Peggy Orenstein: on the legacy of chicken soup

Peggy Orenstein will chat with Lori Gottlieb on February 8.  She writes the following few paragraphs on the sustaining link between her grandmother and herself.

My husband is one of those people who can trace his lineage back for generations. His mother’s parents were born on Shikoku, Japan, the smallest of that country’s main islands. His second cousins still live there, near the family plot where markers for the dead stretch back a full millennium. Our daughter Daisy’s eyes grow wide when we tell her that we’ll visit some day, that she can pay her respects to her great-great-great-great grandparents.

Then she asks, “What about you, Mom?”

What about me? My mother’s mother, my Grandma Betty, was born in “the Old Country” of Eastern Europe—Rumania, perhaps, or maybe Russia. The border shifted so often she couldn’t really say. Nor did she want to. Jews weren’t considered citizens of those countries anyway and the people who were had terrorized her family. Her history, she said, started here, in America, where she was finally safe. I didn’t even know her real name until long after her death: It had been Batya—daughter of God—which is now my girl’s Hebrew name.

Grandma would only say that she was sent to this country when she was seven to live with her aunt in Minneapolis. I didn’t think to question that story until this year, when Daisy turned that age. How had she travelled? Was she really all alone? Someone must have transported that little girl, who couldn’t speak a word of English, across a continent, then across the ocean, then half-way across a new country. By the time I thought to ask those questions there was no one left to answer them.

The only legacy I had, the only family history I could offer my daughter was chicken soup.

My grandmother’s recipe for that iconic dish was simple, a peasant’s meal: they made do with little in the Eastern European shtetls, so a chicken, a few carrots, an onion, the crumbs that made the matzo balls were all stretched as far as possible. Still, that soup was my history, my birthright, made for me first by her and later by my own mother. I ate it when I was sad, I ate it when I was happy. I ate it in the arctic chill of the Minnesota winters and the humid torpor of its summers. I ate it even when I wasn’t even hungry, because in a Jewish family chicken soup is not just medicine for the soul, it is the essence of love.

As a twenty-first century woman with access to all the internet can offer, I’m aware that there may be better soup recipes than my grandmother’s—ones that are more modern, more complex, even tastier. Truth be told, her broth comes out a little thin. Yet I could never deviate from her instructions, which I still have, written on a battered index card in her own loopy hand (“From Butcher get one Chicken, a nice size. Fill pot with Water–not TOO much).” And just as she fed it to my mother and my mother fed it to me, I will feed this elixir to my own little girl, my own little Batya.

It may not be jewelry or candlesticks or a graveyard of ancestors, but it is what I have to pass on: Chicken soup. A legacy of making much out of little, a legacy of love that will cure whatever ails you.

Peggy Orenstein writes for many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.