by Karen Babine

The secret to chicken soup is to start with a chicken—a whole one, three to four pounds. Chicken soup is a pot of deliberate attention, a thing that contains everything that you and the chicken have to give, so if you have a heavy Dutch oven, maybe a vintage Le Creuset you found at the thrift store that is the color of faded sunshine and that you have named Estelle for no good reason other than the pot needed a name, use it. The chickens in our freezer come from a college friend of my sister’s, directly from their farm. I wonder if they had names, but I’m not that kind of vegetarian, and my family is not that kind of carnivore. To roast this chicken, put it—fully frozen—into the slow cooker and set the timer for eight hours. Do this overnight, while you dream, and it’s best to do this in the garage so you do not wake to chicken smells in the night. The timer shuts off the cooking and keeps the chicken warm in the wee hours, letting it rest and cool, so the juices settle back into the meat. By the time the morning clears your mind, it is cool enough to handle yet still within safety guidelines for temperature, and the meat slides off the bones with the barest of pressure from your fingers. Take your time, do not forget to find the wishbone to wash and put on the windowsill to dry, so your small niece and nephew can find it when they visit. Put the meat into one bowl, the bones into the soup pot. The secret to good stock is not to strip the bones too clean—and for all that is chicken and holy, do not rush your stock. Add some carrots, onion, and celery. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the bones and turn on the heat, bring it to a boil, then turn it to low. Put the cover on, the satisfying weight of the cast iron, but tilt it so steam can escape. The secret is a bare simmer and time. I like three hours—maybe more—reducing the stock by at least a third. Taste your stock, which should have darkened as the hours moved, and judge it this way: would you drink this, on its own, out of a mug you can wrap your hands around, in the chill of a bright winter noon? Salt will probably be necessary at this point. I do not like to add salt earlier, because the stock concentrates. If you are satisfied with the strength of your stock, strain it and put it back into the pot, or freeze it for later. From here, you can chop and add back your chicken, and if you overcooked the bird as I have done more than once, it will rehydrate in the soup and no one will notice. In the winter, when fresh vegetables are scarce, I rely on a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. Not everything needs to be pure from the source. Sometimes, I will make dumplings sharp with parmesan and parsley to cut the mellowness of the soup—a mellowness that only comes from taking your time—the surprise when you lift the heavy lid of the pot and the dumplings have expanded to fill the space. Is this what time tastes like? Why, when our next door neighbor brought Jewish penicillin to my mother in the days after her chemo treatments, she told us that this soup in her hands is the product of years of arguing with her husband whose mother’s matzo ball soup is better: When he makes it, she says, he can make it his way. Science argues that there are indeed measurable health benefits to chicken soup, particularly that which can be traced back to the ground the chicken scratched, full of nutrients a sick body needs, hydration as well. But science cannot measure the body’s need for time, for love, even if it is simply soup for dinner, no illness required, just the act of slowing down long enough to let the soup cool on your spoon.