Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cooking as Solace

Roast Chicken and Winter Vegetables

2 whole chicken legs (legs and thighs)
2 whole chicken breasts with skin and bone, split
1 cup Extra Virgin olive oil
four sprigs of rosemary (more if you like rosemary) chopped
2 cups of parsnips, cut in large batonnet (2” by ¾” by ½” roughly)
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and chopped.
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cups crimini or shitake onions

Cooking a meal for company starts early, often the day before. For this dish, which serves four, I marinate my chicken in ½ cup of olive oil, kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, and half the chopped rosemary. I can be pretty profligate with the chopped rosemary. In Austin, where I live, rosemary is not some dainty herb, it’s a bush by my side gate that I brush when I open the gate, releasing that piney scent.

I have checked on the internet this morning, blogs of my friends, not even email yet, when I read that a friend has died, just the day before. She is a writer and a mother and a teacher. She has had a chronic form of cancer for years. She has a novel coming out. I like her a great deal, although I did not get to spend very much time with her. We were busy people, living on the opposite side of town. Rosemary is for remembrance. Is it better that she had the novel coming out, that she had finished it? It has to be, doesn’t it? As I get older I am less and less convinced of the sacredness of art. It seems small consolation to me. Better than nothing, I suppose. Because of course, part of what I grieve for is the writing I won’t read. The writing already lost to chemo treatments. And now the writing just lost to death.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

I throw the parsnips and the squash in cold water and bring it to a boil, boiling just four minutes and draining. They aren’t done, but they’re started enough that they’ll finish in the oven. I am making up this recipe. I don’t know when I learned enough to know I should parboil the vegetables but it is a comfort to fall into the rhythm of this dish. To think of the tasks along a line that project manager call ‘critical path.’ The critical path is the event or chain of events that take the longest. The length of prep and cooking time for this dish is a minimum of seven hours. I don’t do anything most of that time, but I want the chicken to marinate in the olive oil for at least six hours. Over night would be good, then the salt would be drawing the moisture out of the chicken parts and the oil would be sealing that process like a second skin and eventually the moisture would reabsorb carrying the essential oils of the rosemary and the pepper.

Things take time. Novels take time. Raising children takes time. I don’t know what a life is supposed to be shaped like. When I was young, I was tough and actually worried that there was something wrong with me that I didn’t really grieve. Of course, the people in my life who died were grandparents. I didn’t dislike my grandparents, but they were ancient (my grandfather married late and I was a late child so my grandparents were in their seventies when I was born.) I wasn’t tough so much as self-absorbed. People who died didn’t have a whole lot of space in my interior life, the interior life that eventually drove me, terrified, to New York City. I had an interior narrative and frankly, people like grandparents were spear carriers, their drama already done. I assumed that old people didn’t care about stuff anymore. That being old meant that they knew they were finished. I assumed that when someone who was old died, it was different. They were old. That people were sad, but it was expected and therefore, nobody missed them that much. I couldn’t articulate this, but frankly, everyone knew my grandparents were going to die. They were in their 80’s for god’s sake. I didn’t miss them. They weren’t that kind of grandparents.

I have a beautiful La Crueset roaster, but for this dish, I just use a big ugly metal roaster that my sister gave to me. It’s no longer flat on the bottom (it’s been plunked across two burners at too many Christmas’s to make gravy, the metal warping in the uneven heat.)

I arrange my marinated chicken in the middle of the roaster, leaving a couple of inches around the edge. Put the parboiled squash and parsnips, mushrooms, and chopped onions in a bowl and put in the other ½ cup olive oil, salt, pepper, and the remaining chopped rosemary.

Then I call someone to make sure that she’s heard about the death. When I don’t get her I send an email. I find a message from the deceased’s husband thanking me for the brief note I sent him and asking me to make sure a couple of people have heard. I am touched and astounded. I cannot imagine writing notes to people the day after my husband dies. I imagine feeding the dogs in a haze of disbelief and fury and terror. I call another friend and not only has she heard but she sent me an email, which I missed.

