Mama’s chicken soup was a starter at every family Sunday lunch we had up at their farm in Sunbury in country Victoria. Back then, the 45-minute schlep in the back of the green Valiant station wagon was agonising for us kids, but going to Mama and Papa’s was always exciting.
There was always laughter around my paternal grandmother. Mama would never fail to entertain with her lacerating wit and withering comments, most of which were directed at her second husband, Papa – who was not Dad’s father. We imagined their jousts were steeped in affection. We didn’t know any of the family complications at the time, any of the deep pain. Papa was just Papa; a big soft-bellied Latvian with a penchant for doing bad business deals. One night, after seeing a late-night television ad, he bought one of those Celante properties that turned out to be a swamp. 'Why on earth would you want that?" regaled my father, exasperated at bailing them out again.
"So I can stand in the middle and piss all over it," was Papa’s response. We still dig that comment up for occasional use, appropriate for any situation where you’re trying to justify the unjustifiable and diffuse pain with humour.
But when we were kids, we weren’t privy to the unjustifiable. When we were kids, up at the farm, everyone seemed happy – especially at lunch.
We so looked forward to Mama’s soup that we could conveniently ignore the rest of the Russian throwback feast she had prepared: a sticky borscht, the crimson blood of the beet holding no appeal for those of us under the age of six; or a freshly broiled tongue, all curled up at the tip set in the licking position. Instead, we would hungrily ladle the chicken broth over boiled fine egg noodles. In Mama’s world, these noodles were called by their Yiddish name, lokshen.
Yiddish was the mother tongue of most Jews from Eastern or Central Europe before World War II, before they got kicked out of just about everywhere and identified to be exterminated because of their blood line. And yet the language still exists to anchor so much of what is humour today. It’s just a funny language. It sounds funny. Its tone is funny and around that table, it spluttered out in between mouthfuls: the size of your tukhus (backside); the woman who was meshuggah (crazy); the schmock (idiot) who sold me a schmutter (dress) after a shpiel (story). And through all of these words, stories and laughter, we kids would spoon every bit of broth from the bowl, pressing down hard on the lokshen with our spoons to squeeze out the final drops, before heading back into the kitchen to ask for more soup to submerge the noodles all over again. By the end of the process there would be no room left to eat the tongue anyway. Thank goodness!
Funnily enough, Mama never knew her birthday, as there was no real record, but I know that she died on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, which would have pleased her greatly. Mama loved reading TV Week, she loved all forms of escapist entertainment... And there was much to escape.
Mama’s name was Zora. She arrived in Australia around 1912 with her mother and four brothers to join her father, Sam, who had been repatriated a few years earlier from a little fishing village on the Black Sea. A fisherman and timber cutter, Sam had been rescued from another set of Cossack-run pogroms [massacres or mob attacks on a minority group] in Russia by some wealthy Jewish philanthropists in Melbourne who were helping their brethren escape – some say it was Sidney Myers, the Russian-Australian businessman who founded Myer. Fiddler on the Roof is just a musical to many, but in our family, it was a case of true life set to song.
The Gorrs settled in Shepparton, about 200km north-east of Melbourne. There, with all the other refugees, they set about learning to farm. Shepparton was a fruit-growing area, and the wealth of the land lay in the orchards. Sam and his wife Shayna (my great-grandmother) raised their brood in a red-brick shed on the land with four sons – Roy, Gershon, Yaakov and Harry – and two daughters, my grandmother Zora and another little girl, whose name I think was Barbara, who died when she was about two years old after falling into the fire that doubled as a cooking hearth. The sons were all educated – one was a doctor, two were pharmacists and the other in business – but Zora was to be married. There was no escape. That was her job.
And so she married my dad’s father, Alex Goldman. Sadly, for my dad, that marriage only lasted a few years. Mama was left a single mother in the mid-1930s in a Victorian country town. Her next husband was found for her – a refugee from World War II – this time, from Latvia. He had been the only child his family could get out of the country before Hitler’s bells took their toll on the rest of the clan.
It was not an easy relationship with Papa. A second son was born, and my father, a young boy, didn’t fit in his mother’s new life. Yet, still better for her to be married, it was deemed, so my poor dad was sent to live with an uncle. While her brothers worked, studied, or ran the farm, Mama’s job was to cook for the men, keep house and look after the family. As I said, there was much to escape. The Holocaust always hung heavily across the family’s life. Papa’s sister Marly miraculously survived a concentration camp and walked to Italy, eventually finding her way to Australia, where she moved in with Mama and Papa. She and Mama became lifelong friends and companions. 'Mama is calling me," wailed Marly at Mama’s grave side. She died two weeks later.
I don’t remember any open affection from Mama. There are no memories of grandmotherly cuddles or scented handkerchiefs to invoke nostalgia. What I do have from her are memories of a working kitchen, and bitchy flippant retorts. She always gathered her family, plus a cast of 'poor unfortunates", as she called them, around her table and she cooked for them. It was Russian-Jewish peasant cooking. She baked plushkas and chopped liver, and kneaded kneidl that dropped to the pit of your tummy like lead. Then, there were frankfurts, wurst, fried matzo and cholent (stew). She’d ask you if you wanted more, and if you said yes, she’d bark, "Well, go get it yourself!" And she made the best chicken soup with lokshen, the ultimate Jewish penicillin. In the farming days, she would’ve caught a chook, lopped its head for the specific purpose, with the body then running the life out of itself in ritual backyard entertainment (hence the phrase, 'running around like a headless chook’.) The body was then plucked, washed and gutted, keeping the livers for another course. Inferior offerings of soup from other cooks would elicit the comment, "Humph! The chicken barely walked through it." Mama’s chook always gave its all.
In fact, Mama’s soup was the one thing about her we could count on. There would always be soup.
I visited Mama some time before she died to try to persuade her to teach me her recipe. She scurried out, hunched now, though still wearing one of the house-dresses she always wore in all the memories I have of her, with a collar and buttoned up the front. She told me that the key to the soup was the bones of the bird. The chicken frames, brought to the boil and simmered for as long as possible, with wings thrown in and carrot, brown onion, celery and any other vegetable you may have in the fridge that wouldn’t discolour the broth. But the goodness was in the bones, she reiterated. Taking your time and leeching the bones of every skerrick of goodness, it’s then strained and whatever’s left of the carcass is discarded.
It’s a recipe that has sustained a tribe, if not 12, of peoples from ancient lands to this – that has acted as medicine and humour, and bridged gaps between generations where love has forgotten how to flow. The goodness, the history and the memory of chicken soup, as it does all who share my culture, lives in my bones. And my chicken soup, I have to say, is the best out of anyone’s. Because I mean it with my bones, and my intentions to heal, live there with my memories of Mama. My memories of Mama and the life she cooked to escape.