The Magic of Matzo Ball Soup

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The Magic of Matzo Ball Soup by Anina Alpert - Photo by Jade Lowe

“Jewish Penicillin” my mom calls it because it’s a fix-all; you’re tired, sick, have a broken bone, anything—you get a bowl of matzo ball soup. This is not your average chicken soup. It takes almost an entire day to make and uses a recipe I’m pretty sure every person in my family has seared into their memories, but only a few are trusted to make. It’s not just food for the sick; it also accompanies almost every celebratory meal and Shabbat dinner, warming the soul of all at the table.

For classic matzo ball soup, Jewish-grandmother approved, you need the hot, salty broth that warms the back of your throat. This broth is the real deal, always homemade, no Manischewitz-boxed broth allowed. There are also the veggies: carrots for sweetness, celery for crunch, and onion for depth of flavor.

Of course, the star of the show is the matzo ball. In my personal opinion, it should be just in the middle—not too dense to sink and not too light that it falls apart. Velvety and soft, you should be able to cut it by applying just a bit of pressure with your spoon. It should require minimal chewing, but not melt in your mouth. I know it’s oddly specific but if you can hit that sweet spot, there is magic in every bite.

It didn’t seem right to discuss the soup without guidance from the masters of the matzo ball, so I went straight to the source, and called up my grandmothers. My dad’s mother, who we call “Safta,” picked up the phone and said, “Hold on sweetie, let me just step out of the kitchen. I was making some safta-ball soup.” “Safta-ball soup” is the name my cousins and I lovingly bestowed upon her soup as a play on the word Safta, which is Hebrew for grandmother. She described it as family food, comfort food. “If it’s done right, when you sink your spoon in the first matzo ball, everything should feel like it’s going to be okay, like you’re home,” she said.

My mom’s mother, whom I call Nana, simply responded with, “Making it doesn’t just make the people eating it happy, it also provides me with comfort because the love that I put in connects me with my mother and my children and grandchildren.” A few years ago around this time of year, my Nana was in the hospital with a brain tumor. My family usually went to her house for Rosh Hashanah dinner, so we decided to visit her. We brought gifts, cards from my sister and me, and, of course, matzo ball soup. Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that matzo ball soup cured my grandma’s brain tumor, but it was a small comfort, a symbol of support from family, and a reminder of our traditions, like Rosh Hashanah dinner, in trying times. Huddled around her bed, enjoying our makeshift holiday dinner, the warmth of the soup also warmed our hearts.

The tradition of making matzo ball soup for every occasion is one that connects generations of Jews, bringing them together in good times and bad, using a recipe passed down לדור לדור—from generation to generation. That is why I believe in matzo ball soup. It’s not just a soup, but a vehicle for belief in family and tradition—and my own form of comfort food.

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Anina Alpert is a junior at Lane Tech College Prep, in Chicago, Illinois. She's been a coxswain for the past three years on a nationally-ranked rowing team. She also enjoys cheesy teen romance novels, art, and cooking.
Accompanying photo: “Remodeling the Broken” by Jade Lowe