My grandmother Margareta Sawatsky Peters made wonderful chicken noodle soup. It was the stuff of legends. My father has told me stories about how Grandma would make chicken noodle soup for people in their Mennonite village of Gnadenthal who were sick or had experienced some family tragedy. If it was winter Dad would deliver the soup for his mother using a little sled pulled by his dog Rover.
How did my Grandma make her famous chicken noodle soup? About five years ago I decided I wanted to get a more definitive answer to that question. Since Grandma had already passed away I e-mailed her five daughters for information and they responded enthusiastically.
To make her chicken noodle soup Grandma only used hens well past the egg laying stage. Their heads were chopped off on a chopping block. Next the feathers were plucked after which the hairs on the chicken were singed in an alcohol flame. It was a matter of some skill to divest the chicken of its innards. Entrails were fed to the barn cats as a treat. The chicken was cooked in a large pot of boiling water along with peppercorns, star anise, a cinnamon stick, bay leaves and large bunches of parsley tied together with thread.
Grandma made her own noodles drying them on a laundry rack and saving the water in which she boiled them to starch my Grandpa’s shirts. She got flour for her noodles by bringing wheat from their farm to the mill for grinding. The eggs for the noodles came from her chickens and the milk and butter from the family cows. Sometimes Grandma would devote an entire day to making noodles so she would have a ready supply for many months.
According to my aunts my Grandma did not have a written recipe for her soup. She kept sampling it while it was cooking and adding things until it tasted right. The women of the village of Gnadenthal all made chicken noodle soup for new mothers. After a baby was born a family received many jars of soup. In this way the women of the village showed solidarity and support to the new mother so she didn’t have to cook too much while she was regaining her strength.
One of my aunts remembers routinely having a bowl of chicken noodle soup as a ‘night cap’ with her father after evening church services. Another aunt recalls my grandmother telling her stories while she stirred her chicken noodle soup.
Giving noodles as a gift was also a holiday tradition. Till she moved to a nursing home my grandmother continued to regularly receive noodles as a gift from a niece she helped to raise after her mother died in childbirth, and from a cousin she and my grandfather sponsored to come to Canada after World War II.
Grandma brought me a jar of her chicken noodle soup when she came to meet my older son just after he was born. He was her first great grandchild.
Grandma’s chicken noodle soup was a favourite of my younger son’s and once when he was about five and we were making the 90 minute drive to Grandma’s home for a visit he wrote and illustrated a story about how his great grandmother made her special soup. In his story he gave the soup certain magical qualities.
I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that her soup may have been magical.