Mama’s soup

When I was 7, soup came from soup tubes. Not soup CUBES, soup TUBES. That is what my mother called the narrow cylindrical packets of dried grains that Manishewitz (I think) sold. The company called these packages soup mixes, but I think we called them soup tubes because of the space program. I was born in 1958, and when the first astronaut went up into space, we were all SO excited we did things a little differently. At sunset, my father stood by the hour at the window of our 8th floor apartment trying to see the shining speck of light that was the space capsule cross the sky. I put a strainer on my head and my mother called me Little Allen Shepard. My mother called her soup mix “soup tubes” because in those days, astronauts ate their meals from tubes.

They were fascinating to me, these soup tubes. They were pretty. Typically my mother bought the ‘split pea and barley’ variety, and the layers of different pulses and grains were like sand paintings or those decorative jars of foodstuffs you seen in country decor or Italian restaurants. Of course, I tried to mix up the layers of green and yellow split peas, with the barley and rice by shaking the soup tubes as hard as I could, but my mother let me. It kept me busy, I guess. These soup tubes were the basis of a weekday family staple called “mama’s soup.” Mama’s soup was extremely hearty, guaranteed to “stick to the ribs.” It was comprised of 2 or 3 soup tubes, enriched with vegetables, chicken necks, turkey necks, gizzards, leftover macaroni, and whatever else my mother had on hand that was flavorful and looked better hidden by a thick coating of split pea.

Mama’s soup taught me a number of things. First, there was analysis. You had to eat slowly and carefully just to answer the question of “what the heck am I eating here?” Visually, a plate of mama’s soup looked like split pea and barley soup with unidentifiable lumps just below the surface. If there were marrow bones, they stood out pretty well, but the gizzards, necks, rice, Lima beans, vegetables, potatoes, vegetables and whatever else all looked the same. So I learned to use ALL my senses, especially touch, with my tongue, usually, but sometimes I poked at the gizzards with my fingers when my parents wren’t looking. I didn’t mind the adventure of Mama’s soup, because it was sooo good, really very delicious. Today make my own version, with no soup tubes but lots of leftovers, but I could never imitate her soup.

I learned to love humble ingredients from Mama’s soup. Necks, bones and gizzards contain a lot of flavor. I really loved the chicken gizzards, which Mama always managed to cook to a wonderfully chewy texture. I looked forward to eating soup the next morning, because when it was cold, you could cut the soup up into pieces with a knife and go looking for your favorite ingredients. My other favorite ingredient in Mama’s soup was chicken necks, which taught me about persistence. I would spend hours, it seemed, trying to get the meat off a chicken neck with a knife and fork. I could make a meal out of a chicken neck at age 7. My mother would leave me alone at the table and do the dishes. Eventually, I would get down to the bones of the chicken neck, and then I would actually use my fingers, when I thought Mom wasn’t looking, and that was WAY fun.

When we moved out of the South Bronx into the suburbs (Yonkers) of New York in 1969, my mother stopped making her special soup. It might have been out of concern for my manners. A young lady of 11 was not supposed to go around sucking on chicken neck bones. That was reserved for mothers when they thought their children were not looking.

My version of Mama’s soup is very different. It’s not as thick, I don’t use soup tubes, and I don’t use gizzards or necks, but I use leftovers. In fact, since my family is not fond of leftovers, what they get instead is soup, and they love it. Go figure.



Saute one chopped onion in a Dutch oven or medium saucepan. This fools your family into thinking you are cooking something new instead of recycling food.

Eyeball the various leftovers you have in the fridge and try to combine as many as possible Meat sauce, leftover stew and make for a great base . If you don’t have that, use powdered chicken soup mix, or frozen stock if you have it in the freezer. A can of chopped tomatoes is good too. Once you know what you are putting in the soup, add the appropriate herbs and spices. I find basil, salt and pepper go with just about everything, but if you have a lot of leftover turkey, you can add sage. Thyme is good with an onion-rich mix of stuff. Nutmeg goes well with spinach and Swiss chard, and oregano goes with chopped tomato.

If you had stock in the freezer, add that to the onion in the Dutch oven. Add enough water to 4 cups or so, and the flavoring agent (soup stock powder or soup cube or concentrated stock or whatever) and mix to dissolve everything. Once that is done, add your leftovers. If soup is not thick enough, add chopped sweet potato, or some couscous, which cooks very fast, or a package of frozen spinach. Cook until everything in the pot is done.

For an extra treat, make “shlishkes” (free form dumpling, sort of like spaetzle)

1 egg

2 or 3 tablespoons water

1 cup flour

Mix up these ingredients in a glass so you have a thick paste. Slowly tip glass so batter peeks over rim of glass, and use a butter knife to cut that crescent of batter off into simmering soup. Repeat until batter is used up. Shlishkes are done in about 3 minutes, so let the soup simmer for at least that long after you make the last dumpling.

About Onecakebaker

Author of a memoir called The Girl On the Wall, and working on a novel. Former Synagogue president, gardener, empty nester. Raising bees.
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