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I am a poet and now you can know it

Have a bit of self-promotion for Darwin Day.

I am one of several contributors to a poetry collection called Filling the Void: A Selection of Atheist and Humanist Poetry, edited by Jonathan MS Pearce. The Kindle edition is available now and, from what he tells me, the physical/print version should be available in about a month.

If this sounds at all like something you’d enjoy, I highly encourage you to check it out – even disregarding my ego, there are quite a lot of interesting and thought-provoking entries, and in lots of different styles. (Though I will note that this is a collection of ‘atheist and humanist poetry’, not ‘poetry by atheists and humanists’: it’s organised along topical lines and they’re all germane to the subject in some way.)

I receive no financial benefit from my work being included, from promoting the book, or anything else. So please do not feel obligated to buy the book for my sake, but obviously I’ll be thrilled if it does interest you.

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Posted by on February 12, 2016 in mitchell

 

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Book Review: A Brief Eternity (Paul Beaumont, 2013)

A Brief Eternity (Paul Beaumont, 2013) [amazon]

Oh dear, where to start with this one? I seriously considered titling this post “I think I have a new favourite book!” This book was almost everything I wanted it to be and more; it’s a gripping read and I could barely put it down; it’s thoughtfully and respectfully written and deals with serious issues while also being laugh-out-loud hilarious; basically, this book is more or less what you’d get if someone intentionally wrote a book that ticked all of my boxes (even the boxes I myself wasn’t aware of). It goes without saying that your mileage may vary, since I think I’m pretty much the ideal audience for a book like this and therefore I’m inclined to be biased in its favour and/or to overlook its flaws, but I absolutely loved it and recommend it unequivocally and as enthusiastically as possible.

Let’s get the disclaimers and disclosures out of the way: I have no affiliation with the author or publisher, and stand to benefit in no way from advertising this book. In point of fact I only read it because it showed up in Amazon’s recommendations for me (kudos, Amazon!), looked vaguely interesting enough that I clicked through for more information, and had an introduction written by Dan Barker (whose work I admire and whose opinion I respect). Barker I have met, though only once and that briefly; that said, if I encounter him again I’d love to have a conversation with him about this book. What all of this adds up to, essentially, is that I knew next to nothing about this book going in, but thought odds were decent that I’d like it.

I’m going to attempt to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, because I don’t want to ruin anybody’s potential enjoyment of the book and I do think it may be better to go in with minimal information (with regard to worldbuilding as well as plot; more on this later), but that makes it very difficult to discuss in any detail so I’ll try to keep things vague where possible and mark the serious ones if I can.

I think the easiest way to sum up what this book is is to say that it’s a dystopia set in the afterlife. (Or, put another way, it’s what you get if you cross Left Behind with god Is Not Great.) What if the Rapture sects of fundamentalist Christianity had it right?

I think Beaumont basically thought that would be interesting to explore, and decided to start from there and fill out the worldbuilding that would be necessary to explore the moral dimensions of that worldview. And, for what it’s worth, I think he did a great job with that worldbuilding work, though that was probably made easier by the fact that he was deliberately doing inconsistent worldbuilding and expecting the reader to pick up on the inconsistencies along with the characters (how often do you read a book that wants you to notice inconsistencies in the setting?). Considering Poe’s Law it’s probably not saying much to say this, but I never got the impression Beaumont was creating a strawman instead of working from actual religious beliefs, either.

In a way, then, it’s no surprise I loved this book. After all, it’s basically just Bible/religion spitefic and I tend to enjoy that sort of thing in most fandoms that interest me.

The protagonist, Jerry, is a sort of nonreligious/atheist everyman who more or less accidentally gets taken up in the Rapture. Most of the book follows him as he tries to adapt to life in a very physical Heaven, and his inability to fail to notice the niggling problems everywhere and that not everyone is as happy as they appear (physical suffering is gone, but emotional suffering seems to be alive and well). While in Heaven Jerry is able to meet all sorts of people with different perspectives (guided by a man named Bob, who is essentially the Virgil to Jerry’s Dante and provides the exposition we can’t be shown), though he’s bothered by the fact everyone except him seems to have been very religious and eventually discovers the existence of Hell.  There are also quite a few chapters from the perspective of Jerry’s girlfriend Rachael (though not nearly as many as Jerry gets), a secular non-observant Jew, who was left behind on Earth which apparently became combined with Hell. (One of my few disappointments with the book is that, because it focused on the dystopian nature of Heaven and Jerry’s adventures there, we didn’t get to see nearly as much of Hell and the interesting side characters inhabiting it as I would have liked.)

