On wintry days, like today, my yearning is for a piping hot broth, made with magic and love. I take off my boots and snuggly coat, and want to walk into the warm kitchen and indulge myself with food for my soul, my mother’s soup. Neither she nor the soup are to be found. I can only dig out a package or a can that are called soup but bear no resemblance to my mother’s secret brew.
My mother, Ita bat Peshka and Yitzchak, known as Ida, has been dead over twenty years. Even now, as I write these words, my eyes fill with tears. One never stops mourning for a mother. She died in Kfar Saba at age 85 on the day of our granddaughter Adiel’s fifth birthday, and a mere two weeks before our grandson Dov Itai, named for her, was born in Netanya. The brit was a confluence of joy and sorrow. Of course it was. Adiel is now a married woman pursuing an MBA at CUNY. Dov is a sophomore at Yale. They are vegetarians but my mother would have customized soups for them.
My mother was a good, or even great, cook. She had learned from her own mother who had owned a small hotel in Parksville, New York, at the very edge of the Borscht Belt. My grandmother was the cook as well as the proprietor, cow milker, and just about everything else. I am the owner of the little stool that she used to sit on while she milked the cows, before automation. It sits on our suburban New Jersey front stoop, where nary a cow is in sight.
While my grandmother was famous for her baking, my mother was known for her soups. I hardly remember a day without a fresh pot of soup on the Newark stove, with its delicious fragrance wafting through the house. The long hike from Weequahic High School to our home was made bearable by the promise of a piping hot soup at journey’s end. And the soup was always hot. My father, until his passing at 97, always liked his soup to be hot. Not just warm. Hot.
My mother had many talents beyond making soup. She was a Renaissance woman who had attended Brooklyn College in a generation where most of her peers never even thought about college. Mom could converse in Spanish, French and Yiddish. Unfortunately Hebrew never became her forte and the many years in Israel found her in Kitah Aleph, first level, permanently.
Shakespeare was her friend and opera a great love. She was also well acquainted with poetry, with a special affinity for Keats, Shelley and the Brownings. Her favorite quote, was from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, “Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be.” True or not, she quoted it often!
Mom was also a writer. She had a longtime feature in a local Catskill Mountain Borscht Belt newspaper called the “Parksville Chatterbox,” where she related the comings and goings of the community. On publication each and every article was fastidiously taped into a special notebook, which now sits on my computer table.
And she also wrote numerous accounts of growing up as the hotelier’s daughter. Living so close to numerous clients provided endless material for a writer.
She would have had a formal career but my father, a loving but old-fashioned spouse, always maintained that it was his role to support the family and Mom was a peace-loving wife who was not out to flaunt liberation. Today their lives would have certainly been different but they were each happy throughout their long marriage and they lived in harmony.
When Mom died before Dad, it was a shock to him. He was 7 years her elder and always expected she would be making soup while he lay dying. Not so.
Her repertoire of soups was endless. Chicken soup always had an authentic rich chicken taste, aided and abetted by her secret weapon, sweet potato, which burnished the golden hue and was an irresistible complement to the multitude of other vegetables. Friday nights were chicken soup nights.
But every other night, except Shabbat, had diverse soups that she made according to her own whim. My favorite was hot borscht. These days no one I know makes meat borscht, emboldened by fatty flanken, long cooked beets, and a touch of egg and sugar. Say borscht today and everyone thinks of a jar of cold sweet liquid on the supermarket shelves, not resembling my mother’s magnificent sweet and sour creation in any way. I’ve tried to replicate it but I cannot.
She also made incredible, bursting with flavor, cabbage soup, split pea, barley and mushroom, and a vast array of Jewish soups, invented in Poland, and then thriving in Newark, Parksville and, later, in Israel. Wherever she went she made her soups. And heaven forbid a neighbor was sick. Mom literally ran over with freshly made soup to inaugurate the recovery process, her own instant messaging refuah shlemah, delivered piping hot and delicious. No doctor could compete with Mom’s medicine!
It was my habit as an adult that I would always call my mother at 5 p.m., no matter where I was in the world. Sitting at home in New Jersey today, on this brutal winter day, when the sky is deep gray and pure ice falls from above, I yearn for a piping hot bowl of her soup, and the phone call. Sadly, neither will happen.