Here’s a bit of something from a new work in progress. Don’t ask me where it’s headed because a) I won’t tell, and b) even though I believe I know, I know better than to believe this belief. I have been having fun writing it, though, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it. Even if it is just a fragment of a larger entity that may or may not ever exist.
Place 1 kosher pullet (about 4 lbs, quartered), 2 large carrots (peeled), 3 large onions (sliced), 4-5 stalks celery (including leaves) and 6-7 pints water (enough to cover) in a large pot.
She’s upstairs, Rain. The recipient of this soup. Sleeping the morning away in the extra bedroom, the one we call Andrew’s Room, even though he hasn’t spent more than a dozen nights there, and none in the last year. Last I checked she was snoring peacefully, her brown hair was fanned across the pillow, the tip of her thumb just touching her lip, sunlight streaming through the open slats of the wooden blind and falling on her cheek. Lying on her side with her knees drawn up, her body beneath the covers was just an undistinguished lump, the gentle swell of Rain’s belly was invisible. Though a floorboard creaked under me, she didn’t stir. Maybe she really was sleeping that deeply, or maybe she just wasn’t ready to face me. Either way was fine by me. I wasn’t ready to face her, either. What would I say to her, this strangely-named girl I’d never heard of before yesterday, this future mother of my first grandchild? Of somebody’s grandchild, anyway. If not mine, someone else’s.
This recipe is in my blue loose-leaf notebook, the one I bought thirty years ago, when I was right out of college and had just started cooking for myself. The blue cloth cover has faded in the shape of the curved edge of the hutch in our Vermont living room, where the notebook sat for the two decades we lived there. Stuffed inside the notebook are yellowed clippings from the Sunday New York Times magazine, index cards written out by friends whose cooking I complemented, hastily jotted notes dictated by my mother when I called her in a panic (How many onions in the latkes? How do you season tongue?), and a smattering my own creations, titled with ironic, insider-jokes (Fascist Beer Stew, Canoes of Pleasure, Better Than Yo Mama’s Meat Balls) and the date on which Jake put down his fork, rewarded me with his most loving look, and offered his highest praise: Better write this one down, Ellie.
Bring to a boil.
Other than the lump in the bed, the only other sign of Rain was the backpack she’d left in the middle of the floor – purple, filthy, a miniature rubber chicken and a frayed string of beads dangling from a zipper pull. A dented flower-power water bottle clipped to a side-loop with a red karabiner. The bag was stuffed to capacity and zipped tight. Was she sleeping in her clothes? When I went into the bathroom after her last night, I noticed she hadn’t left so much as a toothbrush on the sink. Did she not own one? Or was she trying to be as unobtrusive as possible? What had I been thinking, inviting her here? What had she been thinking, accepting?
Add salt and pepper to taste.
I began by filing these recipes more or less chronologically, and then added new ones to the empty backs and bottoms of existing pages. At some point, when I was underemployed and overly ambitious, I numbered the pages and created an index. With that, the arbitrary became unalterable, meaning Pot Roast, Perfect will forever follow Artichoke Dip, Andrew’s, which will be permanently paired with Pancakes, Buckwheat, in a logic as sacred and inscrutable as Tarot cards laid on a table. Or as the series of events that have resulted in to this stranger sleeping in our son’s unused bed.
Cook 1 1/2 hours over medium heat.
Let her sleep, I figured. She obviously needed it. And I needed to keep busy while she did. But doing what? What would I be doing if there weren’t anyone sleeping upstairs? Checking my email? Pretending to garden? Considering cleaning? The truth is, these days there’s very little I have to do, and even less that I want to do. Every now and then before he leaves for work, Jake asks about my plans for the day. I thought I’d prune the forsythia, I’ll answer, as if that were enough. I need to buy milk. And he’ll say, Sounds good, though we both know it doesn’t.
Remove brown fluff from the top as it accumulates.
Of course, I created the index about 25 years ago, and since then have added dozens of recipes. But did I number the new pages or amend to the index? Of course not. The truth is, though, it doesn’t matter. I know how to find the recipes I use. All five of them: my mother-in-law’s walnut pie, Auntie Priti’s Pork Vindaloo, Andrew’s third-grade teacher’s special spaghetti sauce, my mother’s latkes, and this soup.
I’ve made it more times than I can count, and know the procedure by heart. And even if I didn’t, at my age, recipes are no longer the magical formulas I once held them to be. I know the basic principles and, more importantly, the pleasures of improvisation. And yet, I would never even consider making the soup without first opening my blue notebook to this well-used page, with its familiar brown specs mottling my mother’s round, even cursive and that ancient water drop blurring the “c” in her underlined heading: Mrs. Ginsburg’s Chicken Soup.
Remove chicken and retain for other uses, such as chicken salad.
“You’re really going through with this?” Jake asked as I drove him to the airport.
“I’m his mother.”
“Wait for me. We’ll go together.”
“When? When you get back you’ll be teaching. And then something else will come up. You won’t have the time.”
There was a bigger conversation here waiting to happen, about a lot more than just what I’d be doing while he was away. But he had a plane to catch, and here we were at the airport, double-parked among the rubber cones and wooden barricades of the drop-off-only zone. In another minute the cop in the SUV idling at the curb would stroll over and tell me to move on. We climbed out and walked around to the tailgate. Jake slid out his wheel-on and he put his arms around me.
“I’ll make the time,” he said.
“I’ll be okay,” I told him. “It’ll be an adventure. When you come home we’ll compare stories.”
Strain soup, retaining only carrots, cut into small pieces.
What would I be doing if the stranger upstairs were my own child? If I were a good mother, I would make chicken soup. Luckily, I had a chicken, not to mention celery and carrots. Onions I always have. I went to the bookcase and pulled down the blue notebook. I laid it on the table and opened it to the right page.
I carry the chicken to the sink and slit open the plastic bag, careful that the liquid runs down the drain. It smells a little ripe, so I run tap water over it. Held bird neck-hole-up, the sad, plucked wing stumps facing me, the bird looks so life-like, that is, so dead, that I am overcome with unexpected regret. I’m sorry, bird, I silently mouth. And as I the syllables form in my lips, a wave of guilt wells up inside me, a flood of feeling that goes far beyond the cold creature in my hand.
Put into containers and cool in refrigerator overnight. Next day, remove fat from the top.
I’m sorry, I repeat, this time meaning much more: fifty years of accumulated sins, thoughts I never should have thought, words I ought not to have said, deeds I wish I could undo. The bird is dead and it’s the wrong time of year, but the ritual pulls me. Raising the chicken higher, I move it around and around, making three slow circles over the sink, reciting aloud the words of kaparot. “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement.”
So absorbing is the procedure, so sad this chicken, so great my sins, that I don’t hear the footsteps on the stairs or notice the presence drawing closer, don’t even realize there’s someone standing behind me until I’m startled by her voice, frightened and frightening.
“Can I ask what you’re doing?”
This soup can be frozen in plastic containers for future use.