Although I’m not technically Jewish, nor am I a mother (yet). But my cousin Ira told me that I was, the day before he died last weekend. Today would have been his 80th birthday.
It all started with my chicken soup. I make it when someone is sick, or needs a little extra love, or for myself when I need a little extra love. There’s just something about chicken soup. Oddly, my mom doesn’t have a staple chicken soup recipe in her repertoire, so I have been making a variation of the next best thing — a Martha Stewart recipe that she made on her TV show while I worked there. I know this image, and I reference it often. I’ve adapted it into my own version, which personally I like better. I used to think making a bouquet garni was fussy. Now I’m all about it.
So of course I made it for Ira when he was entering the final stages of his battle with liver cancer, along with a giant loaf of sourdough bread and my 3-day dark chocolate sea salt cookies. You could say I pulled out the big guns. He didn’t have much of an appetite but he needed to eat (and so did his husband), so bada bing, bada boom, that was the menu I came up with.
When I brought it over to his apartment on Saturday afternoon, I was ready for him to tell me he wasn’t up for eating anything. But instead, he held my hand and said slowly, poignantly, “You really are a true Jewish mo-tha.” And then he didn’t let go of my hand. He held it for longer than he’s ever held it, and I started to wonder if he had actually ever held my hand before. Maybe to grab it quickly and pat it with his other hand in an attempt to commend me or congratulate me or something — or more likely with Ira, to emphasize some sort of sarcasm. He was brilliant at loving sarcasm. But never, that I could recall, had he held onto it before. Then he told me that the fresh bread sounded “won-da-ful” and he would eat a chocolate chip cookie. (That’s when I knew something was up — he never ate sweets.) So I savored the moment, continued shooting the shit with him as we did so well, and held his hand right back.
The next day his husband called to say that he had passed. Strangely, I didn’t cry. (I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, so maybe I have dried up.) But a flood of memories came over me in such a rush that I couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was actually feeling. I was immediately thankful for the time we had spent together, not just the day before but over the past four years that I have lived in San Francisco. Ira was my west-coast dad. He introduced me to chicken feet at his favorite dim sum place on Geary, took me to the old-school Polish delis in the Outer Richmond, and always kept on top of my latest job search/boyfriend search/NY bagel search. He told everyone he knew that I went to cooking school (apparently beaming with lots of pride), and I learned on the evening that he died, that he had also started telling everyone that I had found love. He never had a chance to meet my boyfriend, but he has made fun of his Minnesota accent enough that I feel like he does know him. Ira was the first person I went to when I needed advice, and he was always right. In fact, he said so much to me the day before he died, and we both laughed out loud about it. He’s been to so many places, seen so many things — of course he would always be right. And I was lucky enough to have him as my valentine this year. (We went for dim sum and he didn’t even make me eat chicken feet.)
Ira — I’m not sure what the world is going to do without you, but Lord knows I will still be asking you for advice about everything. And I will still be cooking you my Jewish mother chicken soup.
Happy 80th birthday, Ira. I love you, always.
JEWISH MOTHER CHICKEN SOUP
- 1 whole chicken, about 4 lbs.
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
- 3 celery stalks, cut into rounds
- Any other firm or root vegetables you have in the fridge, cut into rounds
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, stems reserved
- 1/4 cup fresh dill
- Coarse salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 lb dried pasta, such as rigatoni, elbow macaroni, penne, or farfalle
- 2 cloves garlic
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1 dried bay leaf
Tie parsley stems together using kitchen twine. Prepare a bouquet garni: Place peppercorns, bay leaf, and garlic in a piece of cheesecloth; tie to enclose using kitchen twine.
In a large pot, combine parsley stems, bouquet garni, carrots, celery, onions, other vegetables (if using), and chicken, breast-side down. Add enough water to cover; season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce to a simmer, and cook, partially covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Skim any foam that rises to the top and discard.
Meanwhile, cook pasta separately according to package instructions for al dente. Drain and set aside.
Remove chicken from pot, and let stand until cool enough to handle. Skim fat from surface of soup, if desired, and discard. Remove and discard parsley stems and bouquet garni. Remove meat from bones; discard skin and bones. Shred meat into bite-size pieces, and return to pot. Cook until heated through; season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a portion of pasta to each serving, and garnish with chopped parsley, dill, and freshly ground black pepper. (Sometimes I add a little grated Romano cheese, too.)