Family Recipes, Part 2: George Washington's birthday and mom's chicken soup

Growing up, I counted my grandma among my biggest heroes. She always had things for us to do, and new adventures to embark upon. From homemade fetticini noodles, to little water color painting sets and embroidering lessons, to kitchen-sink science experiments—everything we did had a little lesson to be learned, a nugget of knowledge to take away. I can see so much of who I've become in the natural curiosity she helped cultivate in me. 

 Grandma "running eggs" at their chicken farm in Colorado. She was nothing if not a hard and dedicated worker. 

Grandma "running eggs" at their chicken farm in Colorado. She was nothing if not a hard and dedicated worker. 

Among her most outstanding achievements was our annual celebration of George Washington's birthday. Each February, she would turn off her electric lights and we would share a meal lit only by candles and oil lamps. To complete the scene, we would all dress up in 17th-century style. I remember my dad emerging from my parents' bedroom in black sweatpants tucked into white tube socks. He even converted an old hat into a tri-cornered symbol of American revolutionary spirit. As girls, we had it a little easier. We wore whatever long, dress-up dresses we had stashed among our toys, and my mom made little colonial-style white caps for us. (Clearly, grandma had willing and able collaborators.)

Was our celebration of George Washington's birthday a little silly? Perhaps. I suppose the whole idea was birthed out of trips to Colonial Williamsburg, and a shared love for history among my parents and grandparents. As a kid, it was full of imaginative possibilities. No wonder I went on to pursue history full-time. The best part was that grandma never broke character. There was no cynicism in her recreation, no laughing at herself, only a little flair for the dramatic. It lent gravitas to the scene, and made it that much more realistic and significant to everyone else. 

 A young me, proudly posing before our dimly-lit colonial dinner table. Apparently, they pulled out all the stops in George Washington's day with blue paper napkins. 

A young me, proudly posing before our dimly-lit colonial dinner table. Apparently, they pulled out all the stops in George Washington's day with blue paper napkins. 

The memories of George Washington's birthday came back to me while making my mom's chicken soup the other day. Since my immediate family no longer lives in Colorado, and my grandparents' farm—the setting for the birthday festivities—was sold 20 years ago, food has become an important link to fond memories of the past. As I smelled the soup on the stove, I thought, "It smells like home." Not our physical house, but the feeling of being at home. If the smell of home exists, for me, it is made-from-scratch chicken soup. 

I don't remember exactly what we ate during the birthday. Considering grandpa's sweet tooth, I have no doubt that a historically inaccurate cake was involved, probably of the chocolate variety. Whatever else was on the table, I'm sure it was hearty, warm, and satisfying—like my mom's soup.  

I love the interconnection between food and memory. I love that tastes and smells can instantaneously transport us through time and space. It makes me wonder what kind of flavors will mark the memories of my life now. What will the early years of our marriage "taste" like? (I have a feeling barbecue sauce will be involved, but that's the subject of another blog post)

So in honor of George Washington's upcoming birthday, and the precious memories I have attached to it, I thought I'd share mom's soup recipe. It cooks slowly, as good things do. Hopefully it will warm your heart the same way it continues to warm mine. 

Mom's Chicken Soup
Serves: 10-12   Time: 3 hours

Ingredients:
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 whole young chicken
8-10 cups of water
1 bunch carrots, sliced horizontally
1 bunch celery, sliced horizontally
1 cup brown rice
1-2 cubes chicken bouillon (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish: 1/2 cup parsley, chopped

Directions:

  1. Heat oil in the bottom of a large stock pot over medium heat. Add chopped onion, and stir regularly until onion is clear — about 2 minutes. 
  2. Add the whole chicken (including the skin and bones) to the pot, and add enough water to cover. After water begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer with cover slightly ajar for 2-3 hours, or until chicken is completely cooked and the meat is coming off of the bone. 
  3. With a strainer over a large bowl or large separate pot (I've used a large Dutch oven), pour the prepared broth and chicken out of the stock pot. (NOTE: Do this slowly, so that the chicken comes out last) 
  4. Turn stove back to medium heat, and return strained broth to the stock pot. 
  5. While allowing the chicken to cool slightly, chop the carrots and celery and add them to the broth. 
  6. Skin and debone the chicken. Then return the meat to the stock pot. 
  7. Add rice, and allow the pot to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. 
  8. Add salt and pepper to taste, and/or a chicken bouillon to enhance the flavor. 
  9. Top with chopped parsley before serving. 

NOTES: 

  • Allowing the chicken to cool slightly before deboning eases the process, and makes the fatty tissue and bones much easier to remove — it will also keeps you from scorching your fingertips. 
  • This soup freezes well, and makes great leftovers. My mom always said the second bowl was the best. 
  • If you're looking for a little extra kick, throw in some hot sauce for added spice. Trust me, it's delicious.