By Harriet P. Gross
I’m writing this on a TJP loaner laptop from my bed at The Legacy at Preston Hollow-Dallas Home for the Jewish Aged. Left leg elevated on two pillows. A flat wooden board, kindly furnished by physical therapy, lies across my middle to stabilize the computer. Not at all the way I’m used to working at home.
But I’m thinking about how lucky I am to be in this place, where I can keep up with my commitments after mangling my left leg from hip to ankle in a fall (caused by my own speed and stupidity) Dec. 2. Now, after two surgeries and a virtually “lost weekend” of 12 hospital days, I’m making great strides toward recovery.
I elected to rehab here because it’s the Jewish facility closest to my home. I was brought in late on a Thursday with no interest in anything much, certainly not food. But the next evening, my supper tray featured three small slices of challah, a glass of Shabbat wine, and a bowl of chicken broth floating a huge matzo ball. Then I knew I had chosen correctly, because soup is my manna from culinary heaven.
My mother wasn’t much of a main-dish cook; no particularly memorable entrees in her repertoire. But, oh, her soups. We had one almost every day. In the dead of winter, supper always started with a bowlful of something thick and hearty: maybe split pea, or bean, or barley and mushroom.
In the heat of summer, there would be cold beet borscht (my father had a curious habit that I adopted and honor to this day: slicing a hard-boiled egg into the red liquid, and enjoying its strange new “pinkness”), or the green spinach brew called schav, or maybe some vegetable concoction, a year-round staple given a bit of extra kick with a few drops of Tabasco, the cook’s favorite. Try it.
No chicken soup, though. On Fridays, we went to my Boubby the Philosopher, whose huge pot featured all kinds of “spare parts,” even the feet of the fowl and the little eggs that had once hidden inside it, which we kids fought over with gusto. Great memories of former edibles today’s kosher butcher isn’t able to carry any more.
Boubby had every one of her big brood of Shabbat eaters pick up a bowl in the kitchen and, before ladling away, choose from one, two, or all three of the augmenting fillers she always provided: lokshen, rice or just plain lima beans. (What kind of choice was that? Who needs rice or beans when homemade noodles are on the menu? But the leftovers always found their way into other soups soon afterward … )
Here, both lunch and dinner trays are always graced by delicious soups. Some smart chef down in the kitchen must follow the old French peasants’ technique: keeping a pot on the back of the stove, simmering slowly, ready to receive at all times whatever good leftovers might be lying around, then yielding up a fragrant ladleful whenever one was desired.
I know I saw those peas and carrots and potatoes in different, fresher forms the day before, but they taste even better now, gussied up with lots of celery and parsley and spices, and floating in delicious liquids.
Speaking of lying around: Life in a rehab facility presents an unprecedented opportunity to watch virtually unlimited TV. So I‘ve finally caught up with all my missed “Seinfeld” episodes, including the Soup Nazi one. And when I saw Elaine waving the food-spattered papers she’d found at the dictator behind the counter and shouting triumphantly, “I have your recipes.” I just knew his treasured secret had to be Tabasco. (Or maybe applesauce. If my mother had a bit left over, into her vegetable soup it would go. Try that, too.)
Now, a bit of local history. Our own Dallas Section, National Council of Jewish Women, which is observing its 100th birthday this year, began a major volunteer project in 1914, soon after its founding: the Penny Lunch. To provide nourishing, affordable food for 300 school kids in one of the city’s poorest areas every day, some 50 members prepared — you guessed it — soup. (At least one husband, recruited for delivery duty, said his vehicle always smelled like chicken soup.) Mothers in other areas soon joined this effort and, in 1918, the Board of Education took it over, making public school lunches available to every child in Dallas.
That’s the power of a good idea, an organized group of Jewish women and — of course — soup.