Family Recipes Get Put to the Test in the Chicken Soup Challenge

By Max Gross

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Think that the golden chicken broth that your mother fed you when you were sick is the greatest panacea in the world? The most delicious? The most salubrious?

Prove it.

On January 8 the National Jewish Outreach Program announced its Chicken Soup Challenge, a national contest to find the best chicken soup in America (beside your mother’s) in an effort to promote the organization’s 8th annual Shabbat Across America event on March 12. Amateur cooks across the country are invited to send in their family recipes. The top five will be selected for the contest’s final cook-off in February, and the winner will receive a trip for two to Israel. (And that’s nothing to cluck at.)

“Chicken soup contest?” asked Arthur Schwartz, former food critic for the New York Daily News and host of “Food Talk” on New York’s WOR 710 AM, upon hearing about the challenge. “How many different ways are there to make chicken soup?”

In its essence, Schwartz argued, chicken soup comes down to putting a chicken in a pot with water and adding vegetables and herbs.

But Jeffrey Nathan, the chef at Abigael’s kosher restaurant in Manhattan and one of the prime organizers of the contest, was horrified at the suggestion that there was only one way to make chicken soup. “You have no idea,” he told the Forward, how many different methods there are.

“It’s like sauce-making,” Nathan said. How long to simmer the chicken is a big factor. How many vegetables to add to the broth is another. Do you leave the skin on the onion or do you peel it? What herbs do you use? Are they dried or fresh?

“It’s very important that the recipe is done in the right manner,” Nathan continued, noting that recipes need to emphasize “lots of tender loving care.”

One shouldn’t doubt the vital role that chicken soup has played in the collective Jewish consciousness. “To many people, Judaism is chicken soup,” said Robert Miller, one of the promoters of the Chicken Soup Challenge.

Schwartz, too, conceded that chicken soup is slightly more complicated than simply dropping a chicken in a pot and letting it simmer. “There’s only one way to make good chicken soup,” said Schwartz. “That’s with a good chicken.” Most kosher chickens are far above average, Schwartz said. But the secret to the best of the kosher chickens is age.

In the olden days, chicken soup was made out of the mature chickens that were long past the egg-laying stage, and not good for much of anything beyond soup. These older hens gave the chicken soup a special sort of richness that’s hard to duplicate with a Perdue Oven-Stuffer.

For those who can’t get a hold of older chickens, Schwartz recommends saving chicken parts: “Collect the necks, stick them in the freezer. Wings are very good too.”

“Another determining factor is that for most people, their goal is clear soup — clear golden broth,” said Schwartz. “There are ways of ‘clarifying’ the soup, if you cook it gently, skim it at the beginning. Certain proteins coagulate and come to the surface. Skim it so that there’s no more shmutz at the top.”

A chicken soup cook-off is not an untried notion. Last year Houston’s Congregation Emanu El Brotherhood invited local Chinese, Italian and Mexican restaurants to participate in its Chicken Soup Cook-off.

This new contest will be slightly different. It is only for the chicken soup purist: no matzo balls, no rice, no MSG or bouillon cubes. No more than 12 ingredients are allowed. All ingredients must be natural — and all kosher.

And unlike other cook-offs, it is not for professionals.

Less than a week after the Outreach Program announced the contest by contacting synagogues and Jewish institutions around the country, submissions began pouring in from California, Massachusetts, Illinois and other areas across the country. Nathan will spend the next month perusing the recipes and trying out the more interesting ones.

On February 24, the five finalists will travel to New York to spend a morning in Abigael’s kitchen cutting, dicing, simmering and seasoning. A panel of five judges will decide the best soup.

When the Forward asked to see some of the recipes that have been submitted, organizers declined to let anyone take a peek. The contest is serious. There shall be no swiping of recipes. This is chicken soup for the competitive soul.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.