My father described it as dishwater, and my ten-year-old palate agreed. My eyes reaffirmed this assessment as I gazed into the soup's depths, its surface illuminated by the overhead lighting, my distorted, crestfallen countenance reflected in the bowl below.
My younger brother Mark and I could sense its arrival. When we walked inside our grandparents' house, leaving the fresh mountain air of the Adirondack outdoors, we immediately tasted the dank aroma of boiled gizzards and recognized the steamy, chicken scented misfortune that was to join us at the table that evening. The unmistakable reek of poultry fumes sailed invisibly through the house like an olfactory ghost ship.
We call my maternal grandmother Gran, God bless her. Gran was the epicurean evildoer, the unwitting mastermind behind the most infamous poultry-based gruel this side of Schenectady. I don't know what was more frightening: the sharp bones lurking in its murky waters, waiting to rise at will, the floating bits of gristle, or the coagulated cesspools of fat which lay across the surface. Raw chunks of vegetables bobbed along aimlessly, like sea mines packing a mealy charge of explosive grodiness.
Grandpop loved the stuff, and he always made his position clear. "Mmm mmm mmm, Gran. This is sure some tasty chicken soup. You've done it again. Maybe your best batch yet!" "Oh, it's just the same as I always make it," Gran would humbly reply. Turning to Mark and I, Grandpop would ask, "What do you say, boys? Can this lady make delicious soup or what?" Our swollen, pucker-lipped and teary-eyed faces attempted to feign delight in the broth. We nodded unconvincingly.
Hours of negative anticipation combined with the actual experience of ingesting the vile soup under extreme duress created the kind of trauma a child could only overcome by channeling into humor. Mark and I shared our tales of surviving Gran's chicken soup with our parents. Always eager for a dig at the in-laws, Dad took the side of his two eldest sons. Understandably, Mom bristled at hearing derogatory comments about her mother's cooking, but even my two youngest brothers got in on the joke, though they had never ingested the stuff. All they knew was that Gran's chicken soup was something funny, and when they mentioned it people laughed.
Contempt for the soup also lingered, dormant, in the minds of my cousins. They too had suffered from exposure to the chicken chowder. I took it upon myself to awaken these suppressed memories. I asked around among them, finding many an ally as I dredged up painful gastric memories. In the months that followed, the joke expanded beyond the walls of my boyhood home to span hundreds of miles, crossing two generations. All the grandchildren, as well as sons and daughters in-law, were in on it.
The following spring my whole family went to visit Grandpop and Gran. It was quite possible that the soup would never even get mentioned. I surely was not going to introduce it for a topic of conversation, let alone as a dinner course. But Brian, my five-year-old brother, spoke up after dessert one evening. "Gran, I sure would like to have some of your yummy chicken soup." Our jaws all dropped in horror. Why had he done this? Was he trying to be cute and funny? Was he trying to exact revenge upon his elder brethren for past wrongs? "Oh darling," she replied, "I'd be delighted to make you chicken soup. I'll cook a big pot for tomorrow night's dinner."
This might have been funny if (1) it was happening to somebody else and (2) the end result didn't include wading through a swamp of gruel and dodging gristle-y bones surfacing while trying to avoid actual soup consumption as much as possible. We did, however, get a Dad-sanctioned beating of little brother Brian for bringing the foul stew down upon us. The kid had no idea what he had done. Or did he?
That was all in the early 1980's. It is now 2005. Grandpop died twelve years ago from complications after a stroke. Gran's health began to deteriorate shortly afterwards. She was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and now resides in a fully-assisted-living retirement home where she barely speaks, unable to recognize any of her family or recall memories from her past. Thankfully she appears to be content with herself.
In the twilight of her life, I thought it would be nice if her surviving family could have something to remember her by. I can think of no better memento than one last batch of heinous chicken soup.
First I will need to get the recipe with a closeness to the grossness from my mom and aunt. Then I'll pick up all the ingredients: chicken? Check. Parsley? Check. Motor oil? Probably. Then, it's off to the convalescent home. I'm not sure if Gran will feel like cooking, or if the home even allows for this kind of thing. But once I get her back in the kitchen nothing will stop us, whether she remembers a goddamn thing or not.
I'll probably have to stand behind her, directing her hands and arms as we cut underripe vegetables, dissect chicken parts (don't throw out those ligaments!) and measure out the unlikeliest of ingredients. I'll probably also curse her out a bunch of times, not only out of frustration for her inability to recall certain details, but also for her failure to comprehend the significance of what I'm trying to do here. I foresee my patience standing trial and being convicted. But the family will thank me later.
When we're finished, I will have a few droplets of soup placed into little airtight glass bottles affixed to chains, to be worn as pendants around our necks. Everybody will also receive one portion of the soup to be kept forever in the freezer as a permanent tribute to Gran.
Then it will be time for Grandpop's tribute. We will all (except Gran of course, they don't let her off the grounds) gather to choke down one last serving of Gran's chicken soup in a memorial service around Grandpop's burial site at the graveyard. Fittingly, the cemetery was a favorite picnicking spot of his.
As the eldest grandson, I will order everyone to drink from their commemorative bowls as I pour the remainder of the steaming soup from the pot onto the ground under which my grandfather lies. Then we will all dump what we are unable to finish, which will no doubt be most of it, onto the grave as well. The chicken broth will quench Grandpop's thirsty bones as it sinks beneath the soil, and I hope it will help give us some closure. The raw vegetables, bones, fat, gristle and traces of chicken will remain atop the grave, providing a soil-enriching, eco-friendly compost that would have made Grandpop proud. I can even picture a wry smile cracked across his dirt covered skull.