Remembering Nana

Nana’s kitchen was a long skinny room with the doorway at one narrow end and a window at the other. Down one long wall, going from door end to window, was a metal pantry cabinet with tall narrow doors, a fridge no taller than she was (all 5’ and nothing), a small enamel table and a gas stove with four burners. Across, on the other long wall, going from window back to door, was a porcelain sink with built in drain board, a length of counter and another metal pantry; the same size and look as the other. White metal cabinets topped the sink and the counters all as tall as the 10-foot ceiling.

To walk into my Nana’s house meant encountering her kitchen and the smells that it held the minute you got through the door. Many coursed feasts were prepared in the narrow bright space feeding upwards of 12 or 15. As a young child and then all through my life, I have never stopped marveling at the wonderful food Nana turned out of that cramped and tiny place.

Cooking was effortless for her and every square inch of kitchen was used. There wasn’t a Cuisinart, a blender, or an island for prep. She didn’t own or ever know about non stick.  There certainly wasn’t a dishwasher (if you didn’t count me, my cousin or my sister). The internet, for tips, guidance or how to, was not yet developed.  Recipes were kept in her head and measuring was by eye and by tea cup.

With limited storage and a tiny fridge, shopping was done daily and she walked to the store. Along the streets of Brooklyn there was little parking for cars and an SUV was unheard of. Ladies owned gridded metal shopping carts, narrow and deep with wheels on the bottom and plastic liners in case of rain. Stopping at grocery, bakery, fish store then butcher, Nana collected all that she needed. If the load was too much the store could deliver. No charge for the service, no concern it would show up. No plastic bags then, produce was loose in a bin, fish and meat were sent home wrapped in brown paper.

Back in the kitchen the magic began. Quenelles of fish were prepared, the fish minced and chopped by hand (in a huge wooden bowl) to a silky even fineness no processor could accomplish. Spices were whole and pulverized with a mortar and a pestle. Chicken was roasted to juicy fall-off-the-bone perfection and there wasn’t an instant read in sight; doneness checked by touch and by smell. Her soups, nectar of the Gods, I swear! They’d simmer for hours in a tall enamel pot and when served, not a drop of grease in sight; the skimming accomplished with patience, an old thin towel and a strainer.

Cakes were made from scratch, whites whisked by hand and pans were greased with the paper that wrapped the butter. No sprays from an aerosol can. No mixes from a box. Nuts were chopped in a small glass jar with a four sided blade that went up and down with hand power. And bread…all kneaded with patient muscle on the low enamel table. No bread machine, no dough hook, no pre-measured yeast. Yeast was a cake and you just knew how much.

Things have changed a great deal since Nana cooked and drank tea in her skinny white kitchen. I wonder sometimes if she would approve. I know she enjoyed how the world was changing; she cheered when man reached the moon. But would she appreciate how much we depend on our machines and our gadgets instead of on skill, love and patience. Long simmering pots are not often seen these days. Fast, easy and microwave have taken their place.

I do wonder sometimes, I do wonder a lot. Have we, with our drawers full of gadgets, equipment jammed counters and food plastic wrapped, ready to heat, serve, eat, lost something meaningful along the way?

Nana’s Chicken Soup

  • 1 whole 3-4 pound chicken, washed and patted dry (Kosher or Free Range-Organic)
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in ¼’s
  • 1 stalk celery, leaves on, cut in ½
  • 1 parsnip, peeled and cut in ½
  • 1 leek, light green included, well cleaned, cut in ½
  • 6-8 carrots, peeled and cut in 1½ ” to 2” lengths
  • ½  bunch fresh dill (no stems)
  • ¼  bunch flat leaf parsley (no stems)
  • Seasonings: salt, pepper, garlic powder, dry thyme, paprika, dry dill weed: all to taste


Fit the chicken in the bottom of a heavy stockpot. The chicken should fit rather snugly on the bottom. There should be no more than 1”-2” of space from the side of the pot to the chicken. Fill the pot with enough cold water to top the chicken by about 4”.

Add the seasonings to the water; season lightly in the beginning. The cold water will deaden taste. You can add more seasonings later if necessary. Loosely cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Turn the light down and keep the heat at a very gentle boil for 1 hour. The water should just be barely bubbling.  

After one hour, re-check and adjust your seasonings. Add all of the vegetables, bring the broth back up to a boil and continue gently boiling for another 2 hours. (Loosely covered). Turn off the heat, adjust the seasonings if necessary and let the soup cool for ½ hour.

Remove the chicken from the pot and put aside. Strain the balance of the soup, saving the vegetables. Pick out all but 2 of the carrot pieces from the vegetables and set the carrots aside with the chicken.

Add all of the remaining vegetables to the bowl of a food processor and puree until smooth. If necessary, add 2-3 TBS. of the soup to the vegetables to make the processing easier. (Nana would use a Foley mill. If you have one, use it and process the cooked vegetables that way. The resulting texture is much better)

Scoop the pureed vegetables back into the soup, stir, cover and chill overnight.

The next day, skim all of the congealed fat from the top of the soup and discard.

This soup will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. It also freezes very well. Make sure, if you’re dividing it into smaller containers, that it’s well mixed so there are equal amounts of the puree in each batch.

Serve hot with the carrots and some of the boiled chicken.


4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    ebie wood said,

    Leslie – This was a delight to read! I had a Nana too. Though, I called her Nanny. She lived outside of Philadelphia in a little cottage. When she would come for visits to Pound Ridge she took over the kitchen. I have fond memories or shoo fly pie (we called it crumb pie) and sour cream and raisin pie and so much more. Pinchs and dashes…not a recipe in sight. —-I’m going to make your Nana’s chicken soup. Happy Holidays! Ebie

  2. 3

    Kim said,

    It’s all about the simplicity and the proper procedures, but since women started working, the meal has gone by the convenience factor rather than the old tried and true. I love to use my mortar and pestle for grinding herbs, and a box grater, and all of the non-mechanical devices (just don’t have the strength to whip cream using only a whisk and a fat arm). My mom’s recipes are a trip to read; I’ll bring them over one day.

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