As he learns more and more about the situation in which he’s found himself, and is unable to reconcile himself with the fundamental injustice of heaven and hell (and the fact he can’t be happy in heaven while so many people he loves are suffering), Jerry attempts a legal gambit to free first Rachael and then everyone from Hell.

I found the characters very well-written and relatable, and their reactions to situations entirely understandable (though there were some very uncomfortable moments, such as when we’re faced with learning all of the Jews ended up in hell and see them struggling to deal with it; that said, as someone who is nominally Jewish myself, I didn’t think it was insensitively or offensively handled and it easily could have been. The book also shows the fates of believers in other religions which turned out to be false in this particular fictional universe, such as the Mormons and Muslims, and I thought it had an interesting take on their reactions and didn’t feel contrived.)

[SPOILER WARNING: HEREIN I COMMENT ON THE ENDING]

I found the ending a bit disappointing, in all honesty, though I’m not necessarily sure another ending would have felt authentic. I’m still mulling over whether I think the ending is a positive one; I can’t decide whether it qualifies as a Pyrrhic victory for the antagonists (is there a less clunky term for this?), or if they just won outright and the ending amounts to Jerry and Rachael admitting as much and giving up. I’m going to have to think on that some more (I think the most positive take on it I can come up with right now is that, given the circumstances that led to the events of the book, it’s impossible that Jerry and Rachael could be alone in their resistance; they’re ordinary people in the best possible sense, and therefore there have to be more where they came from to continue the fight).

That said, it’s certainly a realistic ending given the preceding setup, and as such might be preferable to one in which the protagonists’ attempts at resistance had been more successful. It could have been worse, though: it could have been “He loved Big Brother.”. The fact I’ve brought that in as comparison should speak for itself though, I think.

[END SPOILER WARNING]

It’s a pretty short book, and combined with how gripping it can be it ends up being a very quick read. (Though I’ll admit that when I did have to put it down, I often had just as difficult a time getting myself to pick it up again because I was so full of anxiety about what was going to happen to these characters next. That has to be a mark of good writing.)

If this sounds like the sort of thing you’d like, at all, GO READ IT NOW. You can thank me later.

*I will add the caveat that I have no idea what this book would be like for a reader who doesn’t agree ideologically with the author; I’d love to hear from religious people who’ve read it, if any of you happen to be reading my blog for some reason I can’t comprehend. I don’t think there would necessarily be big disagreements as long as such a reader is sympathetic to humanistic ethics irrespective of supernaturalistic beliefs…

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Humanism, Arranged Marriages, and Reality TV

Sorry for the lack of content recently; I’ve been suffering from a nasty case of writer’s block and am struggling with a few half-finished pieces. Hopefully this will jog me back into things.

This appears to be somewhat old news, but I just saw this today (an older, more detailed post about it can be found here) about humanist chaplain Greg Epstein working in an advisory capacity on a reality television programme called Married at First Sight. This makes me deeply uncomfortable; I think it’s a terrible idea for lots of reasons, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say anything.

I’m disappointed in Epstein that he decided to get involved with something like this. The first thing I thought upon learning about it was that not all publicity is good publicity: if the idea here was that participating in something like this would increase visibility for atheists/humanists, then all I can say is that participating in something that looks clearly unethical and exploitative to me doesn’t seem like a good way to advocate for humanism. Humanism is an ethical position and participating in unethical behaviour while promoting humanism will only make us look like hypocrites.

