Residence: Bentonville, Arkansas
Date of Performance/Collection: March 10, 2019
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): NA
Genre: Folk Food/Medicine
Abstract: Jewish penicillin is chicken soup. It spans across all religions, but is known as Jewish tradition that is used to heal injuries and illness. The recipe appears to be passed down through the mother’s lineage and is said to make people feel better and heal the soul and mind.
Background: The interviewee, referred to as RD, is a Jewish-American mother living in the south. She grew up in a Jewish household and has not strayed from the religion. She practices conservative Judaism and attends Temple on a monthly basis. The item of folklore in topic is chicken soup, also known as, Jewish Penicillin. The topic came up when a member of a household came down with a head cold and RD suggested she make chicken soup, a tradition she learned from her mother. A couple days after, the interview occurred.
S: Okie dokie, I’m going to start with where did you first like learn about how chicken soup was Jewish penicllin?
RD: From my mom. Yeah passed down. Whenever I was sick, she always made chicken soup.
S: Do you see this as something common across like the Jewish religion?
RD: Oh definitely. Even when my kids go to go to college, Hillel1 sends notes out to the parents: if your kids get sick, and you wanna send them chicken soup with matzo balls. Let us know and we will send it to them. It’s universally known to every Jew and non-jew, actually. It spans religions.
S: So do you see this in Christianity at all?
RD: Well it’s not in Christianity, but even Christians know about chicken soup. I mean when (mentions Christian friend) had back surgery and stuff, I brought him chicken soup and he was like “Oh, Jewish penicillin this will make me better.” So it’s definitely, it’s outside of just the Jewish religion, but, I don’t, I mean if you’re asking if Catholics are making chicken soup, I highly doubt it. (laughs)
S: All right. But if there is a traditional way to prepare this Jewish chicken soup, that’s different than regular just chicken soup. What is it?
RD: Yeah, well yeah. You use a kosher chicken. I’m just trying to think what else is, uh, I never made a I never made a not kosher traditional chicken soup. And then a lot of time people put the matzo balls2 which regular chicken soup doesn’t have.
S: Do you think that it actually works or is it kind of just like a a thing that you know, it’s kind of placebo effect?
RD: (3 seconds) I don’t know, but every time people are sick, chicken soup always makes them feel better. (laughs) In their soul and their mind. It does work. Yeah. There’s been so many like articles I’ve read ya know, how does chicken soup help so much?
1: A place for Jewish collegiate students to worship and attend synagogue and services throughout the year.
2: A traditionally Jewish food that is unleavened to replace noodles during the holiday of Passover when only unleavened food can be consumed.
While RD can not track the origins of Jewish penicillin beyond her mother, she does acknowledge that it is very well known across all religions but especially prevalent in Jewish families. She mentions how her mother passed it down to her which is an interesting point to bring up because Judaism itself is passed through the mother’s bloodline. The matrilineal culture of being Jewish and feeling the need to take care of her family might influence a Jewish mother to use a recipe to take care of her family.
RD also mentions how the term itself, Jewish penicillin, transcends religion and is universal. While she acknowledges that Christians know about the idea of it, she almost guarantees that they do not cook it the same. So why is chicken soup associated with Judaism? In the 12th century, a “Jewish physician, Maimonides, started the chicken soup-as-medicine trend when, in his book, On the Cause of Symptoms, he recommended the broth of hens and other fowl to ‘neutralize body constitution.’” and claimed that it played a role in curing diseases like asthma and leprosy (Koenig). This could be the main root of why chicken soup as a healing aid is known as Jewish penicillin. Most of the people reading Maimonides’ work were most likely Jewish, thus, they were the ones to use his remedy on a regular basis. The popularity of the soup within Jewish religion and its magical healing powers are so closely tied due to the advice of a physician that the Jewish people trusted because he was relatable and shared the same values.
RD also mentions that it heals the soul and the mind and it works as a remedy pretty much every time. So, is it a placebo or does it actually work? Physically, according to a study by Dr. Stephen Rennard, “the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection” (Parker-Pope). So, scientifically, it does work. Beyond the heat of the soup breaking up mucus, there is a chemical effect of the soup causing patients to feel better. Mentally, knowing that the food that is being consumed should make one feel better, people are more apt to buy in and use it as a remedy. Whether it be heartbreak, physical ailments, or illnesses, Jewish penicillin seems to have the power to cure across religions and cultures.
Koenig, Leah. “Chicken Soup Around the World.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, 15
June 2009, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/chicken-soup-around-the-world/.
Parker-Pope, Tara. “The Science of Chicken Soup.” The New York Times, The New York Times,
12 Oct. 2007, well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/the-science-of-chicken-soup/.