Buried at the back of my freezer, I have just one pint of my father's chicken soup left. Aside from his prayer shawl (which I have requested for my son) and his grandmother’s Shabbat candlesticks (which he gave me when I married), the chicken soup is the only physical thing I have from him. It’s only a pint -- hardly enough to share three ways.
My father passed away last summer, and the certainty of his absence has been slow to take hold. By now I should know that he’s physically gone from my life, but I've reached for the phone to call him most mornings, as part of my regular routine -- to check in on his health or to relay a story about my son, his beloved first and only grandchild. Every few days, I catch myself lecturing internally "You really should call your father -- life should never be so busy that you don’t have time to pick up the phone and check in on him." Then I remember the reason so many days have passed without a call. That’s when I feel the loss in the pit of my stomach.
I always felt especially connected to my father on Jewish issues -- cultural and religious. Raised orthodox by Russian/Polish immigrant parents, my father grew up during the Great Depression. The era and the poverty, along with the customs and the culture, were woven into the fabric of his being. He spoke Yiddish fluently and, with us, his language was peppered with Yiddishisms.
We called my father "Shtetl Man." It was tongue-in-cheek at first but really, it was the best way to describe him. All our family friends came to refer to him as Shtetl Man too. At the Passover Seder, along with the four questions, there were Shtetl Man trivia questions framed in the Jeopardy format -- always preceded by the Jeopardy theme music.
My father could have been Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, though he was cast as Lazar Wolfe in the synagogue's production of the play. The cantor, of course, was cast as Tevye. With a little extra padding around the middle, he looked just like the Tevye portrayed by Zero Mostel -- right down to the gap between his two front teeth -- and in real life, he behaved like him too.
Long before political correctness entered the vernacular, my father warned when we were very young that he’d disown us if we married out of the faith. More than once, like Tevye, I imagined him rending his clothing over the loss of one of his three children, should it ever come to that. I knew he meant it.
Sometime before he died and after one of his hospital stays, my father took me aside and with tears welling up (a rarity for Shtetl Man) he drew me a map of the cemetery where his family members were buried. He counted out the gravestones. This row, four stones in, is where his mother and father are buried, two rows over is "the old uncle" and in the cemetery next door are his sister and brother in law, my favorite aunt and uncle, from his side of the family. He wasn’t concerned for himself; he wanted me to know where the family was buried so I could follow tradition and visit them before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
"You're different from your brothers," he told me, "you understand." He meant no disrespect to my older brothers, but we understood that of the three of us, I am the most deeply tied to Judaism -- more culturally than religiously. I can't separate "the Jewish" out from who I am. I keep my father’s hand-drawn cemetery map with my other personal documents, keys to the safe deposit box and overdue Israel bonds.
Until 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see Shtetl Man chopping wood in the back yard. He would swing the axe above his head -- with a log attached -- and heave the whole thing down Paul Bunyan style onto a large chopping block, splitting the smaller log into fragments. Of course my parents had central heating, but he was stock-piling firewood for winter, to cut down on heating costs.
Then he'd walk inside to check on his shischl of chicken soup. Cooking that soup was an all-day affair. He would make the soup and, the next day, my mother would make the matzoh balls.
I asked, on more than one occasion, for a chicken-soup-making lesson, for Shtetl Man was known far and wide for his amazing chicken soup. When both of us were younger, he would have already shopped for the ingredients. More recently, he would wait for me and we'd go to the store together. Then we'd stand in front of the stove together and he’d pull spices from the cabinet nearby.
"First you fill a big pot -- a shischl -- with water and you add the chicken. I like to use legs, thighs, and wings because they add more flavor to the soup and they’re cheaper (always a concern for Shtetl Man). Then I add a tziboleh (little onion,) two if they’re small, I cut up some carrots into chunks—don’t make the pieces too small or they’ll disintegrate, add some celery, parsnips because your mother loves parsnips, and then we add the spices."
This is where things get imprecise. Much in the same way my father never owned a new car in his 78 years of life, he never followed a recipe. He didn’t think in those terms. While my mother loved to collect cookbooks and pore over them, my father never cracked the spine on a single one. He cooked "to taste."
"So, you take the salt and you add about this much to the pot," he’d say, cupping the palm of his bear-like paw.
"How much do you think that is?" I’d ask.
"I don't know," he’d reply. "Cup your hand and pour; you can always add more later if it needs it."
"Wait, wait!" I’d say. "Let me measure it before you pour it into the pot."
He’d give me a look and launch into one of his favorite speeches, one I’d heard him give to many an unsuspecting friend or relative who’d asked for a lesson in chicken soup making.
"It's all about taste," he’d go on. "If you can't taste what it needs, you can't cook a good soup."
We'd go through each of the seasonings like this: parsley, pepper, tarragon and, at the end, a little sugar.
A pinch of sugar was the magic ingredient in many of my father's recipes, from chicken soup to tomato sauce. It was never a lot -- maybe a tablespoon for a large stockpot, but he believed it made all the difference. Having been the beneficiary of Shtetl Man's cooking throughout my life, I had no cause to argue with him.
When we were kids, much the way other children fight over the toy at the bottom of the cereal box (we did that too,) we fought over the pupick in the pot of chicken soup. We would run to the pot muscling and maneuvering to get the pupick for our bowl, and I, the youngest, was right in there with my brothers fighting for the right to the pupick. So my father added extra pupicks to the pot. "It adds flavor," he’d say. When we got older and learned what the pupick was, the fights over the chicken’s "belly button" ceased.
I never did work out a perfect recipe for my father's chicken soup, but whenever I spoke to him on the phone and he heard a hint of a cold in my voice, he'd put a pot on to boil as soon as we hung up. And if he wasn't up to cooking that week, he'd tell me there was some "Jewish penicillin" waiting for me in the freezer, I just had to come to town to get it (I live about 75 miles away).
After my father died, my husband, son and I all came down with colds. We needed soup. Steven and I exchanged nods. It was time: I dug deep into the freezer, and I pulled out a quart-sized container. Lost in thoughts of my father, I heated up one of his last tangible gifts to me: his chicken soup.
I parsed it out so that each of us would have a portion, making sure that our son, just 14-months-old at the time, wouldn’t waste a drop. I narrated to him while I helped him eat -- I told him he was eating his grandfather's chicken soup. The soup was delicious -- but "the finish," as they say with wine, was bitter sweet.
Not long after, I started taking my son with me to a neighborhood synagogue when I went to say kaddish for my father. At first I was very anxious that PJ, who was then walking and talking in his own language, would be disruptive and I'd find us barred from entry. On the contrary, because of his presence I found that we were now celebrities at the evening services. His climbing up and down from the bench, mentions of Dada or Momo (our dog) and crunching on Nature O's never failed to bring chuckles from those standing nearby. And, while I say the words of the mourner’s kaddish out loud, I sometimes think of my father with me, a little girl, sitting by his side as he observed yartzeit and said kaddish for his mother, father, sister or brother.
Every time one of us gets a tickle in the back of the throat, my thoughts turn to that last pint of soup in the freezer. On countless occasions, I've been tempted to heat it up so that I could smell my father's soup cooking on the stove one more time, and feel the steam rising off the broth to my face -- the blanket of love that went into every pot. But I haven't been able to do it because when we eat that last pint of chicken soup it will all be gone forever, and right now, that's something I'm just not sure I can swallow.
A long-time Daily Gullet contributor and eGullet Society staff emeritus, Ellen Shapiro is a photographer and writer. She lives in New York City with her husband, their son and their bulldog.