4 min. read
By Candace Little
Most foods that have stood the test of time have a story behind them, and even a spirit about them. Take, for instance, a dish you may have heard of called chicken noodle soup. It’s not just a bird with veggies in a pot of water, but a voice of reason and balance from the past. At least that’s what I feel when I eat it.
I see my grandma’s hands, pulling fresh vegetables from the ground, my great-grandma’s kitchen patterned with stock pots, my great-grandfather taking off his hat, the farm family at a table enjoying a sustaining meal of chicken noodle soup. Its salty simplicity screams of a quieter, less-complex time, when people ate for survival and lived for each other.
While I romanticize about a simple soup, my grandma, Colleen Sperry Smith, sees chicken noodle soup at its face value. When I ask her why she thinks it’s still eaten today, I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m crazy for asking such a dumb question. But she’s a good sport. “I think it’s because it’s easy to get. The ingredients are more common,” she says. “I’m sure there are other reasons–it has a good depth of taste for people who are sick.”
This response is unsurprising, since my grandma grew up on a farm during The Great Depression–when food, work, and life was far from romanticized. She did, however, play with dolls in the pigpen. She also tried to keep mice in her underwear drawer for pets. She raised a lamb into a ram that knocked her down the stairs. She became friends with strangers who needed a place to stay for the night. And every day, she worked to put food on her family’s table, picking peas as a very young child, learning to cook pot roast at age ten, and canning–lots of canning.
Looking back on it, grandma says, “I don’t know what people who lived in the cities ate. Anything we ate, we had to grow it on the farm. We worked hard for the food we had, and if we didn’t work for it, we didn’t have it.” Of course, that was when the farming community was much larger than it is today; in the 1930s almost a quarter of the workforce were employed in agriculture, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But today, less than 1 percent are working on the farm.
It was also common, my grandma recalls, for her mother (my great-grandma, Iola Croff Sperry) to serve the large meal of the day in the middle of the day; a traditional farm dinner at 2 PM, packed with enough energy for my great-grandfather, Frank, and any hired-hands to finish out the rest of their work day. It was usually meat and potatoes with gravy, fresh baked bread, milk from their cows (Geraldine and Dot), veggies and fruits in season, and often, a big pot of soup. This was an easy way to stretch a piece of meat, or use up scraps from another meal, my grandma says.
While not all soups from The Great Depression have stood the test of time–for example, mutton stew, which was also served up on grandma’s table–chicken noodle soup, or simply “Mom’s Chicken Soup” as she calls it, is unarguably very popular still. Perhaps it’s because of its versatility, enabling eating establishments from Marie Calendar’s to Chick-Fil-A to serve up their own versions (to say nothing of Campbell’s or Progresso’s take on it all). Or maybe, just maybe, it’s it’s simply because everyone’s mother makes it for them when they’re sick.
Mom’s Chicken Soup (Circa the 1930s)
By Colleen Sperry Smith
3-5 lb. chicken
1-3 tablespoons chicken flavoring
1 yellow onion, diced
3 potatoes, cubed
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 cups homemade egg noodles, dried (or Kluski Noodles)
Place chicken in 3 to 4 quart container. Cover with water and cook 1 hour on stove (or cover and microwave 7 minutes per pound). Take chicken out of water to cool. Skim off fat. Add flavoring and salt and pepper to stock. Add prepared vegetables. Cook 15 minutes on stove (or 10 minutes on full power in microwave). Cut chicken off bones. Leave in good sized pieces. Add to vegetable mixture. Heat to boiling. Makes approximately 10 cups of soup and freezes well.
*Please note: the microwave instructions in parentheses are Smith’s adaptations from her mother’s original recipe.