To a modern American Jew, a matzoh ball can be a sacred thing. Jewish chicken soup is a known curative. Countless children—and science researchers at the University of Nebraska in 1993—have proven that there is a particular alchemy when the chicken parts and celery and carrots and onion and water (and dill; there should be dill) come together in the pot. The bubbling and roiling that produces the broth can clear both the congestion from a cold and blockages of the soul. The broth is the base. The matzoh ball is the treat. You don’t need it to cure anything but really, what’s the point of the soup without it?
Mothers and bubbes work hard to claim a place of pride with regard to their matzoh balls, and everyone has a different secret for achieving what she thinks is the best size, weight, consistency. Some say cook the eggs a bit first, some say seltzer is key to the fluffiness, some even use a little vodka. No matter what, you know they should look like beige snowballs in the soup, perhaps with little bits of schmaltz clinging here and there. Push the side of your spoon in and ease off a little bit of starchy heaven.
One recent Passover, my brother David and brother-in-law Mike were responsible for the meal. Talented chefs both, they set about creating decadent chopped liver, gorgeous brisket in a thick, oniony gravy, savory tzimmes with every root vegetable they could find. But matzoh balls made from whole wheat matzoh meal? Just… why?
They were golf ball-sized, small enough to eat two without getting too full but they didn’t taste like matzoh balls. They tasted like they were working conspicuously to be “healthy,” completely unnecessary given the super-powers of Jewish chicken soup. They were brown and dense and starchy and it took some determination to cut through them. But when I heard the familiar click of spoon to bowl, I remembered my Buba.
It almost didn’t matter what holiday it was: Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Hanukkah, whatever. Regardless of what the rabbis or tradition prescribed, our meal was identical. And whether celebrating an exodus from slavery or a festival of lights, Buba’s food was the same: badly cooked.