Hello! Welcome to my life. My name is Miriam and I am 8 years old. I live here in Manhattan with Mama, Papa, and my silly cat Zabar. I’m so excited! This week, my family is making Friday night dinner for our relatives. My grandparents (Bubbe and Zayde), my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins are all coming to our house. So many relatives are coming, we have to open the dining room table all the way and bring up all the chairs from downstairs. We will put up a children’s table too — a big children’s table — to fit all my cousins.
Mama says that when all the relatives get together, it’s like a wedding — there’s a lot of good food and good fun. We are busy all week making sure that our guests will have great food at the Friday night dinner. I love having our relatives visit; I love hearing the latest news and gossip; and I love helping Mama get ready for our Sabbath celebration. I’m so excited my toes point into the floor; my body twirls round and round and I jump for joy — almost to the ceiling. Zabar watches and thinks this looks crazy, but he jumps too, only not even close to the ceiling. “Yippee & Meow!”
It’s Thursday, and Mama picks me up from school. We go shopping for the chicken soup ingredients. All week Mama prepares everything for the Friday night dinner — everything but the chicken soup. On Friday afternoon, Mama and I will make the chicken soup together. We must hurry now. Our feet fly over the sidewalk so we will get to the butcher before he runs out of chickens.
We are out of breath as we run into the butcher shop. Goody! We are not too late. Our eyes focus on a beautiful, plump chicken with golden skin. This chicken is the princess of chickens. She will make the best soup ever. Mama asks the butcher to wrap the chicken and please be careful not to bruise the centerpiece of our Friday night dinner. I name her Princess Chicken because she is like a princess to me. As Mama turns to put Princess Chicken in her shopping cart, I pretend I’m a big, old chicken covered all over with feathers. When Mama is ready to go, I hear the famous chicken call, “cluck, cluck, cluck,” come from my vocal cords. Then I spread my wings, ready to fly out of the butcher shop.
Now we head over to the market to get the vegetables and soup greens. As we enter the market, we see blueberries so blueberry-icious, we can taste them with our eyes. Mama gets excited. She says she has a recipe for chicken and blueberry dumplings. She thinks the combination of savory chicken and sweet blueberry dumplings will make the soup taste twice as delicious. Mama usually doesn’t try a new recipe for the traditional Sabbath meal, but now she yells, “Let’s get them.” And she goes to find two boxes of the plumpest and bluest blueberries. Before she leaves to get the vegetables and soup greens, she puts me in charge of keeping the blueberries safe. I hold them close to me to protect them from harm. And while we wait, the blueberries and I dance a blueberry two-step in total blueberry happiness.
On our way home, I ask mama why, with so many people coming to dinner, did we get just one chicken for the soup. Mama smiles and explains that “a good chicken soup is like a good dessert — a little goes a long way.” Plus, no one would have room for the rest of the meal if they ate too much soup.
That makes me wonder, “So, why does Zayde always pick up his empty bowl and look in it for more soup?” Because when Zayde was your age he lived in a shtetl (village) in Poland. He and his family were very poor and on the Sabbath they were lucky to have some soup and some chicken to eat. The chicken soup reminds Zayde of his life in Poland — a hard and sad life. Zayde and all the Jews who lived in Eastern Europe could never have imagined a Friday night dinner with all the foods that we will have on our table tomorrow night: challah, gefilte fish, chopped liver, chicken and chicken soup, brisket, roasted potatoes, medley of vegetables, garden salad, fruit salad, dessert, soda, juice, coffee, tea, and who knows what else.
I feel I have learned something very important about my grandfather when he was eight years old like me, and I want to know more. I put up my arms as if they are wings, and I try to fly, but I can’t. I feel a hurt in my heart that makes my body too heavy to fly.
We’re home and everything we bought goes into the refrigerator until tomorrow. Hurray! Papa is home too. We gobble down our dinner of fish, macaroni and cheese, and salad. We know this meal isn’t fancy like the Friday night dinner, but it tastes very good because we are very hungry.
After we eat and clean up, I sit down with Papa and tell him what Mama said — that Zayde lived in a shtetl in Poland when he was my age. I tell Papa I want to talk to Zayde and find out more, but Papa says Zayde doesn’t talk about his life in Poland. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust, and it’s too painful for him to talk about it. My heart hurts a lot, but I understand Zayde’s heart hurts 1,000 times more. When I see Zayde tomorrow, I will give him a humongous hug and I won’t ask him anything about what it was like living in Poland when he was my age.
