The Jewish Museum of Maryland served up something piping hot and tasty on Sunday, Oct. 9.
In association with its immersive “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America” exhibit exploring the intersection of medicine and Jewish tradition/culture that began in March and runs until January, the museum held the first-ever Great Chicken Soup Cook-Off in a dashing attempt at finding the very best chicken soup recipe in the state of Maryland.
Although there were a few no-shows at the final moments before samples of the various soups in competition were ladled out to public tasters popping in to enjoy the festivities, museum executive director Marvin Pinkert reported that there were 14 contestants originally signed up to take part.
There were three categories for entries, including the six contestants who signed up to compete for the best “traditional” soup, six contestants who signed up for the best “alternative” chicken soup recipe and two who signed up to compete for the best chicken soup recipe in a special category called “free-from,” in which chefs — all amateur, it should be pointed out — were to leave out one key ingredient from the garden variety chicken soup concoction in a bid for a kind of vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free machination.
Wearing a black tie festooned with a cartoon chicken at its base, Pinkert told the JT that it was five years ago — around the time he took on his role — that the museum presented a similar competition called GefilteFest. At that event, professional chefs (three, to be exact), were tasked with creating a uniquely branded gefilte fish, with the winner producing a gefilte fish “fried hot dog,” as Pinkert described it, using red horseradish as a ketchup substitute.
Since that time, the museum has expanded its operating hours from 16 to 35 hours a week, and Pinkert hopes such competitions as the GefilteFest and Great Chicken Soup Cook-Off will continue into the future.
“It’s a way to bring people into the museum who wouldn’t normally come in,” Pinkert said, adding that not all of the contestants involved in the cook-off are Jewish and yet there’s a definite connection, he feels, between chicken soup as a kind of “Jewish penicillin” and the longstanding heritage of the culture itself.
There’s in fact an element of the “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit that specifically highlights the medicinal qualities of such soup that did at one time boast the colloquial moniker “Jewish penicillin.”
“I think it’s a great chance to share in both tradition and innovation, celebrating food that is part of the Jewish tradition in both a culinary and medicinal way,” Pinkert said.
Adam Yosim, originally from North Carolina and in Baltimore for two years as an Emmy-nominated reporter for Fox 45, gave what he called a “Jewish twist” to Tom Kha Gai in boiling up a batch of his Tom Kha Chai for the “alternative” category of soup entries.
It may seem strange, melding traditional Thai coconut curry soup with “broth that you’d find in your grandma’s soup,” but it resulted in something Yosim referred to as “a melting pot of yumminess.”
Yosim confessed that he had originally intended on entering a “traditional” soup, but when it was relayed to him that there were already too many contestants entering that portion of the competition, he thought he’d see if he was up to the challenge of doing something a little off-kilter.
The gambit clearly worked, as Yosim would end up taking home the trophy for best soup in the “alternative” category.
“I love to cook,” Yosim said, noting that though he has competed in additional foodie competitions in the past — one in Kentucky, for example, in which he took home a “big chicken trophy” — the contest at the museum was for him all about fun, something he had been made aware of rather last minute by his fiancée who works for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
“Feel free to jazz up your soup with some accoutrements,” Yosim said in handing over a sample of the opalescent brew teeming with delicious-looking chunks of veggies and chicken.
Such “accoutrements” were an essential part of Marcie Cissel’s “traditional” chicken soup, which she jokingly referred to as “minimalist.”
“You’ll need some salt and pepper,” she said, handing over her sample and chuckling that, “The recipe is shorter than the directions to make it!”
On the flip-side of such “minimalism” was Amy Fossett’s Maryland Style Chicken Soup, which was entered in the “alternative” category and which, she said, was a typical crab soup without the crab (replaced, of course, with chicken). Fossett took home the People’s Choice trophy at event’s end, a prize based on those attending who were not official judges.
Soup tastings started around 1 p.m., with docent-led tours of the Lloyd Street Synagogue and B’nai Israel taking place along with an interactive set of culinary activities at a table nearby the main proceedings and hosted by Edible Eden Baltimore Foodscapes.
Voting for best chicken soup closed at approximately 2:45 p.m., with the awards ceremony taking place shortly after.
In speaking about what it meant to be brought in as one of the judges, WTMD DJ Sam Gallant mused, “Aren’t we all experts of chicken soup?”
He said that as a longtime fan of the museum, when he first heard of the competition, he contacted the staff and asked how he could both personally and professionally become involved. He would later become not only a judge, but an award ceremony emcee.
“There’s something about chicken soup that makes me really happy,” Gallant said.
“I don’t think I was expecting to necessarily learn anything about it or be blown away by some crazy soup recipe,” he continued.
“It was more about the classics, what might remind me of bubbie’s recipe. And that’s what I was looking for: something that would make me think of my grandfather’s apartment. A certain carrot or onion that snaps me back there.”
Overall winner Betsey Kahn told the JT she had been making her Good Old Fashioned Chicken Soup “for years and years” and hadn’t expected to win.
“When my name was called, I thought, ‘That’s my name!’”
Kahn said the win felt “fabulous” and she was beaming throughout the final award ceremony. The feeling of delight was certainly contagious.
“Depending on how this goes,” Pinkert said, “we may do something like this every fall. I’m pushing for kugel next year.”
For a list of the winners and recipes, visit bit.ly/2e4T6Gn.