(by Margaret Crane)
(Molly, my oldest son, and me)
My mother approached cooking as cautiously as one might approach an electric fence, so I never got any culinary instruction from her. What I did learn from her was how to set a perfect table (folding the napkins with no seams showing; the fork placed next to the napkin but never on top) and proper manners: Don’t talk with food in your mouth, elbows off the table, sit up straight, do not interrupt your elders, say “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” when addressing an older person, and stand when they enter a room. Not incidentally, she also passed along a love of literature and the arts and terrific skills at games like Monopoly, Scrabble, and Jotto.
When I got married, my mother didn’t give me any cookbooks or cookware, but one important message that resonated was how to handle money. She was adamant: “Keep your finances separate from your husband’s funds,” she implored. It was a lesson she’d learned as a suburban housewife whose husband was the sole breadwinner. She had to ask my father for money or get his permission to buy anything she wanted, whether clothing, artwork, jewelry or some tchotchke. I followed her advice, which was fine with my husband, who made much more than I did. My own (paltry in comparison) salary came in handy toward a down payment on our first home.
In spite of my mother’s indifference to cooking, I make the most fantastic chicken soup, a recipe handed down to me by my mother-in-law, Molly. Any time one of our family was sick, she’d be at our doorstep, with a big container of her curative soup. There was some science behind her recipe. Apparently, chicken soup contains an amino acid that thins mucus in the lungs, which reduces inflammation and congestion.
Molly never used a recipe. If I asked her how much of this and that to use, she couldn’t tell me. I learned by watching her at work in her large but sparse eat-in kitchen, which is how we got to know each other well. In fact, it was the way we bonded. We’d discuss how brushing butter and Kitchen Bouquet or soy sauce on a turkey while it roasts gives it a nice brown crust. Stuffing the cavity with lemons, onions, oranges, and herbs such as rosemary or thyme masks any “gamey” flavor. She taught me the benefit of adding ketchup and tons of dill to chicken soup for color and taste. From time to time, she threw in a marrow bone. “See what I’m doing?” she’d ask to make sure I was paying attention. Although our conversations were mostly about cooking, sometimes we’d discuss a problem I was having with my husband such as his refusal to empty a dishwasher or eat leftovers. She would chuckle and say, “I guess I spoiled him.”
Molly had a daughter and two granddaughters. But from the day I married her son, she also considered me to be her daughter and would say so. I was uncomfortable calling her “Mom” or “Molly,” so her moniker in the family became “Grandma.” That was a neutral term that I felt comfortable using in front of my parents, who weren’t grandparents yet. Once they were, “Grandma” for Molly was baked in and acceptable.
As a rule, my mother and Molly were competitive and often engaged in verbal jousting, especially about the grandkids. When our elder son started taking piano lessons at age five, my mother was pleased, but Molly piped in saying that he was too young. That was the catalyst for a debate on parents who pushed their kids prematurely. But the one area where my mother deferred to her “machatunim” (a great Yiddish word for the relationship between these not quite in-laws) was cooking. It was of so little interest that she never cared to learn any of Molly’s techniques or skills. In this one thing, Molly could outshine my mother, who was fine with that.
Molly loved cooking because her mother had loved cooking for her eight children, five of whom were girls and expected to help prepare meals. Once Molly married and had her own family, it was part of her essence to feed people. She never baked because that would mean following a recipe, something that wasn’t creative or fun for her. But she believed that food was medicine. She died at age 98, still in fairly good health. Maybe it was all that chicken soup that kept her going.
One day, I made her soup on my own for my husband and three children. Soon I became the anointed chicken soup maker for all Jewish holidays and special family events. I took up the mantel. And Molly’s soup went on to earn fans beyond our family. When my son’s boss didn’t feel well, I got a request: “Mom, do you mind making her some of your fabulous chicken soup?”
I like to think my soup always does the trick. I will soon put up a simmering pot for Rosh Hashanah when my family will be together to celebrate the Jewish New Year. With every spoonful, we will all toast Molly.
Margaret Crane, who moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to New York City almost two years ago, is co-author with Barbara Ballinger of Suddenly Single After 50 and Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life after 50.
Molly’s Chicken Soup
whole chicken, 3 1/2 - 4 lb., cut up (use a kosher hen if it’s available for the richest flavor)
salt and pepper
6 - 8 oz. baby carrots
2 - 3 stalks celery
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
1 turnip, peeled and cubed
1 bulb of fennel, plus some fronds
1 white or yellow onion, peeled and cut in quarters
2 leeks, rinsed well and sliced
2 garlic cloves, cut in half
4 chicken bouillon cubes
3/4 c. fresh dill
1 – 2 T. ketchup
Rinse chicken parts in a colander, and thoroughly cover with salt and pepper.
Put in a soup pot, and add enough water to cover the chicken.
Bring to a boil, then add remaining ingredients:
Simmer 2 - 3 hours uncovered, skimming fat off the top periodically.
Remove chicken from pot, and set aside.
Strain vegetables, and set aside the carrots.
Put the cooked vegetables in a blender to puree.
Add 1 c. (no more) of the pureed vegetables to the broth.
Cut white meat chicken into cubes and add to broth, with reserved carrots.
Save dark meat to eat later with horseradish.
Serve with rice or matzoh balls.