Food, Food Artisans

Maddie and Matzo Ball Soup Memories

Maddie’s Matzo Ball Ritual

Back home in Illinois, in one town over from mine, centered right dab in the middle of Old Orchard mall, resides my childhood deli, The Bagel. The place hasn’t changed much throughout my lifetime. All of the servers have been there forever and recognize you the instant you walk through the door. A complimentary silver platter of deli pickles and a basket brimming with bagel chips and Kaiser rolls are still presented to you when you sit down at your table. The glass cases at the deli counter house the same array of layer cakes, cookies, and the largest collection of chocolate covered dessert items I’ve ever seen.

The encyclopedic menu hasn’t changed much either, with enough options that you could eat something different everyday for years, and still have more things to try. In spite of all of these options, my selections have remained consistent since I was eight years old: Reuben or turkey club, chopped salad, obligatory side order of French fries, and matzo ball soup.matzo-ball-soup

It was at the Bagel that my love of delis was officially affirmed and, looking back, one of the main reasons I think I was drawn to work at Zingerman’s Delicatessen six years ago. While the food and the people are obviously the hallmarks of any great deli, what I have grown to love about this type of restaurant in general are the rituals that people develop there. It is this subject that’s been at the front of my mind this week with the arrival of Passover, a holiday centered on the observance of rituals.

Throughout my time at Zingerman’s, I’ve developed a long list of my own personal rituals. Of the 100+ sandwiches on the menu, I pretty much always order the #73 (Tarb’s Tenacious Tenure). I like to sit in the same window seat in the Next Door (the second one back from the front door). And I absolutely must have a sesame bagel and cream cheese for breakfast at work on Sundays. Looking back, it makes sense that I’m wired this way because much of my affinity for ritual was harnessed back when I was a kid during weekly visits to the Bagel. I could probably list off an entire page’s worth of traditions from there, but the one that always sticks out to me was eating the matzo ball soup from my lineup of foods mentioned above. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. I had a system and always found joy in executing it the same way each and every time.

Served in a very shallow ceramic bowl, the Bagel ladles in enough of their golden chicken broth until it’s just about to overflow. One enormous matzo ball is placed smack in the middle (for visual size reference, think of an orange or an onion), the bowl is centered on a plate for balance, and the whole thing is sent over to the table in the blink of an eye. I remember that my younger self was always amazed by the number of bowls of scalding hot matzo ball soup the waiters would be able to carry at a given time. Granted it was nearly impossible that your bowl of soup would retain all of the broth during the journey to the table, but it was all part of the charm. Whatever escaped, you could just sop up with challah bread later.

After it was set down at the table, I’d always start by methodically skimming the outermost layer off of the entire matzo ball. This part always maintained the fluffiest texture and absorbed lots of the salty chicken broth. Once that portion was completed, I’d start spooning off chunks, which always had a bit more chew to them than the outer layer. After whittling my way down to the tougher core of the matzo ball, I’d switch over to spooning up just the broth until the bowl was emptied. And that’s how it went, every time.

A lot has changed during these past few years, but I’ve always found such solace knowing that places like the Bagel, Zingerman’s, and all the great delis around the country exist. Places where time stands always seems to stand still, where you see the same faces over and over again, where you know the food will hit the spot every time, and where you can take comfort in your rituals. It is this type of place that brings me peace and the type of place I long to find wherever life takes me.

For all of you celebrating Passover and Easter this week, I wish you happy and delicious holidays. Cheers!

– Maddie