March 29, 2007
Many, many years ago, in order to impress a young woman, I volunteered to make chicken soup for her Passover seder.
I understand that in the non-Jewish world, men compete for a female's attention by engaging in feats of strength. But this woman was a rabbi, and I figured a potential mate who knew his way around a kosher chicken and came to her perfumed with parsnips and schmaltz would be just short of irresistible.
Did I mention I needed to make enough soup for 200 people?
The seder was to be held at the synagogue she served, Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. It was one of those American Jewish traditions, the second-night synagogue seder. Congregants paid for the pleasure of celebrating their People's liberation from slavery by drinking four paper cups of fermented grape syrup and eating two jellied balls of ground-up fish and a dollop of sinus-searing relish.
And we wonder why there are so few Jews.
In order to save the shul money, I offered to cater.
It was a simple menu, but I knew that at Passover, no matter what's on the menu, only one thing really matters: the matzah ball soup. It's the first thing to hit a Jew's lips after all that storytelling and singing. If it's steaming hot and delicious, if the dumplings are light and saturated in rich broth -- the hall will fill with contented ahhs, and the rest of the meal will be a breeze -- and she would love me forever. Have you ever heard the recap on a Passover meal: It's like Jackie Mason at a Campbell's test kitchen: How was the soup? Was the soup too cold? Too salty? Too bland? How were the balls? Heavy? Light? Like lead? Like air? OK, maybe like a urologist at a Campbell's test kitchen.
I sweated that soup. I bought extra necks and backs and wings. I broiled them first to develop extra flavor and color. I boiled them -- could it have been 40 chickens? -- and skimmed off every last bit of scum. I added the onions and leeks and carrots; the parsnips and celery and celery hearts; fresh bay leaf and parsley and dill, salt and pepper. I stood by as it simmered, stirring it gently, disturbing it no more than I would a rabbi in her study.
And I tasted it. That's the key. You have to taste a soup -- a fresh spoon each time -- but you have to taste it ideally right up until it disappears into someone else's mouth.
I took this massive bathtub of a pot off the stove and let it cool, then swung open the double stainless doors of the Mishkon refrigerator to let it chill.
That was a mistake.
I left to do other errands, to cook the rest of the dinner. The soup, I was sure, was fine.
By the night of the seder, I was fairly relaxed. All the food was prepared, I just needed to warm the soup. Early birds started filing into the dining hall. I pulled the giant pot from the fridge, skimmed off the dull yellow layer of fat, and tasted the perfectly jelled broth. And spit.
The soup smelled and tasted very much like fizzy vomit. In my haste I had committed unsafe food handling error No. 1, as I read later in a book on the matter -- "Placing a large pot in the refrigerator does not allow the internal temperature of this soup to cool down rapidly, which in turn can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria and food spoilage organisms."
The soup was beyond ruined; it was deadly. It had taken me hours to make; it was the lynchpin of the evening meal; and the guests were at that moment filling the hall.
All the possible remedies flashed before me: Ordering take out from Nate 'n Al's for 200; thinning out the chicken gravy and calling it soup; running away from shul and giving up on her.
Option 1 wouldn't work because the soup had to be kosher. Option 2 wouldn't work because I still clung to the belief that the soup had to be great; and option 3 wouldn't work because I was in love.
On the other hand, she couldn't know. Beyond the fact that I wasn't ready to admit failure, there were strict Jewish laws about not working, not cooking and not shopping on holidays. I was in the process of breaking them, and I had a sense she wasn't going to be very flexible.
I had the custodian scour the pot and put a fresh volume of water up to boil. I raced home. I scoured my cabinets for every last kosher bouillon cube. Not enough. I ran to the supermarket -- asking God and the rabbi to forgive me -- and emptied the shelves of Osem and Telma and Manischewitz and every other kosher for Passover item with a picture of a chicken on it.
I raced back to the synagogue. The Passover seder was beginning, the water was almost boiling. I chopped a bunch of carrots, celery, garlic and onions faster than you could say Ginsu, and it all went into the soup pot: the vegetables, the fresh herbs, the powders, the cubes, the cans and, finally, the matzah balls. There wasn't a fresh chicken within a year of that soup.
The festive meal began.
This being a Jewish event, the reviews came in quickly. Best soup ever. What's your recipe? Sensational. People asked for seconds and thirds. I tasted it: and, like the Bible says, it was good.
Many, many years later, long after the rabbi had left that synagogue; long after she agreed to marry me; after many chicken soups eaten at seders, at sick beds, at Shabbats, I came clean on that particular soup. I explained the dilemma -- all those hungry, expectant mouths -- and I asked forgiveness.
She had every right to lay into me, but instead she chose to free me from 14 years of guilt.
"Robby," she said, quoting that great Jewish sage Billy Wilder, "Nobody's perfect."
Happy Passover. :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::