Like a lot of Jews, I have a theory about matzo ball soup. And that theory, of course, is based on the inherent superiority of my mother's matzo ball soup. I will say for the record, as someone who has sampled matzo ball soups from some of the best delis in North America, from Katz's in New York to Brent's in Los Angeles and Schwartz's in Montreal, that Myra Serpick's is the best I've ever had—but what the fuck else am I gonna say, she's my mom.
My theory, after years of research eating and occasionally making matzo ball soup, is that it's all in the broth. After a dozen or so Passover Seders devouring my mother's soup, I was shocked to learn that her matzo balls came from a mix, either Streit's or Manischewitz. But somehow they taste immeasurably better than anything I or anyone I know has been able to make using the same mix. There may be, of course, something to be said for psychology, and the lessons of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" about the close link between food, memory, and emotion, but plenty of outsiders have also remarked on its distinctiveness, so I'll put that aside for now.
After getting the recipe, reprinted below, I realized that its focus is on the chicken soup stock, which takes several hours to produce. Although she uses a whole chicken, onions, carrots, and celery to make the stock, none of that makes it into the actual soup, which is just broth and balls. As a result, the balls are infused with tons of flavor. And somehow Mrs. Serpick gets the consistency of the balls just right in a way that neither I nor any of the restaurants I've been to can quite match: fluffy and smooth, but solid.
I've sampled the balls Baltimore has to offer over the years, but with winter still nipping at our nuts, I figured I'd make one sweep through our city's dwindling roster of Jewish delis and sample the goods to see if any could match mom's.
We have to start on the stretch of Lombard Street east of President Street, which was once the center of Jewish life in Baltimore. There you'll find Attman's Deli (1019 E. Lombard St.,  563-2666, attmansdeli.com), which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and claims to be the oldest Jewish deli in America still operated by its founding family. It has an ambiance closest to classic New York delis like the Carnegie or Stage, with Dr. Brown's in the cooler, buckets of half-sour pickles, and a sign that reads "REPEAT AFTER ME: CORNED BEEF, RYE, MUSTARD. PERIOD."
Attman's matzo ball soup is not the traditional one my mom makes for Passover—because you can't eat noodles on Passover, schmuck—but it's awesome. The noodles are actually the best part. They're thick, kind of like udon noodles, but sorta rectangular, not quite like any noodles I've ever had. And they're dense and slightly al dente, making them kind of chewy. The balls themselves are fairly rudimentary, not especially flavorful, with a slightly grainy texture that most makers, except my mom, seem to produce. The broth is salty and delicious, brimming with carrots and a healthy amount of dill. Also—and this is subject for another food story, or possibly a novel—the cloak-and-dagger sandwich (traditionally, hot corned beef, coleslaw, and Russian dressing on rye, but I subbed in pastrami) might be the best sandwich I've ever eaten in Baltimore.
Down the block from Attman's is Lenny's (1150 E. Lombard St.,  327-1177, lennysdeli.com), which has a giant dining room compared to Attman's, with food served cafeteria-style. But while Lenny's does breakfast sandwiches and Reubens well, the matzo ball soup, which consisted of broth, ball, and Lipton's-style short noodles, was woefully generic and virtually flavorless. The less said about it the better.
Beyond Corned Beef Row, you'll find most of Baltimore's better Jewish delis in the northwest corridor, where Jews migrated from downtown after World War II. Miller's Deli, in Pikesville (2849 Smith Ave,  602-2233, millersdeli.com) has a solid if simple matzo ball soup. It's just broth, noodles (which were optional), and balls, but the broth was flavorful and the ball was big. While you're there, get the hot dog. It's a classic: huge and served on a challah roll and wrapped in fried balogna, which is itself a Jewish Baltimore staple (remember Steve Guttenberg's Eddie demanding of his mother in "Diner," "I don't think a fried balogna sandwich is too much to ask"?).
Suburban House (1700 Reisterstown Road,  484-7775, suburbanhousedeli.com) is the other classic Pikesville deli. For years, it sat next to the Pikes Theater and Fields Pharmacy on Reisterstown Road, in what my friends and I growing up referred to as "Downtown Pikesville." That space burned down in 2009 and the restaurant reopened with the same ownership—and the same fake-glossary-of-Yiddish-terms placemats—further up Reisterstown Road.
They serve great matzo ball soup here, with a big ball and noodles that are sort of a cross between fusili and egg noodles. The broth is flavorful and salty. The noodles were way overcooked, which I don't mind at all but others do. But the balls here are among the best I've had, outside of my mother's house. Ironically, they're drastically different than my mom's, more dense and hard and kind of doughy, like a good challah or Sicilian pizza crust. Beyond that, S&H (as it's known by locals) serves awesome gezunta (huge) omelets and equally gezunta sandwiches and salads—the suburban chef salad, made with corned beef, turkey, and Swiss, is a personal favorite.
And yet, none of the soups I tried compared to my mom's. I'd like to think I'm an impartial judge but I understand if you're unconvinced. Try the recipe out and decide for yourself. It's very straightforward—so straightforward that it's hard to tell what sets it apart. Besides the broth, it may be that she buys the mixes that come with soup packets, which she uses to taste. I've always just bought the matzo ball mix and cooked them in broth. Whatever it is, it works for me.
Myra Serpick's matzo ball soup
1 whole chicken
1 large onion, quartered
2 celery stalks, cut into thirds
2 or 3 carrots
3 boxes Streit's or Manischewitz Matzo Ball and Soup Mix
salt and pepper
Fill a large soup pot with water and add all ingredients except the matzo ball and soup mix
Cover pot and bring to boil, then reduce heat to continue a simmer for 1 ½ hours or until chicken and carrots are soft.
Remove chicken and vegetables with a slotted spoon (you can save both to cut up and put back in soup later if desired, or use for chicken salad or something else).
Add seasoning packets from soup mix one a time, tasting as you go until it tastes "right."
Remove from heat and once somewhat cooled, put in smaller containers and refrigerate.
When cold, skim the fat from the top.
Reheat soup when ready to serve and add noodles if desired.
Make matzo balls using directions on the box, dropping balls into the cooked soup.
Add salt and pepper to taste.