Chicken Soup and My Dad’s Eyebrows

My Dad (I called him Paps) had eyebrows that looked like two small porcupines had perched above his eyes. His eyebrows were so wild and wooly he could have combed them straight back and it would have looked like he had a full head of hair.

Paps was bald. Maybe that’s why he wouldn’t let anybody trim his eyebrows. It was the last patch of thick hair he had on his head. You would have needed a weed-whacker to trim them, anyway.

We kids would beg my Dad to trim the shrubbery, but he wouldn’t. The barber would offer to clip the hedges, and my Dad would refuse.

His eyebrows were a topic of conversation among the family. They were hard to ignore. They’d enter the room a few minutes before he would.   You could have braided them. As my Dad got older, his eyebrows got hairier and more wiry. If you got too close to him, they’d poke your eyes out.

My Dad was the least modest person I knew. He let it all hang out. I don’t feel bad telling stories like these, because I’ve told tell them many times, right in front of him. And he’d be the one laughing the hardest. That was one of the many beautiful things about Paps — even though he was a serious guy, he didn’t take himself real seriously.

But he had some real serious eyebrows that he never trimmed. Except once.

My Dad had come down to Baltimore to fix up his Mom’s house. Angela had died a few months prior — April, 1975. I was living with her when she passed away. It was a horrible time. She was so sick and in so much pain. After she died, I continued to stay in her house, which was near Pimlico Racetrack, a horse racing track where they have the Preakness Stakes race.

I idolized Angela. She was an Italian immigrant who came to this country with nothing and made an incredible impact on this world. She was such a comfort to be around; she was easy to talk to. She was generous. She paid for my piano lessons, even bought me an upright to practice on. When she died, I was heartbroken.

I wanted to keep on living in the house, but my Dad and his only brother, Oscar, wanted to sell the place. The neighborhood was going downhill–probably because I was living there. So my Dad came down from New York to get the house ready to put on the market.

One night, after a hard day’s work on the house, my Dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table. He wanted to cook something in the oven. It was one of those old gas stoves that you had to light by hand. Paps turned the gas on.

I explained to him that you had to light the stove by hand. He bent over, opened the oven door, and struck a match. Before I could stop him, a blast of flame knocked him flat on his ass. I thought for sure that his face was fried.

But it wasn’t. He was sitting on the kitchen floor, facial hair smoldering. I helped him up and sat him in a chair.

His eyebrows were trimmed at last. As a matter of fact, I think they might have saved his life. The flame probably had a hard time burning through the shrubbery that was his eyebrows, which probably saved his face from getting flame-broiled. His eyebrows looked normal for once. That was the one and only time my Dad’s eyebrows got trimmed.

We worked on the house just about every day, cleaning, painting and fixing everything up. I was really struggling with the loss of Angela. We were real close. One day, when I was feeling low, my Dad took me to the racetrack, which was right up the street. He thought it might take my mind off things. We walked up the street to Pimlico racetrack.

On the way, Paps found a wallet in the bushes stuffed with cash—hundreds of dollars. Paps looked at the address on the driver’s license, and we walked to the house. Paps walked up and knocked on the door. A guy answered, and my Dad handed him the wallet. I’ll never forget the look of relief and gratitude on the guy’s face. He offered my Dad some money. He didn’t take it.

Paps and I walked to Pimlico racetrack, a thoroughbred track. When we got there, he explained to me how to bet, how to pick horses. I wasn’t paying attention. If I liked the way a horse looked, I’d bet a couple bucks. If I liked the jockey’s colors, I’d bet a couple bucks.

I lost every race. I was more depressed than ever! When the last race came around, Paps explained that it was a trifecta, which means, if you pick all three of the winning horses in order, you win big.

I picked the #2 horse to come in first, the #1 horse to come in second, and the #4 horse to come in third.

2-1-4. It was Angela’s birthday, February 14th—2-1-4.

The horses took off out of the starting gate. For the whole race, the #2 horse was in front, the #1 horse was second and the #4 horse was third. When they crossed the finish line, the #5 horse beat out the #4 horse for third place. The final order was 2-1-5. I was a big loser!

