On nights of Chicken-a-la-King I’d pick at the noodles, pouting, shooting squinty-eyed hate darts at my mother and sister across the table. The meal was an easy one, and Karen adored it but I could not stand the bland beige glop my mother mixed from cans and called a fancy name.
My mind has seen fit to bury most early memories of my sister. She was a lanky string bean with a thick auburn ponytail that was longer than I was tall. She was Daddy’s girl and I was mom’s. Here—snippets of memory: we played “Highland Kennels” a game where she was the master and I was a dog. I would eagerly lap at the bowl of water she’d put on the kitchen floor, then to thank her I’d lick her feet.
After latkes one Hanukkah we lit our menorahs and opened gifts of matching princess gowns that we immediately put on. Mom went into the kitchen or her room and Karen and I were alone together watching the candles. I broke the rule and used a napkin to smother one of the flames. The napkin caught fire and with our bare feet we stomped it out, silently. My gown got singed but Karen never tattled.
One year she stopped going to school. She’d get up, get dressed, sit and read, and in the afternoon visit a psychiatrist who had candy and toys in the waiting room where I sat biding time. When she returned to school the next year she wasn’t even behind. In contrast, I went to school early each morning because I needed help learning to read.
By 14 she had gotten into sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, and was at war with our mother. A violent war with slapping and pots flung across the room. They’d be in the kitchen while I’d sit in the living room with my eyes closed. At 16 she swallowed a bottle of pills and knocked on a neighbor’s door. The neighbor called 911. She had her stomach pumped and was admitted to the psych floor. After that, she never came home. “If only” she told me years later, “If only I had known that the misery would end.”
It was unkind of me to turn up my nose at supper. I see now my mother and sister’s shared fondness for Chicken-a-la-King was a rare instance they recognized themselves in each other. Food is good for that—creating bonds which can lead to healing. But I couldn’t stand Karen being the ‘easy child’ for even a moment. She got her of attention kicking and screaming and plenty of it. I wanted sole dominion over being good and undemanding. Each chunk of insipid chicken or squashed pea pushed to the side of my plate challenged that status quo, adding to my rage.
Over the years my feelings towards Karen softened. We shared a love for ideas and words, though never for each others food. But put the three of us together, even after years living apart and we’d slide back to old patterns; my sister defiant, my mother beleaguered, me—nursing indignation.
In 2006, after a period of feeling under the weather my sister ended up in the emergency room and was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. It was already too late. I wanted to attribute it to drugs, to her diet, to a mistrust of authority that kept her from check-ups when maybe it could have been caught early on. We didn’t tell our mother who was already ill.
I was Karen’s chemo buddy. We’d sit in the treatment room talking for hours while the chemicals dripped in her veins. Sometimes I’d bring snacks. Once, a container of Chicken-a-la-King which she ate with gusto, but was so nauseated from the chemo later that day we decided she should eat more lightly. That period before her death was the closest we ever were.
When my mother died and I started cooking memories, I purchased the same cans she had used: Swanson White Premium Chunk Chicken, Green Giant Sweet Peas, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. I set them on my kitchen counter but couldn’t bring myself to open them. Instead, after a few days I left the cans on the steps of the church down the street.
Objectively, free-range chicken tenderly poached in aromatic broth, tossed with wild mushrooms, hand shelled peas, torn herbs and thick fresh cream is delicious over al dente egg-rich noodles. But taste is not objective. What goes in our mouth tastes as much of memories and situations as of flavor compounds and spice. And flavor memories, like all memories, creates behavior that ripples outward.
I put the leftovers of my homemade version in the fridge where they sit spoiling. A few weeks later I make it again, thinking it might taste different. It doesn’t. I put these leftovers in the fridge thinking my son will eat them. He doesn’t. “You would like this” I say. “I just don’t” he replies. For a moment his taste vindicates mine, giving me strength with the simplicity and clarity of his reaction. Then I’m wondering at the things we pass along; likes, prejudices, and the pains of our sisters and mothers.
Poach bone-in chicken thighs and breasts in 4 c water along with an onion cut in half, a carrot, celery, parsley stems, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, salt, and a small handful of peppercorns. When chicken is cooked through (approx. 20 minutes) strain broth and set aside. When cool enough to handle, pull meat off the bones. Sometimes I return the discarded skin, fat, bones and seasoning to the broth and boil for another hour to wring out every bit of flavor.
In a cast iron skillet sear two cups of mushrooms (I use a mix of wild mushrooms) over high heat until the mushrooms give up their water and begin to brown. Add a pinch of salt and set mushrooms aside.
In the same skillet melt 2 T butter. Stir in a heaping tablespoon of flour and let cook over low heat for a few minutes. Add a cup of milk and 1/2 cup each of heavy cream and the reserved broth (freeze the rest of the broth for another use). Add a grating of nutmeg, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of salt. Add a splash of sherry, or bourbon is good too. Bring to a simmer and reduce slightly. Stir in cooked chicken, the mushrooms, a handful of frozen peas and some chopped fresh herbs (I suggest parsley, thyme, and a bit of sage. Or dill and tarragon are nice too.)
Serve over buttered egg noodles.