Sometimes you judge a book by its cover—that’s just a real life fact. Because I am who I am and I like what I like, I was drawn to Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins because of the French fries, cheeseburgers, and soda cups strewn across its cover. I read the book in one sitting a few weeks ago, on a bus ride home to Boston for a Passover feast with my family. It was timely, seeing as the book focuses on a suburban Jewish family—the eponymous Middlesteins—and their relationship to food.
At the center of the book is Edie Middlestein, former high-powered lawyer and mother of two, whose addiction to food is literally killing her. At sixty years old, Edie is well over three hundred pounds, her teeth are rotting, she has just had stents put in both of her legs due to diabetic complications, and her doctor recently told her that she may need a bypass. In one final blow, Richard, her husband of over thirty years, decides he can no longer stand Edie’s nagging and her refusal to take care of herself, and he leaves her, diving headfirst into the world of online dating.
Despite all of this, and in part because of it, Edie cannot stop eating. At one point, we watch as she drives to McDonald’s, then to Burger King, and lastly to the Chinese Buffet she frequents, where she eats “platter after platter of sizzling, decadent, rich, sodium-sugar-drenched food. Steaming, plush pork buns, and bright green broccoli in thick lobster sauce, sticky brown rice noodles paired with sweet shrimp and glazed chicken, briny chewy clams swimming in a subtle black-bean gravy. Cilantro-infused scallion pancakes.”
Edie’s habits are worrisome, sometimes even stomach-turning, but the food throughout The Middlesteins never is. Attenberg makes even a McRib—the “dark red, sticky…dessert sandwich”—sound delicious (it’s not, don’t ask how I know), because in order to understand Edie, we have to feel how deeply and destructively she loves food.
At the book’s beginning, we see Edie as a 62-pound five-year old, begging to be carried up the stairs, wheezing and sweating “like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal.” Edie’s addiction to food begins here–a product of two Jewish parents who “agreed that food was made of love, and was what made love, and they could never deny themselves a bite of anything they desired.”
The Middlesteins asks us to examine our attitudes towards food–both as products of our heritages, and as Americans–and to tread lightly on that line between what we love and what destroys us. The book weighed heavily on my mind throughout all of Passover dinner—one of my favorite meals of the entire year– “the gefilte fish and the matzo-ball soup and the brisket and the chicken and the chocolate covered matzo and the caramel-covered matzo and the honey nut cake.”
I understand Edie’s plight more than I would like to admit. I think (and worry) about my own relationship with food often. Food, after all, consumes most of my life. Part of my job is to make food, and when I’m not at my job I make food for all of you here. When I’m not making food for all of you, I’m still thinking and talking about it elsewhere, dreaming about it and photographing it and doodling recipes in my notebook like a lovesick teenager. I’m sometimes envious of people who wake up thinking about something other than what to have for breakfast, who go hours and hours at a time without remembering to eat. That will never be my reality, and mostly that’s fine. As long as I keep examining this relationship (and eating loads of dark, leafy greens as penance for this weekend’s transgressions), I feel okay about finding immense comfort and happiness in a bowl of matzo ball soup.
Matzo Ball Soup
Makes 8 1-cup servings
1 4 ½ pound chicken
2 parsnips, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 celery ribs, quartered
3 small yellow onions (about 1 pound), unpeeled and halved
2 California bay leaves
5 thyme sprigs
1 head of garlic, cut in half horizontally (as pictured)
1 Tablespoon whole black peppercorns, plus cracked black pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
3 quarts cold water
dill for garnish
*NOTE: I like to add the juice of 1 lemon to my chicken broth, but this can cause the broth to cloud. If you are serving this soup to the type of people who may comment on a cloudy broth, or doubt your culinary skills because of it, skip this step. If you’re in this more for flavor than appearance, add the lemon juice.
Preheat your oven to 400F.
Split your chicken into 8 bone-in pieces—breasts, legs, thighs, and wings. Pull the fat and skin from these pieces and set it aside (except the wings, the skin is annoying to get off of these). You can ask your butcher to cut your chicken up and skin it for you, just make sure she/he gives you everything, including the fat and skin.
Place the chicken pieces on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, add reserved chicken fat and skin to a small saucepan with about ¼ cup of water. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally and scraping the toasty bits from the bottom of the pan, until all of the skin is crisp and brown and the fat has rendered into a golden liquid. Strain liquid into a heat-safe container and set aside—you will be using this rendered chicken fat (schmaltz) in your matzo balls. I highly recommend snacking on the crispy skins (gribenes) that are left over, but if you’re not feeling it, just discard them.
After the chicken pieces have cooked for 20 minutes, add them to a large stockpot or Dutch oven along with the rest of the broth ingredients (minus the dill). Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once the stock has come to a boil, lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 2 hours, skimming the scummy foam that rises to the top whenever you see it.
While the soup cooks, prepare your matzo balls.
Makes 8-10 matzo balls
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tablespoons rendered chicken fat (directions above)
2 Tablespoons seltzer water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 sheets of unsalted, plain matzo, pulsed in a food processor until a coarse meal forms (or ½ cup matzo meal)
In a medium bowl, add all of your matzo ball ingredients together and mix until they form a batter. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, bring 2 quarts of heavily-salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Wet your hands and scoop a heaping Tablespoon of matzo batter into your wetted hands. Gently form the batter into balls and place them in the boiling water, 1 at a time. Simmer on medium heat for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, strain and set the matzo balls aside.
After 2 hours, strain your soup through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a clean bowl. Discard all of the solids except the carrots and the chicken. Season broth with salt and pepper to taste. Once the carrots and chicken have cooled, cut the carrots into coins and return them to the broth. Pull the chicken from the bones, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces, and return it to the broth as well. Ladle soup into bowl, add matzo ball, and garnish with dill sprigs.