Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Opening Cans

     As if I were there now I remember the cold smooth surface of the white formica table that sat in the crook of our “L” shaped kitchen. I can hear, or maybe feel the latch of the cupboard, the Frigidaire’s hum, the smell of the broom closet, the nearly imperceptible progress of white enameled hands around the black Modernist clock. 
     I have few memories of eating supper with my family even though we set that table nightly, taking dishes from said cupboard, pulling things in and out of the fridge. After supper we’d sweep up, negotiating TV and bedtimes by the ticking of the clock. Maybe the memories are buried, maybe lost with the passage of time. 
     Except for Chicken-a-la-King. When it was served I’d pick gingerly at the plate, stomach in knots, shooting squinty-eyed hate darts at my sister. She loved this dish but I couldn’t stand the bland beige glop that was mixed from cans and called a fancy name.  
     I know from photos that Karen was a lanky string bean with a thick auburn ponytail that was longer than I was tall. Our parents divorced before I was two. Karen, five years older, remembered living with our father. She was Daddy’s girl and I was considered Mom’s. 
     I remember snippets of stories: we played “Highland Kennels.” She was the stern mistress and I’d crawl on all fours barking and wagging my butt, eagerly lapping the bowl of water she’d put on the kitchen floor. She’d insist I thank her. I’d lick her feet. 
     After latkes one Hanukkah we lit our menorahs and opened gifts of matching blue nightgowns we immediately pulled over our clothes. Mom went out of the room. Karen and I were alone watching the candles and I broke the rule and used a napkin to smother a dying flame.The napkin caught fire. With bare feet we stomped it out. My gown got singed. I took it off and hid it. Karen never tattled. 
     One year she stopped going to school. She’d get up, get dressed, sit and read, and in the afternoon visit Dr. Halpern who had candy and Highlights Magazine 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 fifteen she was into boys, LSD and was at war with our mother. I don’t know—maybe it was after dinner and they were in the kitchen yelling while I fidgeted in the living room. I don’t know—maybe it was once or maybe a couple of times; what I remember are the sounds of slapping and crashing pots.  Soon after she swallowed a bottle of pills and knocked on a neighbor’s door. The Skernick’s in 6A. She babysat for them. They called 911. She had her stomach pumped and was admitted to a psych ward. My mother cried a lot. We went back and forth visiting the hospital. Years later Karen told me if she’d known the misery would end she wouldn’t have done it—it wasn’t like she wanted to die.
     It was unkind of me to turn up my nose at supper. I see now my mother and sister’s fondness for Chicken-a-la-King was a rare instance they could recognize themselves in each other. Food is good for that—nurturing bonds, which sometimes leads to healing. But I couldn’t stand Karen being ‘easy’ for even a moment. She got attention messing up, I wanted sole dominion being good. Each chunk of insipid chicken, each squashed pea pushed to the side of my plate wreaked havoc with the status quo.        
      Over years things softened. Mom remarried. My sister married. I did too and we spoke frequently about our kids, and then about my marriage falling apart. Mostly we had long wonderful conversations about art. But bring the three of us together, even after years living apart and we’d slide back to old patterns; Karen defiant, my mother beleaguered, me—nursing indignation.
     In 2006, after a period feeling foul my sister ended up in the emergency room, diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. It was already too late. I attributed 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 because she was fragile and in early dementia. 
     I was back in school and had irregular hours so I became the chemo buddy. While the chemicals slowly dripped Karen helped me write my papers. After treatment, if she needed I’d walk her home and wait till her husband arrived. Often I made lunch. Once I made pasta tossed with mushrooms. She ate with gusto. We reminisced about Chicken-a-la-King. Further along in the treatments she became nauseated from the chemo so we skipped the meals. It was a good time for us, the period before her death.
     When my mother died, I set about cooking her dishes. I thought the smells and motions of cooking and the taste of her food would bring back memories of her vitality. One day I purchased the cans she’d used for Chicken-a-la-King; Swanson’s, Green Giant, Cambell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. I set them on the counter but couldn’t bring myself to open them. After a while I left the cans on the steps of the church down the street and decided to make the dish from scratch. 
      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 mouths tastes as much of memory as of flavor. Each time we remember, each time a bite of something conjures our past, a part of us relives the time anew. 
     I was so sure my reinterpretation would be good but after a forkful straight from the pan I put the remainder in the fridge where it sat untouched. A month later I tried again sure it would be different, but there I stood, an hour gone, with a chicken and expensive wild mushrooms made bland and voluminous; wasted. 
     “You would like this” I pushed, hoping if my son ate the dish the feelings dredged up might also be consumed. “I just don’t” he declared “I don’t like it” and for a flash his simple declaration let me reframe my knotted sorrow. I had been right to rebel. Then I started worrying that without meaning to I must’ve passed along my pain.

Poach a small chicken in 4-6 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 but before it is falling apart (approx. 40 minutes) strain broth and set aside. When cool enough to handle, pull meat off the bones and set aside. Return the discarded skin, fat, bones and seasoning to the broth and simmer for another hour to wring out every bit of flavor. Strain the broth again and discard the solids.                                                              
In a cast iron skillet sear two cups of mushrooms over high heat until the mushrooms give up their moisture and begin to brown. Add a splash of sherry, or bourbon is good too and let it cook down. 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 each of milk and the reserved broth (save the rest of the broth for another use). Add a glug of heavy cream Add a scant grating of nutmeg, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of salt. 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). Serve over buttered egg noodles (or toss the buttered noodles directly into the skillet so they soak up the sauce).

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