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The Presence of the Past

(by Denise Browning)

My parents and grandparents were all born in Brazil and grew up there, as did I. But my children were born and have been raised in the United States. I immigrated more than 15 years ago when I married my wonderful American husband. We believe it is essential for our children to learn the languages and cultures from both sides of their family. And one of the best ways I have found to pass along my share of traditions has been through cooking, especially the recipes that have been handed down from one generation to the next in my family. It is a way of connecting the past to the present, and hopefully the future. It is a way of getting to know and understand those who came before us, who played a significant role in shaping us. And because I am far away, it is a way to find comfort and the presence of two special people in my life, my grandma and mom.

Grandma Socorro took in sewing while raising ten children. Despite her lack of professional training, she was one of the best cooks I ever met. Her kitchen was a beehive of nonstop activity, with five meals prepared from scratch every day for a crowd that included any visitors who might pop in, and later, of course, the grandchildren. The air was always redolent of coffee, freshly brewed several times a day. Like me, Grandma Socorro was a focused cook. In her kitchen, there was not a lot of conversation going on. The process was looked upon as deeply cherished “me time”—a solitary, almost selfish act of enjoyment. Afternoon snack time was my favorite meal in her home. The table was where all the loud conversation took place (usually about politics), spread with savory and sweet treats, from fried eggs with warm French bread to dulce de leche bars.

My mom, Dorotea, is quite the opposite of her mother. Her sense of humor is infinitely better than her cooking skills; I firmly believe that she could have made a successful career as a comedian instead of as a Portuguese teacher. (Unfortunately, her jokes don’t translate well in English.) Her sense of humor is also evident in her recipes. Getting precise instructions out of her requires persistence. Her regional cuisine, laden with the aroma of cooked beans, is usually entrusted to someone else, a hired cook that has been with her for about 40 years.

But she has a few specialties: her famous bread pudding (unlike the classic American dessert, ours is smooth and served with chocolate sauce); the tapioca crepes she serves her grandchildren when we visit; and above all, her mother’s chicken soup. The latter holds special meaning for my entire Brazilian family because it is the dish that soothed generations of my family when they were not well: Grandma made it for her children, my mom made for me, and I make it for mine. Just by closing my eyes, I can picture these two women in their kitchens, lovingly preparing something to heal a feverish body or a bruised soul.

Through the chicken soup, I have gotten the chance to tell my children my childhood stories, to convey a sense of who my grandma was, and to further connect them to my mom.

To an outside observer, the soup may seem ordinary, made from simple ingredients. But in my family, it is a potion that works miracles, connecting generations, transcending time and space.


Denise Browning is a Brazilian chef and food blogger who lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and two daughters, Hannah and Chantal. Her website is Easy and Delish.

Grandma's Chicken Soup

2 T. olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, small diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

10 - 12 oz. skinless, boneless chicken breast, cubed

3/4 c. raw long-grain rice, rinsed

2 T. dry white wine

10 c. chicken broth

3/4 c. potato, peeled and cubed

3/4 c. carrot peeled and cubed, fresh or frozen

3/4 c. peas, fresh or frozen

salt and ground white pepper to taste

1 t. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

4 - 6 eggs

1/4 c. fresh parsley, chopped

optional: olive oil

optional: finely shredded Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat, and sauté onion until translucent.

Add garlic and sauté for 20 - 30 seconds.

Add chicken and sauté for 2 - 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add rice and sauté for 30 seconds.

Add wine and let it evaporate.

Add chicken stock, vegetables, salt, pepper, thyme, and bay leaf.

Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer for approximately 12 minutes.

Gently break eggs into the soup, and simmer for 8 minutes (they will be firm, not soft poached).

Remove bay leaf and serve with parsley.

Serves 4 - 6.

(The soup can also be drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.)


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