I do have is two daughters who breathe in the scent of it cooking and know that I love them. It’s cooking because one or more of us needs comfort and tradition; because the weather is cold or we’re sad or a holiday is here, bringing both tradition and a kind of sweet melancholy to our table.
Soup travels quickly down our throats to our very souls, bringing nourishment and warmth and the slow simmer of a constant, gentle, unwavering love. Soup, like my love for my family and our community, is simple and timeless. Soup spurs us on when we need something more than sustenance.
Soup is my legacy. May my children make soup, too.