Why do I say this is clearly unethical? First things first (from one of the linked posts by Hemant Mehta):

There are just a few moments you really want to see. Like when the contestants find out about the premise of the show…

In other words, there is no notion of informed consent here at all. None. Despite the fact Mehta describes the show in one of the linked posts as “couples agree to get married, sight-unseen”, if they didn’t know the premise of the show before agreeing to appear on it, they could not have given informed consent to this (and if they did express consent, the pressure of having had to agree to that impulsively after a surprise reveal means we cannot consider this consent in any kind of meaningful sense).

Mehta highlights quite a few other issues with it, and then encourages the viewer to just not think too hard about them. Um, no, let’s not do that. His list is also not exhaustive, and I’d like to mention a few more.

Firstly, I have to wonder at the motivations of the contestants on a show like this. Why would any person in their right mind agree to an arranged marriage with a person they’ve never met (especially when there is no cultural pressure to do so)? I can only think it must have something to do with the way modern Western culture elevates marriage and makes people consider it an essential step toward adulthood. I’ve often encountered the idea (usually implicit rather than explicit, though I’ve seen it made explicitly as well) that people aren’t truly adults until they are married, etc etc. (Another variant just focuses on being partnered as a similar thing.) When there are pressures such as this, it’s understandable why someone might be tempted by something like this, but shouldn’t we be able to acknowledge this is unhealthy and not encourage it? If we really want to deal with this problem, the solution is not “come up with ways for unmarried people to more easily acquire partners/marriages” but rather “change the culture so people aren’t shamed for not being partnered/married”.

Secondly: marriage is a legal contract with far-reaching effects, and marrying people in a situation like this (with a much higher chance it won’t work out and they’ll seek divorce) seems rife for legal problems. I should hope, at least, that the people running the show have some good lawyers available to write prenuptial agreements that ensure there aren’t issues with property becoming jointly owned, etc etc. I’ve no idea whether or not they have done anything like that, truthfully; they may well have done, because otherwise they could end up with a lot of really unpleasant situations and they have to have foreseen the likelihood these marriages wouldn’t last.

Thirdly: while I know nothing about the contestants, it would not surprise me if the sort of people who were interested in a marriage under these circumstances ended up being abusive and/or controlling partners, by dint of choosing to be married under circumstances in which the person they are marrying cannot say no. This is creepy.

It occurs to me that most of the ethical issues with the show are strictly related to the marriage gimmick, rather than anything else; if it were just setting up blind dates based on whatever pseudoscientific criteria they’re using, I don’t think I’d really object. But I suspect it’s also the marriage aspect specifically that they’re counting on for shock value to get viewers interested, and that without it there wouldn’t be any show at all.

In any case, I think this is a terrible and deeply problematic idea, and I’m disappointed that Greg Epstein (and, by extension, humanism) is involved with it. Epstein’s avowed reasons for participating don’t seem wholly bad, and if we assume the show was going to exist irrespective of his participation I do think he’s probably one of the best choices they could have made for the role they’ve placed him in. I’ll grant that much. That said, I still think he should have thought better of it.

And unless the advice he’s going to give is “don’t fucking get married and go home”, I have doubts about how consistent with humanism it is.

 

[Edit by Loten: the more I read about this the more sceptical I become. There’s just so much wrong with the basic premise of this show that I’m starting to think it’s faked and is designed purely as some sort of warped entertainment. That’s not a huge improvement, of course, it’s still pushing the tired old “marriage is the only possible means of vindicating your existence” message, but still. Of course this idea is probably just wishful thinking, but I just can’t see how this is legal, aside from all the other issues.]

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in mitchell

 

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2014 AHA Conference Postmortem

Before I say anything else, I should say that I’m incredibly glad I went to the conference. It really isn’t often I get the opportunity to have conversations with so many intelligent people who agree with me about the important things (when that’s already established and understood, we can proceed to much more nuanced and interesting material rather than rehashing old battles, which is quite refreshing). And beyond that, many of the people I was able to meet and converse with are people whose writing and speaking etc I’d been previously familiar with due to their roles in the movement; perhaps my perception of their fame is skewed, but I inevitably feel a bit star-struck and it then astonishes me that such people are interested in talking with me and hearing what I have to say. (It was even more shocking that the handful of them I’d previously met remembered me, especially since the most recent of such meetings was nearly two years ago.)

