It would be hard to imagine better weather for Temple Emanu El's Fourth Annual Chicken Soup Cook-off than what we've been having. While an ice-slicked road may make travel difficult, a little cold snap does a lot to remind a person of just how pleasant a steaming bowl of soup can be. And even if things have cleared up by the time Sunday rolls around -- which is when, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the main recreation room at the Temple will be turned over to the cook-off competitors and their steaming urns of water, chicken, herb, spices and surprises -- a little shot of Jewish penicillin probably wouldn't hurt.
Not that you have to have had a Jewish mother to enjoy a facility for making chicken soup. In the four years since the cook-off was begun as a fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank, it's become clear that chicken soup is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Throw in a little lemon grass, and you have Thailand's thom ka gai; a little curry gives you Bombay chicken soup. Then there are the Italian versions, the German versions, the English versions, the down-home Texas versions -- according to the Temple's Sue Wayne, who's been part of the cook-off pretty much since it began, the best thing about the event is finding out just how many different variations of the basic soup there are. Some of the variations come from the amateur cooks, who participate in the MaMa's Division (which, despite its name, is open to males as well as females -- the mama thing is apparently more a question of style than gender), but many of the more interesting experiments are those presented by the professional chefs; the current holder of the cook-off's People's Choice Award is Charley's 517, which last year offered up what at first glance appeared to be a standard chicken soup with matzo balls, but which when tasted was somehow, and enchantingly, different.
Charley's 517 will be back this year to defend its title; competing against it will be entries from Carrabba's, La Mora, the Rainbow Lodge, 8.0 and the Lancaster Grill, just to name a few. Then again, maybe this is the year a novice will come out on top. For $5 ($3 if you're 12 or under) you get a bowl, a spoon and carte blanche to dip into as many different pots of soup as you can. Then you get to register your choice for the best, and the Food Bank gets a few bucks to help keep its pantries stocked so it can keep feeding those who need a little help. You can fill up and feel good at the same time. Some deal.