I showed my Dad my ticket, and then threw it on the ground. He picked it up, gave it back to me and told me that the race wasn’t official yet. He explained that the race wasn’t official until they had a chance to review the race, which took a couple minutes.

A voice came over the PA system. There was an objection against the #5 horse–he had bumped into the #4 horse right before the end of the race. The officials then disqualified the #5 horse, and the final, official result was 2-1-4.

I won $899 on that race. I could feel my grandmother smiling down on me.

We went back to the house, and the next day, started working again. We eventually got the place all fixed up. It didn’t take long to sell Angela’s house. It was a great place, with an apartment on the second floor that had a big balcony off the main bedroom. I hated to see the place go.

My Dad took the money from the sale of Angela’s house and bought a place in upstate New York. It was called Rat Tail Ridge. Forty acres on top of a mountain with a view that was breathtaking.

One door closes, another one opens.


The toughest thing about making Italian chicken soup is finding an Italian chicken. They’re usually the ones in the corner of the coop, drinking wine and arguing.

My Dad loved soup. He was a soup guy. Maybe it was because he lived on Top of Old Smokey, where it was so cold that bears knocked on the front door looking for a place to hibernate. Hot soup works wonders when you come in from the cold.

I roasted a chicken the other day. I used my Mom’s recipe, which is basically sticking a whole lemon inside the chicken and baking it. The next day was a cold and rainy winter day, so I made some soup from the chicken.

If you have leftover chicken (turkey works, too), here’s what you do – pick the meat off the bones and the carcass. I usually end up with about three cups of chicken meat. Throw away the stuff you don’t like—fat, skin, small bones and such.

I broke the carcass into two pieces. I used those and a couple leg and wing bones in the soup — they add great flavor. Just make sure you remove all the bones and stuff before you serve the soup. Take a slotted spoon and go fishing for bones or skin and remove them. You don’t want any of your guests breaking a bicuspid on a chicken bone.

After you’ve made the soup, if there is any fat on top, skim it off.

You can serve this soup as is, or you can add some pasta or rice.

I like using small pasta, like ditalini. I cook the pasta separately, and put some in each individual bowl. I used to put it right in the soup and let it cook in there, but the pasta absorbs too much broth, and gets soggy.

You’ll need to smoosh the Italian tomatoes before you add them to the soup. Open the can, pour them in a bowl, and dig in with your mitts and smoosh ‘em up! Remove the small yellow core from each tomato, and any skin or stems.


¼ cup of olive oil

1 cup each — chopped celery, carrots, and onion

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups cabbage — I used Napa cabbage — sliced into small pieces

8 cups chicken broth

Chicken or turkey carcass and bones

2 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 twenty-eight ounce can whole, peeled Italian tomatoes, smooshed up by hand

2 tablespoons fresh oregano, or 1 tablespoon dried

3 cups of chicken or turkey meat, white and dark

1 cup of corn–fresh, canned or frozen

½ pound of pasta (ditalini works well, as does elbow macaroni)

Salt and pepper

Here we go…

Put a large pot on medium heat.

Add the olive oil, let it heat up for 2 minutes.

Add the celery, carrots, onion and garlic.

Let it cook for about 7 minutes, stirring every so often.

Add the cabbage.

Cook for 5 minutes.

Add the chicken broth.

Put the chicken/turkey carcass and bones in the pot.

Add the water.

Add the bay leaf.

Add the tomatoes.

Add the oregano.

Turn the heat on high and bring to a boil.

Then lower the heat to medium-low, cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the carcass pieces and bones.

Pick off any remaining meat from the carcass and bones that you’ve just removed, and add the meat to the soup. Discard the bones and carcass.

Add the 3 cups of chicken or turkey meat to the soup.

Add the corn.

Cook for 5 minutes.

Take the soup off the heat.

Check it for bones and any other funky stuff.

If you want to add some pasta…

Get a pot, fill it with cold water, and put it on high heat.

When it comes to a boil, add a couple tablespoons kosher salt.

Add the pasta.

When it is VERY FIRM, drain it.

Dish it up! Serve the soup in large bowls.

Add a little pasta to each bowl. Give it a stir.

You can also add some cooked rice, if you’d prefer that to pasta.

Serve with some crusty bread, and…