Journey into the soul of chicken soup at senior center

The senior center’s Monday Munch on May 20 (11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) features chicken noodle soup, green salad and homemade dessert.

Jacques Pepin’s beautiful book, “Art of the Chicken: A Master Chef’s Painting, Stories, and Recipes of the Humble Bird,” answers the question: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Not surprisingly, Pepin does not offer a recipe for chicken noodle soup, though he pays tribute to the fact that many good soups start with great chicken broth.

In college, I took several wonderful history classes from an Armenian professor who was very proud of his heritage. Years later, he somehow learned I’d married an Armenian and sent me a letter, welcoming me into the fold. He also sent me one of his cookbooks, complete with his notes: “Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s.”

Not surprisingly, this book does not contain a recipe for chicken noodle soup, but there is a recipe for making harissa, a traditional Armenian chicken dish which starts out as a soup and becomes a thick porridge.

Known for helping the Armenians of Musa Ler (in modern day Turkey) survive the resistance of 1915, harissa production involves quite a workout. First, pearl barley or bulghur must soak overnight. Then, a rooster is boiled. After a few more steps, the resulting mixture is beaten with a wooden spoon.

“After a long, long beating, when you are all worn out,” the result should look like well-cooked oatmeal mush. The recipe concludes, “You will find it well worth all the effort.”

Here is the raison d’etre: “The extremely long cooking process is an essential part of the harissa tradition. Like other ritual dishes, the time taken for preparation is part of its cherished value.”

Maurice Sendak fans know his book about chicken soup through every month of the year: “Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice.”

Here’s Carole King singing an animated version.

If you want to put your middle-schooler — or your spouse, or your neighbor — in stitches, give them a copy of Daniel Pinkwater’s “Hoboken Chicken Emergency.” There’s a copy waiting for some lucky reader in the Little Free Library for Kids at the Grange at 2858 Spear Street.

In 1934, the Campbell Soup Company introduced Campbell’s Noodle with Chicken Soup. “Noodle with Chicken” became “Chicken Noodle” after a radio announcer misread an ad, and that name stuck. Today, the Campbell Soup Company produces a variety of chicken soups too numerous to list, but I will mention that Campbell’s Chicken Noodle played a symbolic role in my life.

From age 2, I was part of a research study at University of California Hospital, San Francisco to see if juvenile diabetics on a strict diet could do OK without insulin. On test days, we were fed, our fingers jabbed so blood could be tested, fed again, fingers jabbed. All day long.

Family legend revolved around the time that Mom witnessed me, age 4, in line for the jab from an intern who was ticked off at 7 a.m. for having to fill in for the lab technician. His rough jab technique made some kids cry. When it was my turn for the jab, I said, “Is this your first time at this? You aren’t very good at it.”

When I went to school, my mother told the staff that I knew what I could and could not eat, and I was in charge. Period. She left a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle at the school cafeteria in case I decided the main course didn’t work with my diet.

That put me on alert for a when-all-else-fails-have-chicken-soup moment. As an adult, like the cooks at the Charlotte Senior Center, I cook my own soup. No Campbell’s.

In The New York Times, the venerable John Hodgman said he loves all soups “apart from the crime of Manhattan clam chowder.”

When a reader asked Hodgman about her husband putting banana peel in their soup, he advised, “You deserve to eat food in your own home without fear it’s been laced with compost.”

Alas, Judge Hodgman has not offered an opinion on chicken soup, but 2,630 other entries in the paper of record offer plenty of variety. There, you will find chicken soup with sesame, ginger, coconut, miso, escarole, pickled cabbage, avocado, green plantains, ginseng, jalapeño, chickpeas, poblano, prunes and lots more.

As far back as 60 A.D., therapeutic recommendations for chicken soup were recorded by Pedacius Dioscorides, an army surgeon under the emperor Nero. In the 12th century, in his pharmacopeia De Materia Medica, the theologian and physician Moses Maimonides wrote that chicken soup “is recommended as an excellent food as well as medication.”

Nuclear intelligence expert Arnold Kramish was severely burned when a uranium enrichment device exploded near him in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He attributed his unlikely survival to a large jar of chicken soup that his mother carried on a three-day train ride from her home in Denver to his bedside in the Philadelphia naval hospital. “When she arrived, she pushed the guards away, charged into my room, raised my oxygen tent and fed me the well-matured chicken soup.”

When he died decades later, his tale of his mother delivering that healing chicken soup was recounted in his New York Times obituary. This seems like a good last word on the topic.

NOTE: If you feel a need to see the 65-foot hot dog (mustard, no catsup) in Times Square, get there by June 13.