The Word Mavens Dish About Soup

It’s freezing cold and we’ve had a lot of snow. Lucky for us, January is National Soup Month.

It only took a few clicks to learn that the word soup comes from the word sop, which referred to the piece of bread or toast that was soaked in broth and then eaten. You know, as in “sop up the broth.” Soup was one of the first fast foods. As early as 600 BCE, the Greeks sold soup on the street — with peas, beans and lentils as main ingredients.

Soup was revolutionized right in our own backyard when Dr. John Dorrance, a chemist, figured out how to reduce the water in soup. It was his idea to sell a small can of condensed soup for a dime. His invention made his family millionaires and changed the fortunes of the Campbell’s Soup company, too.

Every culture has its favorite soup. This past weekend, Joyce cooked up a batch of split pea soup with ham, her husband’s favorite. Ellen made ribollita, the Tuscan bean soup her husband fell in love with on a trip to Italy. Ribollita means “reboiled,” because this is a soup that improves with age. The more times you reheat it, the more the flavors meld and intensify. Classic ribollita uses white beans and is vegetarian, but Italian grandmothers have many variations; some include pancetta or ham, others add Swiss chard or Tuscan kale.

If you have a Jewish grandmother, chances are you have some chicken soup memories. Joyce is happy to have her grandmother’s vintage aluminum stockpot, which is so tall it doesn’t fit in a kitchen cabinet. But even using a vintage pot, it’s hard to reproduce the soup of memories. Our friend, Stephanie believes the deep, rich yellow color of the chicken soup she loved came from the chicken feet that were crucial to her family’s recipe. Although she loved that soup, Stephanie has yet to ask for chicken feet at the local Acme.

While some bubbies never wrote down their recipes, Joyce’s Aunt Ruth did. Her cooking skills live on, thanks to a website she created to preserve her family recipes for her grandchildren. In between recipes for mandelbrot and macaroons, you can find her chicken soup recipe. Here’s the link:

As a child, Jill went to her grandparents’ house every weekend. (Jill and Joyce have been sisters since they were about 8, when Joyce’s dad married Jill’s mom). “I lived for my Nan’s chicken soup. It was so good, but how do you describe wonderful soup?” Jill remembers that it was a clear broth – no carrots or celery afloat – and she was thrilled that she got to pick whether fine or wide noodles, rice, bowties or alphabet noodles (her favorite) went into the soup. “I can still picture my grandmother in her kitchen stirring her big pot of soup,” Jill remembers.

Others reminisce about chicken soup with kreplach (Jewish wontons) or matzah balls. The Yiddish word for matzah ball dumplings is knaidlach, as in “Don’t be stingy, give the boy more knaidlach.” Just the mention of matzah balls can start a heated discussion of whether your grandmother’s or mother’s were “sinkers” (heavy and compact) or “floaters” (lighter and more fluffy). Everyone has a preference and a favorite way to make them. Do you add seltzer to the egg mix to make them lighter? Do you boil the matzah balls in plain water first, or does that rob them of any flavor? Do you cover the stockpot tightly and resist the urge to peek, thus ensuring fluffy, thoroughly cooked orbs?

In some Jewish families, dinner isn’t dinner without chicken soup. Even on an American holiday like Thanksgiving, before the turkey and sweet potatoes, the senior Scolnics have been known to ask, “Do you want one matzah ball or two in your soup?”

When you’ve got a cold or flu, there’s nothing like a bowl of chicken soup. We’ve all heard the expression that chicken soup is Jewish penicillin. Bubbies for generations have been telling us that drinking the hot soup and breathing in the steam will give us nourishment and make us feel better. Their theories were proven true by doctors who published a study in the medical journal Chest, concluding that “chicken soup will stimulate nasal clearing and may improve the upper respiratory tract symptoms.”

So get cooking. There are two more months left of winter. And please share your soup memories with us by posting a comment.

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11 Responses to The Word Mavens Dish About Soup

  1. Lisa Markc says:

    My husband Barry’s favorite soup in the world is chicken soup. I made a big pot of it for his birthday 10 years ago. I invited 2 of his closest friends and a few relatives. My kitchen smelled of delicious chicken soup and warm bread. I said “should I make anything else Barry?” He said, “no, just chicken soup.” Everyone was sitting down to dinner and I went into the kitchen to pour the soup but the lid would come off the pot, it would not budge! We each took a turn trying to pry open the lid so we could eat our dinner. Our one guest was a former Miss Philadelphia and she was determined to “lift the lid” but her husband was so worried that the pot would explode in her face, he made her stop. No soup that night. I put the large soup kettle in my garage shelf and there it stayed for several months (i forgot about it). 3 months later we were in our kitchen and we heard a very loud POP!!!! It came from the garage and it was the lid from the soup!! (that is my soup story!)


  2. David Scolnic says:

    I was at lunch today and Ribollita was on the menu – made from chicken stock, what?? It was just as well that I declined; I am so looking forward to Ellen’s Ribolitta tonight!


  3. Jean Spitzer says:

    I haven’t made home made chicken soup in a long time,but it is easy to do.You just need a quarter of a raw checken with skin on it, it doesn’t have to be chicken legs.


  4. Jean Spitzer says:

    checken is chicken from chechnya


  5. maria mccormick says:

    All this soup talk has me yearning for a big bowl of escarole soup with little meatballs…also known as Italian Wedding Soup. It always preceded the other 5 courses at our holiday table!


  6. Lisa Markc says:

    Actually, The chili is in the pot on the balcony outside, I forgot about it, swear to God, thanks for the reminder!!!


  7. Joan says:

    Soup is definitely the thing for these cold days! And with more snow to come I will probably be making some this weekend.

    Joyce and I share a fraternal grandmother, Grandmom Pearl, whose variation on the chicken soup recipe was to put in a sweet potato, which she said made the soup sweet. She also often added the helzel, stuffed chicken neck, which was really delicious! I’ve never attempted that.

    Sweet and sour cabbage soup is another Jewish cuisine classic. I made a big pot of that last week, based on a NY Times recipes and what I remembered of my Grandmom Friedman’s variation. Very successful!


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