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Chicken Soup

My foray into vegetarianism began in 8th grade, and, if I correctly recall, had something to do with a dead squirrel. It was a year of rebellion for me: I got kicked out of class for the first time; cut class for the first time; and even joined an illicit “pizza group,” composed of me and a bunch of guys who would call the local pizzeria from the school’s pay phone every week, and share a pie behind the school cafeteria. My proclamation that I would no longer eat meat was, according to my parents, part of a “phase,” and my mother continued to serve chicken soup and brisket every week on Shabbat.

When my husband and I began dating seriously, we had long discussions about the values of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, and concluded that vegetarianism was an important extension of the philosophy we believed was underlying the system. Kashrut is part of an overall scheme of enhancing awareness; its focus is the relationship between the external and internal worlds. The Torah’s injunction not to eat certain animals and not to mix milk and meat could be understood as an imperative to be hyper-conscious of what, and how, we consume what is beyond us and make it our own. In keeping with the interpretation of Rav Kook, who argued that the Torah’s ideal was that all human beings be vegetarian, with our sensitivity to environmental factors, and with our shared desire to accumulate as little “stuff” as possible (kosher kitchens include two sets of everything – pots & pans, cutlery, sponges, sometimes sinks – to keep meat and dairy separate), we decided to keep a vegetarian kosher home.

Everything began to subtly unravel when kids came into the picture. When I was pregnant, I learned that, in terms of satisfying my appetite, one piece of chicken equaled at least three pints of ice cream. I started cooking chicken on Friday nights in aluminum pans. We ate on paper, convincing ourselves that it was temporary. When the kids were born and we visited my parents, I watched with wide eyes as they shoveled meatballs and schnitzel , meatloaf and stuffed cabbage into their mouths, as if they were starving. Friday night chicken dinners on throw-away dishes became our norm. One year, my parents visited for Thanksgiving, and my mother convinced us to make turkey. We bought a mammoth aluminum pan and a real knife, which, after devouring the bird, we subsequently wrapped in red tape and stuck it in the back of a drawer with plastic ice-pop holders.

This week marked another landmark in our losing battle; I decided to make chicken soup. You can’t do that in a tin foil pan. The kids have had nasty stomach flus, and, after three days of their losing fluids and refusing to eat anything, I decided that it was my responsibility as their Jewish mother to make a big pot of chicken soup. I borrowed a pot and a ladle from a friend, and improvised on my mother’s recipe. In went the chicken, the onion, the carrots, the sweet potato. I realized I had no celery, and the vegetarian in me was already raging. Something green! Something must go in the pot to reveal that this is a chicken soup de resistance, a pot of fluid cooked by someone who believes in vegetables! In went the droopy green beans from last week’s farmer’s market. In went the forgotten cauliflower from the back of the fridge. In went the turmeric. Yes, turmeric. I lowered the flame and took a whiff, a blushing bride, a novice once again. My first chicken soup.

The kids refused to eat it. My mother was aghast that I put cauliflower in chicken soup. It’s supposed to be a clear broth! That’s the whole point! Have I taught you nothing? My husband and I didn’t think it was too bad. As we sat and ate bowl after paper bowl with our little plastic spoons, the kids asleep and dreaming of kneidelach, I said to my husband: we should really buy our own pot and ladle. Maybe a bowl and a soup spoon or two, while we’re at it. He grunted from the kitchen, where he was trying to fit the enormous pot into the fridge, and muttered something about Tupperware.

–Maya Bernstein