Notes on...

The secrets of chicken soup

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

22 January 2022

9:00 AM

Catherine Chicken is sickly. She has swollen up like a barrage balloon with an evil face and dinosaur feet. She lumbers about. It is peritonitis, the vet says, after I make my husband drive her to the animal hospital in Falmouth. She will not recover without an implant that prevents her ovulating. Chickens are ever in danger of reproduction, like human women, and that is why I find them so touching. They are feathered paradigms. (There is a novel on this called Brood.) They counsel implants on the chicken welfare site — they counsel deification on the chicken welfare site — but it’s £250 for a chicken that cost less than a tenner, and my husband is from a farming family and says he couldn’t live with the shame. So, I let her out of the idiotic only-for-Londoners Bauhaus-style run. I want her to die in a garden, not a cage, whatever Defra may say.

Can you drink a chicken that has died of peritonitis? I don’t dare bring it up on the chicken welfare site, even spun as ‘I won’t let Catherine die in vain, so I made soup and drank her for memorial’. My mother thinks we should turn Catherine into soup and tells her so whenever they meet. It’s her hello.


Chicken soup is the headline of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, probably because Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine is Slav food without pork. This makes chicken soup, in the words of the almost halachically Jewish Boris Johnson, ‘the least disastrous option’. Have you ever tried to soul kiss someone to Wham! after a fish ball? In retrospect those teenage synagogue socials were designed to stop us mating. They gave us a chastity belt made of fish balls, pickled herring and gefilte fish.

Chicken soup is stock. You boil an old chicken overnight with onion for depth, tomato for colour, and carrot for sweetness. You add then kneidlach (matzah balls), kreplach (meat dumplings) or lokshen (egg noodles) depending on the technique of the grandmother you loved best. The onion fried in chicken fat must be burnt, or your ball will be tepid and insubstantial. It will fall apart. Chicken soup should be aggressive, and never delicate. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the European diaspora that has gone, and that is why we treat it like a family member we consume.

It tastes wonderful when my mother makes it: hot, deep, fierce. It is — or was —alive. I have never had even adequate chicken soup from anyone but my mother and grandmother. But — I repeat — it is stock. I wonder if it is very Jewish to imbue stock with meaning and present it like a commandment written in stone: you shall make stock and boast about it.

There is a series of self-help books named Chicken Soup for the Soul. They are so successful there is even a Chicken Soup for the Soul: It’s Christmas! But not for Catherine Chicken. I will bury her under the rhododendron bush.

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