Chicken soup for the heart

by Chef Boy Ari

My friend Tom had a stroke in his sleep. All day before it happened he was hacking and coughing with a nasty cold. He thinks the coughing strained his body and brought on the stroke. But it’s more than that.

“It’s this hole in my heart,” he explained.

Tom has no fear of vulnerability. His universe is built of emotions. When he explained his stroke in terms of an aching heart, I went along.

“How is your heart, Tom?”

“My heart is fine,” he said. “Blood pressure’s fine. Pulse is good. Just this hole.”

Then it dawned on me. “Is this a real hole,” I asked, “in the physical world, or is it emotional?”

“No, no, it’s real,” Tom said. “The doctors couldn’t figure out why I had the stroke. Then they stuck a scope down my throat and found this hole.”

Tom’s condition is known as Patent Foramen Ovale. While in the womb, a child receives oxygen from the mother’s lungs, pumped by the mother’s heart. In this reduced circulatory scheme, fetal blood flow takes a “shortcut” through the foramen ovale, a hole between two sides of the heart. This hole normally closes before birth. Tom’s didn’t.

“This opening never closed up from when I was attached to my mother,” he explained.

Before she died, Tom’s relationship with his mom was tough. So when I learned that Tom’s medical condition is related to his failed detachment from mom, I had to ask: “Tom … have you … tripped out about this?”

He laughed a big, wild shower of a laugh. “I sure have. For three weeks after I found out, I felt my heart all the time.”

“What do you think she would say about all this?”

“Well,” Tom said, “she’s dead, you know. But she’s … she’s reaching up through the grave trying to get me.” He laughed again. I laughed too. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll close that hole up, and I’ll be fine. I just have to deal with this cold.”

Tom was coughing again, like he was when he had his first stroke. He’s in line for surgery to have the hole in his heart closed, but first he has to survive this cold.

Once, during a hard, broken time in my life, Tom gave me a roof and a bed. He even fed me. He was there for me like a mother. Now I want to do the same for him.

I recommended tea with lemon and honey to stop the coughing. Our friend David recommended a tea of garlic and ginger. These remedies may not cure a cold, but they can at least ease the coughing until the cold passes.

Tom also taught me some things about writing. He told me to stay away from “received text” – or clichés – by using my own words. And he taught me that writing is magic.

So I’m sending this chicken soup recipe into the cosmos, a prayer for Tom. It’s a recipe for healing that came, once upon a time, from my mom. Then I modified her recipe beyond recognition. But it’s still chicken soup, and here it goes: The best quality chicken that you can buy at the store is generally going to be a frozen chicken. Only the industrial strength operations can deliver fresh chickens to market on a regular basis, while free-range and organic chickens come from smaller farms that slaughter infrequently and then freeze the product. You are asking for the bird’s vitality, and so you want a bird that lived a good, healthy life. Be suspicious of fresh chicken.

Put the whole bird, frozen or fresh, into a big pot of salted water and cook until it’s falling-apart tender. Skim any floating foam from the water, then remove the bird. Pull off and discard what’s left of the skin and pull the bird to pieces. Remove clean bones if you want, and put the deconstructed chicken back in the pot.

Now, start adding the goodies. My mom adds fresh dill, onions, carrots, celery and salt, and then lets it simmer for an hour. It’s a simple and complete flavor. It’s mom’s chicken soup.

I go a little lighter on the dill, and get busier in other ways. In addition to what mom uses, I add chili peppers (that’s a personal choice), a few potatoes and garlic. Other roots, like celeriac or turnip or parsnip, go nicely as well. Season with salt and a little pepper. I always add some kind of acid, like cider vinegar or lemon juice, to cut through the fat. Add a little. Taste it. Add some more until you taste a faint tang.

It’s this liquid combination of fat and acid that will ease Tom’s throat. The fat smoothes it, and the acid tingles the itch so he won’t have to cough it away.

Here’s some chicken soup for your heart, Tom. That’s almost a cliché, but you’re just going to have to eat it anyway. •



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