In addition to that, I had the privilege of listening to some truly excellent talks; if that takes second place in my estimation to socialising (and sometimes having debates) with the other attendees, it is only because I often watch talks online etc and it’s not quite so different in person.

The only downside of my having gone was its effect on my sleep schedule; after nearly four full days of conference, I did little other than sleep after I returned home on Sunday and then lost quite a bit of Monday to sleep as well. I think I might dislike hypersomnia even more than insomnia, honestly; if only I could do something other than oscillate between the two.

I must also admit that the conference gave me quite a lot of ideas to write about; hopefully I’ll get some of those pieces finished and posted here relatively soon.

(To those of you to whom I gave the address of this blog at the conference, if you’re here: welcome! I hope you stick around.)

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Mitchell Recommends: Steve Reads Christian Apologetics

Here is the link to Steve’s youtube channel, and the specific playlists for the apologetics series can be found here. (No affiliation)

Steve Shives has a series on youtube called “An Atheist Reads”, in which he examines works of Christian apologetics and criticises them (or rants about them). While I don’t always agree with 100% of what he says, the vast majority of his criticisms are spot-on and I really enjoy listening to him do this. It’s certainly much more pleasant than reading the apologetic works would be. I’ve found that Steve does a good job of presenting the arguments the books are making while he criticises them; he definitely doesn’t quotemine or strawman, and while it’s obviously not the same as reading the books yourself it’s still a very good way to get a sense of what they argue. The snark and anger make it bearable, and he is very thorough. He’s also usually very good on sexism and gender issues.

I’ll admit this certainly isn’t for everybody – the videos can be rather dry most of the time, and if you don’t have a preexisting interest in the subject I suspect they may bore you. But if it does sound like something you’d be interested in, you should definitely check him out; if you have the time for it, his videos are well worth watching (or at least listening to; while watching will allow you to see some hilarious facial expressions, and he usually displays the text of quotes as he’s discussing them, you can get all of the substantive content auditorally).

(For the record, I was originally made aware of these videos by Daniel Fincke at Camels With Hammers, some time ago)

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Thinking about “Theology”

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Price’s lectures and podcasts recently, largely for entertainment purposes, but in so doing I’ve been led by him to think about some semantic distinctions that are well worth making. This is going to be a pedantic essay, and probably a very boring one, so consider yourself warned.

Really, the question I want to attempt to answer here is, how can I simultaneously agree with the sentiment expressed by Richard Dawkins and those like him that “theology isn’t even a subject at all”, or with Hector Avalos, whose book The End of Biblical Studies [amazon] quite convincingly argues that academic biblical studies as currently practised are most often not undertaken in good faith (or, to put it another way, involve too much “good faith”), and simultaneously find value in the kind of study that Price does?

The answer I’ve come to is that I think a distinction needs to be drawn between “doing theology” and “studying theology”. (I told you this was going to be a semantic argument!)

By this I mean that a distinction needs to be drawn between theology as a form of religious praxis, or a first-order engagement with the ideas (e.g. theorising about the nature of gods and supernatural entities from the standpoint that such things exist), and the study of theology as a second-order engagement with these ideas (looking at the thinking of various people as they do theology from a first-order level, and trying to parse out the kinds of distinctions they are drawing and what it says about how people think about religious ideas). The latter is what I think Price does (and, for that matter, so does Avalos), and it seems clear to me that that can have value from, e.g., an anthropological or sociological perspective, in understanding the history and development of belief systems, and so on. In a world which is populated in majority by believers, understanding these kinds of thought can be an important tool in attempting to navigate such a world. The former, meanwhile, is the type of thing derided by Dawkins et al, and I can simultaneously agree with this – when there is no evidence such beings exist at all, there can obviously be no value in attempting to make statements about their nature. So in that sense, I agree that theology is not a subject. Or in the terms I’ve proposed, “doing theology” in the first-order sense is futile, but “studying theology” in the second-order sense can be deeply useful.

