I got mugged when I was in culinary school.
I think I was like 20 – I was out late, way too late… there was a stupid boy, there was a last minute cigarette run on my way home, there was not wanting to pay for the safer parking spot and picking a place way up the street from my crappy studio apartment… there was so much bad decision, and young-and-stupid, and WHAT WERE YOU THINKING, that even my 20-year-old dummy self knew it. No one had to tell me, I played the tape of all of that shit over and over in my mind as I brushed off my instructors’ concerns about the bruises and the weight loss and the daydreaming though class.
Finals were coming, and my singular concentration turned to chicken. The perfect, crispy skinned, dripping-juicy, impeccably seasoned roast chicken I just *had to* construct and cook for my practical final. EVERYTHING ELSE was falling apart, everything else was beyond my control. But that chicken? That chicken was mine to win or lose.
I practiced and I practiced, in my itty bitty apartment, fighting the temperamental gas oven that never kept a consistent temperature, rubbing butter and thyme under the skin and stuffing the cavity with onion and rosemary, starting at a high temp and dropping the oven as soon as I stuck the roasting pan in. Then submerging myself in my huge clawfoot tub to wait out the timer, since there was always hot water, but rarely actual heat, in the building.
Cooking was my avoidance tool of choice, and the methodology of perfecting roast chicken was the pinnacle of the avoidance. The prep, the actual roasting process, the breakdown of the completed product, the boiling of the leftover carcass for stock. It was a process I moved through, one step to the next, automatically but passionately. Lost but focused all at once.
Since then, when the going gets tough, the girl roasts chicken. I just hadn’t noticed.
It never occurred to me until tonight, in the dim light of the under-cabinets of my kitchen, stripping down the chicken that had been cooling on the stove top since I pulled it out just after the dinner dishes were done. It washed over me – the combined memory of all of those culinary school mugging chickens, the dinners and frozen leftovers and big pots of soup made for my boyfriend and his punk rock band roommates when I was on the cusp of my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, the piles of chickens I roasted and turned into all manner of frozen meals in the final months of what had been a nerve-wracking pregnancy with Jr, and so many major and minor moments in between, all punctuated by chicken roasting in the oven.
My friend died last week.
Actually, I talked about her early this year.… She got another half a year after I posted that. A gift and a miracle by her words, to spend with those she loved, who love her. Her daughter is almost exactly Jr’s age. She had 34 years on this planet. 34. We have already established that I am woefully inadequate to address death in words. (You know who wasn’t? Shannon. Spend some time reading her words. I said it months ago – her voice is gifted and clear, and all you won’t find here.)
Me? I make the chicken.
Ironically, perhaps, I stand in my kitchen, breaking down my mourning chicken, preparing to assemble green chile chicken enchiladas to take to a friend when I go to visit her and her beautiful new baby girl. I think about how I break something down, and something new is created. Like life, maybe.
I think of the young girl who sought to steal back a minuscule amount of the control a bully stole from her in the middle of a deserted midnight crosswalk, one perfectly executed step at a time. I don’t really remember if it worked back then – but I burned it into my cook’s soul, and it became second nature. I know it isn’t working now….
But I stand in my kitchen, and I shred away at what was that can’t stay, hoping to find something new from where it came.