Ruth Cronig Stiller has rich memories of Passover feasts, surrounded by her big family in the same Vineyard Haven home where she now lives. But even as a young adult, she never got to try her hand in the kitchen.
“My mother never let us help in the kitchen,” said Ms. Stiller. “She cooked for the whole family. She was happy to do it.”
She and her siblings worked at the family business, Cronig’s Market, Ms. Stiller explained. The kitchen was her mother’s domain.
Then, as today, Matzoh Ball Soup was Ruth Stiller’s favorite part of the festive meal.
“I would just as soon live on that and nothing else,” she said.
In time, Ms. Stiller married, had children, and began hosting her own Passover Seders with a dozen or more at the table. She became known among relatives and friends for her exceptional soup, especially the matzoh balls themselves.
Ms. Stiller, who will turn 92 in June, is modest about her culinary skills – “I’m not an adventurous cook,” she said. A working woman for decades until age 86, she spent limited time in the kitchen. But she loved to cook for Passover, and has a collection of Jewish cookbooks she consulted.
She said Matzoh Ball Soup recipes vary widely. Some cooks make a hearty mixture, adding chicken pieces and a variety of vegetables. But not Ruth Stiller.
“The kids were young. They didn’t want a bunch of stuff in their soup. Kids like simple food,” she recalled. “I like food to be simple and plain.”
“People loved the soup, but it was so easy,” she said with a chuckle.
Ms. Stiller in her cooking prime would make delicious fresh chicken broth. But her magic touch was with the matzoh balls.
Never quite certain what made her balls so fluffy, buoyant, and delectable, Ms. Stiller suspects it was brief and careful beating. “They need some loving attention, I think.”
Ms. Stiller recalled one Passover when her aunt brought a soup. As the younger, far less experienced cook, Ms. Stiller was a bit embarrassed that her own soup was so good, her matzoh balls so light and fluffy, compared to her aunt’s which were “tough and hard.”
Despite the accolades she received, Ms. Stiller insisted that matzoh ball consistency is a matter of individual taste, and not everyone likes the fluffy variety, including her husband. “The kids and I liked them light, but he liked them tough!”
Now the sprawling family that once crowded the dining room, eating on wall-to-wall makeshift tables, is much smaller, with children grown, relatives moved off-Island, older generations passed away. Ms. Stiller and her daughter Gayle join other Island families for the Community Passover Seder at the M.V. Hebrew Center. Although her favorite, most memorable Seders have always been the large family gatherings of the past, Ms. Stiller thoroughly enjoys the communal event.
“It’s fun to be with a big crowd,” she said.
Gayle Stiller has taken an occasional turn at making the traditional soup. She said that despite the simplicity of the recipe, “You have to be careful you don’t overbeat the balls or they get too heavy and tough. When you plop them in the broth they don’t rise to the surface. You end up with indigestible matzoh balls.”
Offering high praise for the delicacy of her mother’s matzoh balls and mouth-watering broth, she said the question of who makes the best soup for Passover often leads to friendly competition in many families.
“It’s a matter of pride to have the better Matzoh Ball Soup,” she said.
Highlighting every Passover menu, the soup features succulent balls of matzoh meal, eggs, and various seasoning. The meal is made by grinding matzoh, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover week when consuming leavened products is forbidden by Jewish law.
Gayle recalled with amusement a Passover Seder held years ago at Anthony’s Restaurant (later Lola’s and Hooked) beside Farm Neck Golf Course. The kitchen staff was clearly unfamiliar with traditional Jewish cooking, especially matzoh balls.
“Here we were at a golf course, and they were like golf balls, so tough you couldn’t get your spoon through them,” she laughed.
For the younger Ms. Stiller, her favorite isn’t the traditional soup but the matzoh itself.
“The first bite of matzoh when we’re doing the Seder always tastes so good,” she said. “It’s so meaningful and symbolic. It’s the unleavened bread. Another year’s gone by and here we are, celebrating again.”
Ruth Stiller’s recipe for Matzoh Balls
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, beat whites stiff first, add 1 teaspoon salt. Add yellows (yokes) and beat. Add 5 level Tbs. matzoh meal. Let stand for 20 minutes. Then add matzoh meal until it is formable into balls. Wet hands, make balls and put in simmering soup. Makes about 8 balls.
From “What’s Cookin?”, published by the Jewish Welfare Federation of New Bedford, 1968.