I hurry to finish my homework, so I can go to bed early and get up early. “Good Night!” I yell and start walking to my room. But first I make a curtsy toward the refrigerator and run a chain of little steps leading from the kitchen to my bedroom. Zabar does his own line dance right to his food bowl filled with leftover fish and macaroni and cheese (no salad?). It’s meowingly delicious.
Friday — the really big day — is finally here. I get up and get ready to help Mama. I forget I have school today, but Mama reminds me and promises to pick me up early this afternoon. Before I leave for school, Mama tells me, “You are going to be my big helper, so you better have a big breakfast.” I know Mama is depending on me, so I have a bowl of oatmeal, a scrambled egg, a slice of buttered toast (with jelly), and a big glass of orange juice. I’m so full it’s a miracle I can get up from my chair. Help! I feel like a huge pillow standing on two small legs. Zabar would love to take a nap on my pillow body. But not now because I need to head off to school and Zabar needs to go outside for some fresh air. We weave side to side as we leave the house.
Mama picks me up from school early. I am happy and I can’t stop skipping. Mama predicts that I’ll be worn out before we get home, but I predict I won’t be tired until bedtime. And then I skip in front of her again, and again, and again. At home we put on our aprons and get ready to work. Now I skip all over the kitchen. I am ready for anything — just bring it on. Zabar watches all this with one eye open and one eye closed. He’s not interested because he is napping. Later, he’ll be glad to sample the soup, but now it is meow and happy naptime.
The stockpot is on the stove ready to make soup. Mama builds a mountain of cut-up vegetables — carrots, celery, onions, turnips, and parsnips — in the bottom of the pot. Princess Chicken sits on top royally. Then the princess and the vegetable mountain get submerged in a freshwater lake. The parsley and dill blanket Princess Chicken, and the salt and pepper rain down on it all. The lid goes on the stockpot and the cooking begins. Now we mix together the flour, baking powder, eggs, milk, and a few more ingredients. The blueberries go in last, and abbra cadabra, the batter becomes blueberry dumplings.
The chicken and vegetables are almost done and the soup has the aroma of a rich and delicious Sabbath chicken soup. It’s time to add the dumplings and wait 15 minutes more for the stockpot to magically make soup with blueberry dumplings. But I want the soup to be done already. It’s taking a long time. Mama says a good cook doesn’t rush the food she is making or she wouldn’t be a good cook.
Dah-dah! It’s time to check the soup. Mama removes the lid and looks inside the pot. When she looks up, she’s not smiling. She’s really not smiling. “Mama, what’s wrong?” Mama doesn’t answer, so I get my stepstool and look into the pot for myself. I can’t believe what I see (I won’t say it too loud. We don’t want the neighbors to hear this) — Princess Chicken is now PURPLE CHICKEN.
Mama thinks about Purple Chicken and what her purple color means. Purple is the color of kings and queens. It’s what they wear on special occasions to let everyone know that they are royalty. We will make Purple Chicken into a royal chicken. Mama takes a fancy platter and decorates it with lots of greens and colorful vegetables. Royal Chicken sits on the platter like the princess I know she is. And the blueberry dumplings sit around her like royal subjects. Mama gets her craft box and makes a crown from a metal ring and silver fabric. She then makes a robe from purple velvet like queens and princesses wear. It’s time to dress our royal chicken in her queenly gown and regal robe. Queen Chicken (yes, she is now a queen) gets the place of honor. After all, she is Queen of the Dinner Table.
Dinner is delicious and the soup is the best I’ve ever eaten. Zayde agrees. He says that he has eaten many chicken soups in his lifetime, and this one is special. You can taste the love and care the cooks put into it. It’s what makes this soup so good. I give Zayde that humongous hug I said I would give him and I hold his hand tight for a long time. I want him to know that his family will always be here for him. I promise.
Everyone says that this is Mama’s best dinner ever. And I’m proud to be her big helper because I know she couldn’t do it all without me. So if you’re in the neighborhood again, look for Zabar and me dancing down the street. You will be welcome at our table anytime.
Miriam Rotfogel Rivera has been a stay-at-home mom for the past 22 years. Before then she was an executive assistant at Princeton University. She enjoys theater, music, politics, friendships, exercise, and travel.