The following is a matzo ball soup recipe my father learned from his mother.
“The recipe is simple. It’s six eggs, scram—you know—um, stirred. Uh, and then, um, six tablespoons of schmaltz, chicken schmaltz, which is just chicken fat turned into a kind of butter. And then, um, one, and this was her point, and I have it written down, scant cup of matzo meal. In other words—matzo meal was just crumbled matzo. Scant means that’s there just a little less of the bread stuff and there’s more of the juicy stuff, ok? It’s a cup, it’s a little less. And she was very proud of that proportion. She was also very proud of a trick—and this really does make a difference—because you tasted it all your life—she was proud of a trick where you—the chicken fat is usually just melted and then put it into the stuff, but if you cook onions in the chicken fat, if you cook sliced onions in the chicken fat, that fills the chicken fat with flavor. Then you strain it, so that the onions aren’t in it anymore. And then when you pour that in with the matzo meal and eggs, it’s bringing this rich onion flavor, ok? My mother’s other trick is she was proud of boiling the matzo balls not in water, which is the standard procedure. Remember, they fill up. They swell up. Um, she boiled them in chicken soup from a can. And that actually filled them up with flavor in another way because they swelled not with water but with chicken soup.”
My informant is my father, a 62 year English professor in New York City. He doesn’t have any specific memories of eating this soup as a child, but he assumes that he did. Every Passover, he cooks matzo ball soup using this recipe. I asked him to describe how he learned the recipe:
“My Mom, once, on the phone, very long ago, dictated to me her matzo ball soup recipe. What interests me about it is that it clearly was not her mother’s recipe because the matzo balls that I make from my mother’s recipe taste completely different from the one from her mother’s recipe, ok? So my guess is my Mom’s recipe may have come from my father’s household, because there they make a fabulous matzo ball that tastes a lot like this. But in any event, that recipe is sacred to me and I took it down on just a random scrap of notebook paper. I like looking at that piece of notebook paper. I’ve looked at it for years. It’s got my handwriting and I can remember the phone call. It brings me back in touch with her, especially her voice. And I can always pretty well remember it because it’s in very specific proportions.”
I asked him if he’s changed the recipe at all, to which he replied:
“By now, it’s become so much mine. I actually have improved it. In other words, it’s got my touches in it. It’s got things I figured out…And I just did what I usually do which is to depend the involvement of flavors, something like that.”
I believe my father enjoys this recipe so much, because as he says, it vividly recreates his mother’s warmth, personality, and knowledge. I imagine he likes sharing the recipe with my brother and I because we never had the pleasure of meeting her. My father has since altered the recipe, but still regards it at his mother’s. This is a wonderful example of the way that folklore can change greatly over time, but because of nostalgia, love, and respect, stay tied in people’s minds to what they perceive to be the originator.