My acupuncturist takes a quick look at my tongue. “You’ve got a low blood count,” she says.
I smile and roll my eyes, thinking of how my GP had to draw blood and process it for a whole week before working that out.
The acupuncturist carries on her diagnosis with remarkable accuracy. As part of her list of suggestions, she advises me to have chicken soup.
“I very seldom eat meat – I haven’t liked it since I was a baby,” I reply.
“Well, try it,” she says, “and see how you get on. It does wonders for the immune system. Only make sure you boil a whole chicken, to get all its goodness.”
“Dearest, will you make us some chicken soup, please?” I say to H. – a meat eater – as soon as I’m back home.
Once he’s processed his surprise at my request for meat, and my explanation for it, he stares at me, his eyes momentarily blank behind his glasses. “Why can’t we just buy some ready-made?” he suggests, clearly trying to be helpful.
“Because this is supposed to be for my health, not something in a plastic tub, full of additives and preservatives. In fact, we’d better get an organic chicken. So will you make us some clear chicken soup? You keep talking about the one your mother made with Kneidel…”
“I don’t know how to make chicken soup…”
It’s my turn to look blank. I finally burst out, “Your family were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland – how can you not know how to make chicken soup?!”
“My mother was the one who made it.”
“And didn’t you ever watch her in the kitchen?” I say, and immediately realise the futility of my question when addressed to a man. I remember, not without resentment, the hours spent – under duress – in our family kitchen. My Armenian grandmother would say, in a self-satisfied tone, “Watch, Katia. Watch and learn.” Being a girl can be so unfair.
“Where can I buy an organic chicken?” I ask no one in particular.
H. gives a constructive shrug.
“OK, I’ll go and find one – and a recipe – but I’ve never handled raw meat, so you’ll cook it, right?”
H. nods with deliberate obligingness.
Before my irritation degenerates into an accusatory rant, I grab the shopping bag and venture to the supermarket.
An hour later, there’s a small, organic chicken on our kitchen counter. I’m on the phone to my friend Sue.
“Now whatever you do, don’t wash it first,” she says.
“Oh, but my grandmother always used to wash meat thoroughly before cooking it.”
“So did my mother.”
“They’re now saying it’s safer not to.”
“Yes. They tell you to cover every surface with clingfilm, and if any raw chicken touches anything at all, then make sure you clean it with anti-bacterial detergent.”
I suddenly remember stories of the extraordinary precautions taken by my mother, when giving me the polio vaccine when I was a baby. Holding my hands to prevent me from putting them in my mouth. Boiling or burning any contaminated bibs, towels, or kitchen utensils.
“Why do people eat chicken if it’s so dangerous?” I inevitably ask.
“Oh, it’s perfectly safe. They just tell you to be very careful because of the bacteria.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
After half an hour on the ‘phone, I read out all the health and safety instructions to H.
“Oh, yes, everybody knows that!” he says, casually.
I briefly consider hurling the chicken at him, then remember that, at all other times, I do love my husband.
I watch him at work. As he cuts the string that holds the dead bird together, its limbs suddenly pop apart. I gasp and jump back. Perhaps I should leave the kitchen… No, I’d better watch and learn.
We take our largest pot but even that doesn’t look big enough to contain the chicken. H. stuffs it in with difficulty. I hear something crack and feel nauseous. I struggle to remember why I suggested all of this in the first place. We cover it with water and add my home-made vegetable stock. As it starts boiling, some disgusting-looking froth forms on the surface. Neither of us knows what to do with it, so we take the executive decision of skimming off with a spoon and throwing it down the sink.
Then, something unexpected and terrifying happens. The chicken, the dead chicken, slowly starts to move of its own accord. It spreads its wings, its legs rise over the edge of the pan, and the whole carcass floats up, emerging from the stock.
“What the hell is that?” I say, wondering if I should reach out for the rolling pin.
H. is very calm before this unexpected development. “I don’t know,” he replies, “but I definitely think we should add some pearl barley.”
An hour later, the flat is heavy with the smell of fat, the sick ward in a hospital, the sour, musty smell of a second-hand clothes shop. We sit down to eat. I stare into the swirls of fat forming shapeshifting paisley patterns in my bowl, stir the slippery barley, keep telling myself this is good for me. I finally muster the courage to lift the spoon to my lips.
A smile is beaming over H.’s face, as he wolfs down his second bowl of soup and reaches out for a third helping. “Mmm… Just like the soup my mother used to make,” he says, dewy-eyed.
I push my bowl away. The yellowish, viscous liquid has gone cold.
I go and raid the kitchen for bread, cheese and olives. There’s a bag of curly kale in the fridge. Tomorrow, I’ll bake it to a crisp in olive oil and salt. I’m sure it will raise my blood count.