Of course, there is also a sense in which even “studying theology” is of limited use – in some ways I do think Avalos is right when he argues in The End of Biblical Studies that even this is largely a leisure pursuit for privileged intellectuals. I am not sure I agree with him that it is as equally pointless (outside of personal gratification) as solving sudoku puzzles – as I said earlier, in navigating a world filled with religious people, understanding religious thought is not useless. But that does not necessarily mean, at the same time, that it is important to dig into long-buried minutia which are almost completely irrelevant to modern believers unless you are somebody like me (or, presumably, like Bob Price) who enjoys overanalysing things.

I’m not sure if I have a conclusive point to make after saying all of this, except that I think the “doing/studying” distinction is a useful one to keep in mind. Or to put it another way, the distinction between a “theologian” and a “scholar of theology”.

And if you do happen to be interested in listening to Bob Price analysing the minutia of Biblical history and Christian thought, The Human Bible is a great place to start.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2014 in mitchell

 

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Some thoughts on Passover, and a soup recipe

My family still celebrates Passover for some reason, despite nobody really believing any of it (I’m the only one who identifies positively as an atheist, I think because I’m more interested in these issues and actually care, but my family are thoroughly secular Jews). I asked why and nobody really seems to know, aside from “tradition” – I guess it’s as good an excuse as any to get together with family and eat foods we don’t normally eat. Most of us don’t bother keeping kosher for Passover outside of the actual seder meals though, it’s just too much hassle and thoroughly unpleasant (especially for me, being a vegetarian).

During our hilariously abridged seder last night (because none of us really felt like reading any of the material in the haggadah but we thought we had to do something, so we rushed through and tried to hit the main highlights in as little time as possible) it occurred to me that the central message of the Passover story is “God is an asshole, but he’s OUR asshole”. Which is refreshingly honest compared to a lot of other religions – or would be if I thought it was actually what they intended it to be.

I mean, look at the English name – Passover (in Hebrew it’s Pesach, the meaning of which is less clear; it’s usually translated as something similar but could also have to do with the Passover sacrifice and/or God’s protection). It explicitly refers to the portion of the story in which God instructs the Jews to paint their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that he will know to ‘pass over’ those houses when killing all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Let’s not be coy about this: this is explicitly celebrating being excluded from a genocide which God committed on the Jews’ behalf. It gets worse when you consider the predominant versions of the story have the pharaoh only being obstinate because “God hardened his heart”, meaning that God set up this whole scenario for some other reason than freeing the Jewish slaves; if he’d just wanted to free them he wouldn’t have had to prevent the pharaoh from changing his mind. Which means that, if we take this seriously, there has to have been another motive – God was showing off. Possibly to impress the Jews with fear so they would worship him like he wanted. Like I said, God’s an asshole.

Now of course I’m an atheist and I don’t believe any of this happened, but I still think it’s in poor taste to happily tell that story and celebrate it (okay, there is a moment in the seder where you’re supposed to feel sorry for the Egyptians over the ‘plagues’ and remove a drop of wine from your cup for each plague, but that’s always struck me as the bare minimum of token acknowledgment that it wasn’t all-good). Especially when archaeologists have failed to find any evidence that there ever were Jewish slaves in Egypt at all (and, to boot, they now think the Pyramids were probably built by freemen). It is also hypocritical when you consider that in many places the Tanakh (or the Old Testament as Christians call it) condones slavery so long as it is Jews enslaving non-Jews.

Let me run the risk of Godwin’s Law here and say that I think it’s also a bit odd that we continue to celebrate Passover (with the genocide of the Egyptian firstborn) and have not reevaluated it any after the Holocaust; how can we celebrate a genocide that benefited us (even one committed by God) while also mourning the victims of one committed against us? I’m reminded of this post and comment thread at Pharyngula  which discussed some Israeli soldiers’ attitudes toward Palestinians. It seems like many have taken the wrong message from the Holocaust – not “genocide is wrong” but “genocide is wrong when it’s done to us”, which I find truly appalling.

