Sunday I went to Trader Joe’s, feeling a little under the weather and not sure of what I wanted to eat. I ended up buying a relative hodge-podge of groceries, including chopped frozen spinach, dried mango and a whole chicken to roast.
The chicken turned out to be an inspiration. I roasted it with a cut lemon on the inside, two sprigs of rosemary shoved between the skin and the breast and whole cloves of garlic scattered around the pan. It went into my turquoise oven for an hour and a half at 425 degrees. It made the living room and kitchen smell delicious and tasted so good that I looked around my empty apartment to see if anyone had magically appeared with whom I could share it. I ate it Sunday and Monday nights, and last night, I stood at the counter, picking at the remaining breast meat before throwing what was left of the bird into a pot of water, to turn it into soup.
Whenever I make chicken soup, I think of my great-great Auntie Tunkel. She was my great-grandfather’s sister and raised my grandmother and her siblings after their parents had both died. She left Russia by herself when she was 16, taking the journey across the world alone. She came because her brother had found her a husband, and everyone knew, life was better in America. I imagine her farewells with the family that stayed behind, holding tightly to her kerchief-headed mother before her red-cheeked, jolly papa pulled her into his arms, for one last good-bye hug. There is no member of my family still living who knows if she had any more siblings, but I think that there was a sister, a younger one, whose heart broke to see her beloved Julia get on that boat. What she did is unfathomable to me, her family, her parents, never to see them again.
I don’t know much about Auntie Tunkel’s life in Russia, but I’ve heard many stories about her life once she came to Philadelphia. She husband turned out to be cruel, and she was never able to have children of her own, and yet she stayed lively and loving, making a home and a life for her brother’s children when the need arose. She was an excellent cook and a talented pianist, learning to play in her 50’s, and giving little concerts in her living room for the neighborhood. When it comes to her food, my mother remembers knishes, gefilte fish, potato soup, matzo ball soup and best of all, chicken soup thick with fat homemade egg noodles.
My mother has made chicken soup hundreds of times over the course of my life, but when I make it, I think of Auntie, in her little old fashioned kitchen in the rowhouse on 69th street, with the enamel table in the middle of the room, and a big, black cast iron pot bubbling away on an old gas range. Auntie died in 1957, so our lifetimes never even came close to meeting, and yet I can see myself in that room. She looks at me and says to me in her thick Russian accent, “time for soup!” And so it is.