On Dinner

roast chicken, peas, mashed potatoes, beet and carrot salad
tonight's dinner
As I child, I was told with great frequency — perhaps not every time we ate chicken, but surely every other time — that my great grandfather could get a piece of chicken down to its bones with a knife and fork. I believe this is the great grandfather who was my mother’s father’s mother’s third and fourth husband, although I could be wrong about that. Reminding the younger generations of the general and specific superiority of people they they never knew is a specialty in our family.

I have never come close to this feat myself, although to be fair, I never try, since I usually give up and gnaw on my chicken leg about halfway through the process of eating it. I did that tonight, in fact, with the chicken leg you see pictured above.

Every few months, I buy a chicken from Cody Meat Country Store. Their meat meat all comes from within an hour radius, and I choose to believe that their chickens do, too, and that said chickens lead happy and fulfilled chicken lives before they find their way to my roasting pan. I could, of course, ask about the chickens, but that would involve me talking to people, which I generally don’t like to do, and there’s the slim possibility that it might lead me to finding out things about the chickens that I don’t want to know, and so I remain blissfully ignorant.

Nine times out of ten, I roast the chicken, which is to say that I throw it in a pan (I use a glass pan, because that is what I have), stick it in a very hot oven for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then turn the heat down and leave the thing there for another hour or so. I do not truss, because Laurie Colwin said that you do not have to. On some occasions I throw your typical roasting vegetables into the pan — some carrots, some onions, some whatever else I have that grows underground. On this occasion, I cut up a lemon and stuffed it inside the bird and sprinkled a little rosemary on top and, at some point, brushed some olive oil on the skin and then poured some mediocre white wine over the whole thing. Tonight was my second night of chicken leg-mashed potatoes-peas-carrot and beet salad. The carcass is simmering in a stock pot; the rest of the meat will most likely get used for sandwiches or some sort of chicken salad (recipe suggestions are accepted!), since I may not be quite up to making seventeen meals out of one chicken. (Or at any rate I am not up to counting them — it’s hard to say how far the chicken stock will take me.)

I derive what is perhaps an excessive amount of pleasure from food. Breakfast is probably my favorite meal of the day, and knowing I get to have breakfast when I get up is one of the only things that sometimes gets me out of bed in the morning. I used to be not really a fan of lunch, but lately I’ve been trying go with a sort of bento model, wherein I get lots of different things — this week it’s been beans and rice and salsa, jicama and orange salad, a pear, and sometimes some nuts — and that seems to improve my take on it. (That, and more or less giving up on the letters to the editor in the Casper Star-Tribune. I used to find them very entertaining (people not infrequently get called Communists), but, as is often the case, I find myself in some odd way less happy with politics when my supposed party is no longer the underdog. Now I stick to the local police reports and things are much, much happier.) And dinner! The best thing about a bad day is that dinner can still be really good. I try not to start thinking about it until after lunch, but I don’t always make it. I look forward to dinner in the way that I used to look forward to the X-Files, or Thursday nights on NBC, back in the days when I watched television. Only dinner, of course, is every night.

My grandmother once told me that after she and my grandfather got divorced, someone — a doctor, I think — told her that she had to find other things to be interested in. “And the only thing I was ever really interested in was food,” she said. That’s not true — she’s also interested in local and national politics and books and people’s wildly inaccurate ideas about the Bible (as with many agnostics I know, she knows the book quite well) and paint colors and furniture arrangement and what her family members are up to and what her imaginary cat is up to and what our ancestors were up to when they were alive and old movies and new movies and. . . I could go on. But food is one of our common bonds.

When I was very, very little, I ate almost anything put in front of me, but as I got older I began to observe my father, who was a man of extremely limited tastes. He would eat most meat, provided it wasn’t too flavorful, and he would eat potatoes and spaghetti and bread, though only if it was homemade. He liked breakfast, and he liked cheese and crackers, but the only vegetables he would eat were French cut green beans and carrot sticks, but only if they had been sitting in a little dish of water in the refrigerator for half an hour. He believed that all mushrooms were poisonous. I strove to be like my father in all things, and so gradually I stopped eating all the foods that he didn’t eat, or as many of them as my mother would let me get away with (peas, as I recall, were never optional).

My grandmother had a theory that a child would eat almost anything if it were presented in a small bite on a toothpick, and she had a box of plastic toothpicks in assorted colors for just this purpose. One year, when I was perhaps seven, and my father had been dead for two years, my grandmother was sauteeing mushrooms in butter one evening. There are few smells that rival that of mushrooms sauteeing in butter (when they first get to Narnia in The Horse and His Boy, Lewis describes the smell coming from a cabin of dwarves, the smell of eggs and sausage and mushrooms all frying together in the same pan, and, he says, in perfect Lewis fashion, “if you have not smelled that smell — and I very much hope that you have”), but there are not many. I was sniffing, somewhat conspicuously, and my grandmother asked if I might like to try just a small piece of mushroom, on a toothpick. I loved my grandmother, too, and they smelled so good, and so of course I said yes, and I was a convert from that moment on. Offer me a new food and I’ll taste it; give me a bad day and I’ll go melt some butter or some olive oil in a pot and see what I can find to add to it.