It’s commonly said that the central message of most Jewish holidays is “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” Which is mostly pretty innocuous, until you consider things like the above.

I may be pilloried from all sides for saying this but I don’t care.

On a completely unrelated note, it occurred to me that you can see part of where the stereotypes of Jews as shrewd with finances come from in the Afikoman tradition, which is basically a form of ritualised extortion. Afikoman is roughly translated as ‘thing eaten last’ or ‘dessert’ and is a piece of matzo which is supposed to be the last thing eaten at the seder (traditionally, the seder is not permitted to end until the Afikoman is eaten). An adult hides it somewhere in the house and the children search for it; after it is found, they are then supposed to hold it hostage and negotiate a price for its return, because without it the seder cannot end. As I said, ritualised extortion. (In my family we never quite did this, and it was usually a fixed amount of money given to all of the children who participated in the search with maybe a bonus to the one who actually found it).


On a slightly happier note, I made a vegetarian matzo ball soup this year which was generally well-received and I thought I’d share the recipe. (Please note this soup is not vegan, the matzo balls contain eggs). Matzo ball soup is traditionally made with chicken broth, but it’s not too hard to come up with a vegetarian version which works equally well (and actually several people this year said they preferred mine to the traditional one my aunt made. Not that I intend to disparage my aunt’s cooking; far from it, since my version is based on the recipe she uses). It’s also quite easy to make.

Ingredients for the broth (I think the pot I used was 2 gallons which I filled maybe 5/8ths with water, adjust these quantities accordingly if making more or less soup):

Vegetable stock cubes (I like Knorr vegetarian vegetable bouillon*, which comes in large ‘cubes’, and use 3 of them; they look to measure about 2cm by 2cm by 1cm. Other brands seem to make cubes about 1 cubic cm, so four of those should be roughly equivalent to one of the Knorr)
1 large onion or 2-3 small onions
3-4 stalks of celery
1 pound of carrots (I used pre-cut baby carrots and just cut them in halves or thirds, but it also works with whole carrots if you peel and slice them)
1 bunch of fresh dill (remove the stems and use only the leaves)
Garlic powder (optional – I don’t use it because the Knorr bouillon contains garlic already, but I’m not sure if every brand does)
Salt and black pepper may be added to taste

Bring the pot of water to a boil. Once it is boiling add the stock cubes, vegetables (if you want to leave them in the final soup, chop the onion and celery first; I like to do this for a more substantial soup, but the traditional version leaves them whole and removes them after cooking so that only the carrots remain), and dill. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and cook until the carrots are soft, about 30-45 minutes. At this point taste the broth, if it tastes too thin add more stock cubes or more dill and cook a bit longer.

Bring the soup back to a boil and add the matzo balls (see below), then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 30-40 minutes until they are cooked thoroughly. At this point the soup is ready to serve.

For matzo balls (this recipe is taken mostly from the packaging of Manischewitz matzo meal with a few minor modifications. The packaging claims this makes 8 matzo balls but I like to make them larger and get about 4 from it, and I double these quantities to go with the amount of soup the above recipe makes, so the soup has about 8 large matzo balls in it):

1/2 cup matzo meal
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water (some people recommend using carbonated seltzer water to make the matzo balls fluffier; I found this unnecessary but many swear by it)
1 teaspoon salt

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients to the eggs and blend together until uniform. Cover the bowl and refrigerate (the packaging says 20 minutes but I recommend giving it at least an hour) to allow it to solidify a bit.

Using hands (the packaging recommends wetting them but I find it’s actually easier if you don’t), form this mixture into balls and drop them into the boiling soup. When making the balls try not to pack the mixture too densely; ideally, they should float. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the matzo balls are cooked thoroughly. At this point the soup is ready to serve.

*The Knorr vegetable bouillon contains autolysed yeast extract so may not be, strictly speaking, kosher for Passover (I also did not see a kosher label on the packaging so it may not be kosher for anytime); this is technically a Passover-style soup only. I am not sure about other brands of vegetable stock cubes, that may be something worth checking if you care about this sort of thing (though I am not expecting it to matter to my readers).

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in mitchell

 

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