Matzo ball soup is the cornerstone of my Jewish culinary culture. It takes center stage during Passover, but you’ll find it bubbling in my kitchen any time of year. After all, it’s the first line of defense. If you’re sick, hurt, depressed, hungry, visiting, celebrating, in need of a hug, or just happen to get too close to my kitchen — I’ll make you soup. And as I hustle and bustle around the kitchen, ignoring your cries to help or not to bother, I’ll explain “I’m a Jewish woman. This is just what we do!”
It seems simple enough, but these delicious balls of kosher for Passover fluff could serve as the icon for my complicated family crest. This unassuming soup has an incredible story, and I wear my soup-making badge with honor.
Google “tradition” and you’ll find the lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof: it’s the daughter’s job to learn how to keep a kosher home. Cooking is passed on from generation to generation and represents far more than keeping a family fed. The recipes we learn from our family allow us to pass on our traditions and culture. And, like many Jewish women before me, I learned how to make matzo ball soup from my mother.
The only twist? My mom isn’t Jewish. She grew up eating not the potato kugel staple of Passover, but a Lithuanian dish called Kugelis (which isn’t complete without a half pound of bacon). Still, my mom taught me the tricks of the matzo ball. She taught me not just how to prepare the soup, but how powerful a medicine it truly is during sickness. And she answered more than a few frantic phone calls when I ventured into the (quite treacherous) homemade chicken broth territory.
My mom learned from the best matzo ball soup cook in all of Pittsburg: my paternal grandmother’s brother’s wife. In a bustling family kitchen in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, my great-aunt Teddy was the only one whose soup didn’t turn out like golf balls. Teddy’s cooking was so revered that at any large family gathering she was the only one trusted with making the brisket. The kitchen could be filled with chefs, but Teddy was the only one allowed to take on the main course.
The twist? Devout Catholic that she was, she would often start cooking after she returned home from Mass. Even though cooking the meals of Passover wasn’t part of Teddy’s past, it became part of her culture and tradition when she became part of the Rozensky family.
The first time I made matzo ball soup for my partner, he called upon his Cajun roots and reached for the hot sauce. I cooked chili flakes into the next batch, hoping to marry our traditions and heritages into one fantastic soup. While I draw the line at floating matzo balls in crayfish and gumbo, it is through the power of food that our traditions can be brought together.
My family’s matzo ball soup belongs in the modern progressive Jewish cookbook — it’s the base of tradition from which my family adds its own spin. Tradition, culture, and roots are all found within the bowl, but it’s how we define our Jewish family that makes it so delicious.