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The Virtues of Chicken Soup on Trial in San Francisco : A Mock Tribunal Explores the Mythical Healing Potential of ‘Jewish Penicillin’

<i> Goldman is a free-lance writer in San Francisco</i>

It was a court hearing rife with bombast, irrelevance and verbal meandering but leavened with family recipes, food lore and ethnic pride. At issue was the savory question: Chicken soup--is it really Jewish penicillin? The proceedings were held in courtroom No. 481 at San Francisco City Hall and were civil in a purely legal sense but not in tone, attitude or behavior. Although a certified court transcript was not made available to the press corps, this reasonably unflavored account follows.

The magistrate was a sitting judge appointed to the Municipal Court in San Francisco. The lawyers were fully accredited and the medical expert was on the clinical staff of the UC San Francisco Medical School. Counsel for the “nay” faction was the city’s public defender, departing from his more demanding and more usual role of providing legal representation for indigent defendants.

The hearing had come before the Court of Historical Review, a 12-year-old quasi-judicial body. It was founded by Bernard Averbuch, the executive director of the Market Street Development Assn., a community group, and Judge Harry Low, a presiding judge on the California Court of Appeals.

Did the Babe Point?

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The mock tribunal is probably the least relevant and most superficial legal forum in the United States. It meets four or five times a year to decide important historical cases, such as whether Babe Ruth pointed to the bleachers before slamming his famous home run in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs (the decision was that the legend should stand). In another spirited case, the invention of the martini was squarely and chauvinistically traced to San Francisco, but not before the liquid evidence was ingested by the presiding judge. A court in Martinez, Calif., recently overturned this decision, claiming the drink was born in their city as evidenced by the stunning similarity in the two names.

Oral arguments were to address the issues outlined by Averbuch in a pretrial summary to the crowd of more than 150 spectators: Is chicken soup really Jewish penicillin? And can it cure the common cold?

Judge George Choppelas convened the court and outlined a few of its more notable decisions in the past 48 sessions. Remarking that the current hearing would explore the mythical healing powers of chicken soup, he was interrupted by Frank Winston, counsel for the “aye” faction, who immediately moved for a “mythtrial” (sic) . He was gaveled down by the judge. The first witness for the positive side was called--Joel D. Brooks, an executive director of the American Jewish Congress, one of San Francisco’s Jewish communal leaders and, as events turned out, a budding stand-up comic.

Brooks’ testimony began with a recounting of the writings of Moses Maimonides, a 13th-Century physician and rabbi. In his writings the sage recommended chicken soup for both asthma relief and the prevention of certain forms of leprosy--certainly a broad-spectrum remedy much before its time. Brooks continued his scholarly discourse by referencing the fact that the broth had been used as a treatment for melancholy and seemingly clinched his historical ramble by commenting to the court that it must have been effective since nobody ever saw a really depressed chicken. Applause was heard in the court, but no rim shot was audible.

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Public Defender Jeff Brown, cross-examining for the nay faction, attempted to discredit the expert’s assertions by asking him why, if it were true that chicken soup was an effective remedy, did the Campbell Soup Co. not make strong therapeutic claims on their canned chicken soups. Brooks mused that the giant food company may have wanted to avoid the expense of obtaining approval from the Federal Trade Commission. “But to sum up my research on this marvelous curative broth,” he concluded, “look at it this way; it couldn’t hurt.”

Jo Ann Miller, a member of the board of education and a fully accredited Jewish mother, was the next expert witness. For the court’s enlightenment she displayed the authentic ingredients of a true chicken soup in the kosher tradition, beginning with a large plucked bird she had obtained that morning from Jacob’s Kosher Meats on Noriega Avenue.

Ingredients on Exhibit

“What makes chicken soup so beneficial,” she said, “is the purity of the ingredients. First, you need a real good pot and this one should speak for itself,” she said, slamming a 16-quart agate kettle on the judge’s bench alongside the raw chicken. In succession she added a single onion that was almost the size of a regulation soccer ball, a large bunch of green celery, a tight clump of curly parsley and a single dry bay leaf.

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“The carrots are enormously important so forget about those chi-chi little baby carrots you get in fancy-schmantcy restaurants. You need real carrots,” she said, brandishing a few almost the size of Bordeaux magnums. “Next you chop up everything, cover it with water and simmer for, maybe, three days.”

Miller concluded her testimony by confiding to the judge that an essential but invisible ingredient in the recipe was the love of a Jewish mother. It could be passed on to the simmering mixture by occasionally stirring it with a large spoon. “You know,” she said, “I read penicillin is some kind of mold. So when you don’t feel well, which would you rather have in your body; a capsule of some kind of mold or a good bowl of pure chicken soup?”

Winston arose and delivered a wholly irrelevant but impassioned aside in praise of the chicken. He described it as an animal serving humanity in death as well as in life, a bird important to doctors and patients alike. Brown interrupted his opponent with an order to the bailiff. “Arrest this man,” he thundered, pointing at the defense attorney. “He is now practicing medicine without a license.”

The judge closed down the exchange of juicy bombast by calling a surprise witness, Rooster Heartburn, a.k.a. Chicken Little. Heartburn (born E. Wyman Spalding, a retired drama coach) strode into the courtroom in full chicken regalia, carrying a hand-lettered sign proclaiming his leadership of the little-known activist organization ECV, Enlightened Crusaders for Vegetarianism. In a voice muffled either by his chicken headdress or high emotion, Heartburn clucked, cackled and crowed. He stated that chickens were man’s best friend, his only clear statement but one that instantly lost him the support of all dog owners in the court. Wishing to leave no barnyard tone unturned, he then neighed, snorted, baa’ed, cooed, snuffled and oinked. He was forcibly escorted from the court screeching like an enraged peacock at his rude treatment, but onlookers surmised that he may simply have been an unfortunate victim of fowl play.

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Medical Opinions

The penultimate expert witness was Dr. Michael A. LeNoir, currently president-elect of the clinical staff at UC Medical School, who began his testimony by questioning whether penicillin was effective against any virus, including the ones associated with colds. Exhibiting rare familiarity with what passes for medical humor, LeNoir wondered whether chicken soup might merely deliver a placebo effect on the patient, as in the case of a little boy who is forced to wear a sweater because his mother is cold. Glossing over his flawed illustration of placebo effect, he moved to more familiar ground by describing the four critical elements of any efficient medication: It must be effective, easily available, inexpensive and deliver few side effects. Noting that chicken soup met all these criteria, he made the sage conclusion that good chicken soup held up in practice as well as any other cold preparation he could think of.

The last witness called was Kat Christy, who had prepared great quantities of her favorite chicken soup, now simmering in the corridor just outside the courtroom. She passed out copies of her recipe to all court principals and spectators after she was sworn in. Her conclusions were brief. Chicken soup must be made with a large stewing chicken; it doesn’t matter whether the chicken is kosher, and the broth will certainly cure the common cold because it’s common knowledge that a person’s refrigerator has a better store of health-restoring items than any medicine cabinet in the land. The faint whirring sound heard in the crowded courtroom may have been Dr. Alexander Fleming, Dr. Louis Pasteur and the ancient Greek physician Galen spinning in their graves.

The judge found in favor of the faction supporting the question. In celebration, Christy and Joe Jung, a local chef and Chinese restaurant owner, invited all lawyers, witnesses and hangers-on to try steaming samples of their own personally prepared chicken soups. Both varieties were as intense, fragrant and complex as the courtroom charade itself. As the crowd noisily slurped their way through the samples in the corridor, it was clear that if pure justice did not triumph in San Francisco, certainly pure gluttony did.

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