Monday I was alone in the kitchen at the Inn. It’s Chef’s day off and the cook who usually works with me is pregnant and had a doctor’s appointment. Last week was school vacation around here, so I figured I could handle things on my own. When it came time to start thinking about the special for the evening, I knew it needed to be chicken, since we had some Statler breasts we needed to use. We also had some sliced ham from Sunday brunch and we always have Swiss cheese, so I did a variation of Chicken Cordon Bleu (which is Blue Ribbon Chicken to you and me), which is an “old school” dish in restaurant circles.
A Statler chicken breast is a boneless breast with part of the wings still attached, so they look like little drumsticks. They are there for appearance and also for flavor, because cooking with the bone in always adds flavor to meat. What I did was pound the breasts to about a quarter inch thickness, put the ham and cheese in the middle, rolled the breast up, and folded the wings over, so it looked almost like a Cornish hen. then I wrapped each of them with a couple of pieces of bacon, breaded them, baked them about halfway through, and let them cool. When an order came in, I sliced the breast in half, baked until it was done, and then served it with a bacon and mashed potato cake, asparagus, and a Dijon and demi-glace cream sauce.
People licked their plates. (By the way, I posted a little different Dijon Chicken recipe.)
A lot of old school dishes have names that don’t necessarily tell you what’s in the dish. Chicken Cordon Bleu doesn’t tell you much more than it’s good enough to come in first place. The current trend in restaurant menus is less poetic: we list everything that’s coming out on the plate, making sure you know what it took to construct the dish. The Cordon Bleu becomes a breaded Statler chicken breast stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese, served with a bacon-mashed potato cake, grilled asparagus, and a Dijon-demi-glace beurre blanc. It’s not that the dish sounds bad; it’s just that we’ve taken away some of the mystery, the poetry.
The Border Café in Harvard Square still has some poets in the house. Their dishes have names. My favorite is Chicken Waco: a boneless chicken breast stuffed with roasted poblano pepper, spinach, and mushrooms, and covered with a Monterey Jack cheese and poblano pepper sauce. OK, so they strike a balance between poetry and prose. The description is listed on the menu as well. I like the name because it’s ironic to me. I lived in Waco. It has never been as exciting as this dish.
When Ginger and I started dating, one of the first things I did was cook dinner for her. I knew she was, shall we say, a plain eater, so I tried to come up with a dish I was proud of and she would eat. I cut some chicken into small strips, tossed it in a mixture of Goya Adobo seasoning and Cajun seasoning, sautéed it in butter and olive oil, and served it with fettuccine alfredo. She loved it so much she asked for it again and again, usually on Saturday night. We still have Saturday Night Chicken on a regular basis.
Food improves when it’s wrapped in poetry; so does faith. Life is not prose at its core, no matter how prosaic we are in our expression of it. We are more than the statistics and numbers and calculations and equivocations, more than the sum of the parts. Only when we speak in poetry do we begin to get an inkling of what it means to be human. I’ll give you an example:
During a War
Best wishes to you & yours,
he closes the letter.
For a moment I can’t
fold it up again –
where does “yours” end?
Dark eyes pleading
what could we have done
circle of earth, we did not want,
we tried to stop,
we were not heard
the dark eyes who are dying
now. How easily they
would have welcomed us in
for coffee, serving it
in a simple room
with a radiant rug.
Your friends & mine.
— Naomi Shihab Nye, You & Yours
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
someday far in the future,
you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answers.
And this, another jewel from Nora Gallagher, a friend who was talking about what had spoken to his grief:
When Phil died, the one question I had was where is he? I still go back to that moment when he stopped breathing and I feel the goosebumps roll over me as he enters the Other Realm. And there was this huge question there hanging, hanging. I asked a priest, ‘Where is Phil?’ And he gave me some hackneyed Christian line about where the dead go. I think he quoted a piece of scripture. It meant nothing to me.
She moves to later in the day, when her friend called.
While I was hiking up Tunnel Trail, I was thinking about what we talked about and I realized that I needed back then for the priest to enter into poetry because that is where Phil is. He could have said, ‘Well, Phil is at the zoo now.’ Something that would clearly express the fact that he is gone, no longer literal, not here, not visible, but not absent, not without influence, not dead. The problem with the priest’s response was that it was literal and Phil is not literal anymore! That’s why poetry and art are so important, because that’s where he is.” (67)
The most poetic way to serve food, I suppose, would be without words. I would simply create the dish, plate it, and send it out to you to taste and discover both the familiarity and the mystery in each mouthful. You would need to trust my craft and I would need to honor your interpretation. Then I could come out after you had finished and we could share a bottle of wine and enter into poetry, talking about what we had discovered together.
Maybe that’s how we live into the answers.