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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'

December 31, 1987|ALAN W. GOLDMAN | Goldman is a free-lance writer in San Francisco

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?

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.

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.

"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."

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