There is nothing more comforting to me than a bowl of chicken soup. Known as the “Jewish penicillin,” it is a staple of most cultures, each with its own variation of soup dumpling, from won ton, to ravioli, to spaetzle. The matzo ball, or kneidlach, variation is eaten year round, but is especially favored on the Passover holiday when matzo, the unleavened crisp cracker that takes the place of bread, is ubiquitous in Jewish households. However, this small cloud (or bullet) of matzo meal, egg and fat, breeds conflicts, as mavens clash, like physicists, over its optimum density.
Decades ago, when my daughter (who now has a daughter of her own) was a toddler, I wrote this observation from the front lines, the no-cooks-land between my husband’s family and my own. Both my sweet mother, of blessed memory, and my dear mother-in-law are gone, but the battle rages on.
The Great Matzo Ball War
I got a lump in my throat this morning when I realized that it’s just about time for the annual matzo ball war.
Matzo balls, those wonderful dumplings of my childhood—blonde, innocent—perhaps on occasion they have been the cause of heartburn, but heartache? Tonight at 6, when the evening rates will go into effect, my mother will call with the first shot. So, how am I making my matzo balls this year? Her way, or the other way? Her way is light and fluffy. “They should melt in your mouth, dissolve on the tongue, they should be made of air with just a little chicken fat for flavoring.” The other way is my mother-in-law’s way.
According to the countdown, I can expect her call at 7:41 this evening. “Sweetheart,” she will wonder aloud, not that she would interfere, mind you, but she knows I won’t take offense if she asks, “how are you making your matzo balls this year, you who are like a daughter to me. Not those mushy fall-aparts like you made for us last year. If you add maybe half a cup more matzo meal (pronounced ‘male’) than the recipe calls for, you should have a good, solid matzo ball, something my son can sink his teeth into.” Her son leans against the wall, to which the phone is attached, doubling over with laughter. It is, after all, not his affair.
Except two years ago, when I betrayed my heritage and just for the three of us made them hard as rocks so that my daughter teethed on one through dessert, he said: “Not that it’s my affair, but you shouldn’t make such a big deal over matzo balls. Next year, make them your way. We’ll survive. I don’t need to eat so much anyway. So I’ll skip the soup. So…”
So, last year, when I honored my mother (who lives 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles and who gets all her nachas via the phone) by shaping soft and fluffy so I could honestly tell her something to make her kvell long distance, my husband said, “What’s wrong with these matzo balls? They seem to lack substance.” Substance, yet. Substance is something a businessman is endowed with, not a little sphere of eggs and flakes and fat. His mother nodded from across the table. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” she affirmed.
Now, believe it or not, the seasons have rolled around again—borscht to schav, schav to cabbage soup and now the leaves are budding and the birds are clearing their throats to sing and I am about to receive my annual phone calls. “Mother,” I will say to my flesh and blood calling from California. “Mother,” I will say to my mother-in-law who is like a mother to me phoning from New York, “This year, clear soup and on the table a bowl of matzo farfel.” And you know what they will say? From the east coast, “So, how are you making the gelfilte fish this year? A little sugar brings out the flavor.” From the west: “Sugar. Never sugar. Pepper is what makes real gefilte fish.”
I ask you, can you win?
Nachas: pride and joy, usually from one’s children
Kvell: swell and glow with pleasure
Matzo farfel: small broken bits of matzo, usually used like crackers to accompany soup
Schav: cold sorrel soup