It’s what people do after death. We call each other, like touching someone briefly on the back of the hand. ‘I heard,’ we say. ‘I don’t have many details.’ ‘How are you?’ ‘How are the kids?’ ‘I have company coming,’ I tell Sarah. ‘I’m throwing a dinner party.’ ‘Oh good,’ she says, ‘you’ll make people happy.’

No one who is coming for dinner tonight knew the woman who died. They are in Austin for a conference and things are going extraordinarily well. I have plates with goat cheese and a French double cream, and a plate with tiny curls of prosciutto. I have a bottle of sparkling wine, because I think sparkling wine is fun. I pile the vegetables around the chicken and put it in the oven along with the potatoes. I finish the salad of tart greens with prosciutto, parmesan cheese, and toasted pine nuts tossed with a warm balsamic vinaigrette.

My house fills with excited, tired, hungry people. It is dark outside, the windows reflect the lamps back in. The table is set. I cook the chicken half an hour, don’t feel it is done, cook for fifteen minutes more and then run it under the broiler to crisp the skin.

I imagine the family of my friend. Her husband, also a friend. The two boys. This strange day where they eat in a strange way. The aftermath of the tsunami. Dinner in the gutted out ruins. Grief is so self-absorbing. So selfish. So lonely. So unavoidable.

The house smells of comfort. Of solace. I pile the chicken in the middle of a platter and pile the vegetables around it. I start to take it to the dining table and Mike, one of my guests, reaches across the breakfast bar. ‘Let me take that,’ he says. ‘It smells wonderful.’

(This chicken is good just the way it is, but if I wasn’t serving a salad dressed with balsamic vinegar, I would have taken store bought balsamic vinegar, reduced two cups to one, added a tablespoon of brown sugar to the syrup, and dribbled it across the whole dish to just raise it to something a little more.)


Blogger Unknown said...

Just beautiful.

Gwenda sent me here and I am so GLAD.

Thanks. That is a beautifully written post.

November 12, 2008 12:49 PM  
Blogger jesswynne said...

A very moving post, M.

November 12, 2008 1:17 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

I don't know anyone who can give such a grounded and distinct sense of place with multiple settings to the point where you feel the whiplash as you go from introspection about death, to a roast chicken recipe, to a dinner party, yet have it be completely cohesive and very tangible. I think that's maybe my favorite thing about your writing.

So sorry about the loss of your friend.

November 12, 2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger Jason Campbell said...

November 12, 2008 10:37 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

This, right here, is why we love you.

November 12, 2008 11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A touching receipe of life.

November 13, 2008 10:52 AM  
Blogger Karen Sandstrom said...

Hi Maureen
Your essay here is lovely. Somehow, D. should see it. I'm sure he'd like it. I didn't know S. at all -- maybe met her once -- but the sadness is echoing through the writers community here.
Also, your post made me wish you were living here again.
Peace -

November 17, 2008 3:04 AM  
Blogger Kristin Ohlson said...

Wonderful piece, Maureen.

Sigh. Yes, there is much sadness here in Cleveland.

November 18, 2008 12:00 PM  
Blogger Amy Sparks said...

Oh Maureen. Now I'm going to cry all the way to my class where ungrateful people think writing is stupid...

Thank you for this lovely piece.

November 18, 2008 4:53 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was led to your blog through Judith and I too, am mourning and missing Sheila. I'm taken with what you said about your uncertainty about whether art is sacred. Whenever I would complain to Sheila that I was too distracted by family obligations to work on my novel, she'd just shake her head and tell me that was just fine. She seemed to know something that I still haven't been able to figure out-- it's okay not to get it all done. Still, I'm grateful that she finished her novel. Perhaps that's not everything, but it is something.

November 18, 2008 7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 24, 2009 3:29 AM  

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