• Jewish mothers swear by the restorative power of chicken soup, so much so that it’s sometimes called “Jewish penicillin.” (Sharyn Cairns)Source: Sharyn Cairns
A step parenting relationship does not come together quickly. Following the Jewish tradition of soothing a cold with chicken soup helped Emily McAvan and her step daughter become truly family.
By
Emily McAvan

2 Sep 2016 - 12:51 PM  UPDATED 5 Sep 2016 - 8:44 AM

A few weeks after I moved in with my partner, her then four year old daughter, who had been watching my quick brachot (prayers) before meals with curiosity, started asking me what various words were in Hebrew. What’s the word for bottom, poo, etc - you know, the kind of things four year olds find hilarious. Finally, she asked me, “what’s the word for mother?” “Ima,” I said. “You’re Ima,” she said, pointing at me, and I have been Ima ever since.

It is a beautiful thing to be named by one’s child, but the truth of the matter is that a step parenting relationship does not come together quite so quickly. It takes time for your child to trust in your ability to care for them, to even let you take care of them, to want your care. It takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of trial and error to create a relationship that feels authentic for you both. It takes time to become truly family.

One tradition started a couple of months later from that conversation, when my daughter got a cold for the first time we had all lived together. “I’m making chicken soup!” I declared to my partner, knowing that this is the sort of thing a Jewish mother might do. My mother, for all that she is a wonderful woman, was never much of a cook when I was a child, and soup almost always came out of a can. So I did not have a wealth of familial tradition to draw on in making any kind of soup.

It takes time for your child to trust in your ability to care for them, to even let you take care of them, to want your care. 

But what I did  have was an internet connection. So I googled “Jewish chicken soup recipe,” and looked at one recipe after another until I had the basic idea down. Then I went to the supermarket to buy the necessary ingredients. I started with a whole chicken in a full saucepan of water, patiently skimming off the scum that comes off the chicken for the first half hour you cook it. Then I added onions, garlic, celery, carrots, parsley and cloves, and left it to bubble away for a couple of hours. And that was it. Not the finest piece of culinary invention ever--Masterchef won’t be knocking on my door any time soon--but it was hearty, homemade and wholesome.

My daughter, who had been lying on the couch for a day watching Charlie and Lola on ABC Kids, sniffling miserably, was a bit suspicious of the soup on first glance, but soon began gulping it down. When I told her that I had made soup just for her, because that is what Jewish mothers often do when their children are sick, her whole face lit up. I could tell, she felt special.

Chicken soup is a staple of Ashkenazi Jewish tables. It’s there for Shabbat (the Sabbath), it’s there for Passover, all kinds of special occasions. Often a ball made from matzoh meal is put in the bowl to liven the soup up, though my daughter doesn’t like that. And it’s made when children get sick, especially for colds. Jewish mothers swear by the restorative power of chicken soup, so much so that it’s sometimes called “Jewish penicillin.” 

When I told her that I had made soup just for her, because that is what Jewish mothers often do when their children are sick, her whole face lit up.

A 2000 study published in the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians found that chicken soup could help reduce upper-respiratory inflammation. One doctor associated with the study said that chicken soup had "very modest but clearly measurable" ability to promote anti-inflammatory activity. I don’t truly know if chicken soup genuinely does have healing powers, but it makes me feel better to cook it for my partner and child.

Ever since that first time, whenever my daughter has gotten sick, I’ve made chicken soup. There are other Jewish foods that I make that she likes: hummus, carrot salad, latkes. But nothing else gets requested with quite the same enthusiasm as chicken soup when my daughter is sniffly and tetchy. It’s something special that we share, the two of us, and it’s one of the ways that I care for her. Chicken soup is part of how I became her Ima.

Try the Jewish chicken soup recipe from Food Safari:

Healing recipes
Mama’s chicken & semolina dumpling noodle soup
When thinking of chicken soup this is the recipe that comes to mind and is one that is very close to my heart. This is a throw-together soup that doesn't require much time and is a perfect bowl of comfort, especially when a cold is around the corner. The semolina dumplings are a nice touch and give this soup a little more texture.
Chicken soup with matzo balls
This soup is traditionally eaten at Passover, a Jewish holiday commemorating the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. As this recipe is quite involved, a double quantity is usually made so that an extra portion can be frozen for another meal. As not everyone has a 20 litre stockpot, you can simply halve stock ingredients (except carrots) and it will still serve 8. Start this recipe a day ahead.