Sunday, September 30, 2012

Playing With Chickens ~ A Memoir - Rough Draft

Chicken Marsala on Cous Cous with Caprese Salad
My dad knows three dishes and one breakfast really well.  Chicken Tikki, Chicken Normandy, Chicken Marsala, and Belgium Pancakes.  The rest of the time he grills or pretends, even after 5 years in NYC before marriage, and then 12 in Westchester of doing extra shifts as a caterer to make ends meet.  Chicken.  Always chicken.  It's part of that whole ends meet thing, or in this case, emphasis on the meat.  My Dad pursued a life of what he loves, which is creative work involving theater and trumpet and interior design and writing and whatever other things he manages to excel at.  He currently spends most of his career hours designing sets and lights for Off-Broadway and Highschool theaters, but he also picks up other odds and ends.  This "starving artist" lifestyle lead to a period of time before my time where my father (who was already lactose intolerant) couldn't afford red meat anymore, and one day found his system couldn't either.  Hence, chicken.  It became a central joke to whenever I was visiting my Dad in New York.  Back in Michigan my Mom would ask me, "What would you like for your last dinner before you go?" and I'd always reply "anything but chicken!" before we burst into a fit of giggles.  That was how it went.  The jokes, the jibes, dancing around the fact that these were separate households, separate food cultures.  There was my Stepfather who almost always wanted red meat, and my Dad who wanted chicken
I was always a good eater as a child, pre and post divorce.  This was most likely because my baby food consisted of my parent's blendered dinners, so I was predisposed to trying more than just Gerber's applesauce.  Although Mom claims that the baby food isn't that bad, considering during her poor phase an an actress far before me she was teased for and bought Gerber in bulk for herself because it was cheaper.  I think Prune was her favorite.  Growing up, chicken was a staple, although fish would occasionally meander in.  My mom's creativity, German and Bohemian roots, and her mother and Grandmother's upbringing of her in a farm town in Wisconsin always brought delicious comfort food with the occasional harder meat snuck in to our table.  She always swore he was making a bigger deal out of his digestion problems then was actually the case.  Thus was the nature of their bickering.  I can honestly say I don't know which one is more accurate, but I can tell you when bacon would grace our plates in my father's Sleepy Hollow apartment, he would later being trumpet out his ass as skillfully as he did through the actual instrument itself.
My father never taught me how to grill.  The first dish he taught me was Chicken Normandy, in his third house in Sleepy Hollow, NY.  It had a view of the Tappen Zee bridge on it's front porch, and a pleasant backyard.  There was grass, and a tree that he nailed chairs going up it.  "A racoon did climb the tree...  But a woodchuck lived under it. (and Briar Rabbit said...)," as my Dad joked.  There was a small dart board I failed at and a vegetable plot that mainly housed peppers which my dad would mix into dishes like shrimp salad and burn our mouths with - but that's another story.  Chicken Normandy can involve chicken breasts and thighs, but we wanted hearts and gizzards.  As someone who at the time couldn't find it in her heart to like liver (although I tried), I was amazed to find an adoration in the texture and flavors of chicken hearts.  Who knows, maybe you are what you eat.  We'd make it in a red wine sauce and let it simmer inside of my Dad's clay cookery made by gourmet-topf, with his super secret seasoned flour recipe crisping everything up just right.  After letting it steep for hours in a way much more potent than tea, we'd pour it over a bed of mashed potatoes and plop it on t.v. trays and watch multiple episodes of Buffy before switching to personal conversations at 2am, after which his Housemate (who I called my younger brother) would finally stumble in from work or whatever he was up to.  For dessert I'd breathe in second hand smoke wiffs with John as we caught up the 4 or so months I had been gone as he smoked a cigarette on the stoop of their place in Sleepy Hollow.
Another meal I learned in that two story rickity yellow house was Belgium Pancakes with lemon and powdered sugar, although I never make it myself.  I blame not having a cast iron skillet, but really I'm just too chicken to.  The previous night I had come in and Dad had a gig, so I stayed home, claiming I could feed myself while enjoying a night curled under a blanket watching The Mentalist.  When it got to be around dinner time I went downstairs to the kitchen (on the same floor as John's room, Upstair's being Dad's domain), and decided crepes would be easy.  So I hunt for flower, and the only thing I can find that isn't an empty container or dead-bug infested is a package of whole-wheat-multi-grain crap without an expiration date, which I mean to take it must be fine.  Then I look for butter.  Fuck.  But there's eggs!  Hope.  Milk?  No way.  My dad's lactose intolerant, remember?  So with olive oil as a substitute for butter, whole wheat dust for flour, almond/dribbles of soy milk for milk's substitute, and beautiful and perfectly oval eggs, I attempt to make a batch of crepes, excited to return to my episode upstairs about Red John the Serial Murder.  Somehow one of my crepes (unappetizing as it looks) manages to look like a mark quite similar to the one I saw opening the episode, as Red John's mark.  I felt a little bit like a chicken then and there.  It was justified, alright? So I take this stack of yuck upstairs, and eat it slowly, not to enjoy it, but to get a bite down and then drink a lot of liquid to cover up the taste.  The next morning, Dad makes promises of Belgium pancakes, these delightfully fluffy poofed up confections of delicious that you drizzle lemon and powdered sugar on, which he'd accompany with an entire pot or two of coffee in a mug while wearing his black, green, and purple striped terrycloth robe from my childhood.   I was so excited.  As we went downstairs John came out.  "I was robbed last night,"  he said, his voice somewhat angry and sad.  After accusing Dad of not locking the front door a few times, and then them figuring out that it was probably the roofer who knew the back lock was out, we created a timeline.  That stack of crepes probably saved my life.  His cash was gone, electronics too, and his hunting knife was laying on the bed, as if the perpetrator had taken it out for protection.  If I had gone downstairs to make myself a second helping, I wouldn't have gotten to learn how to make Belgium Pancakes at the very least.  I still can't make a crepe to this day without checking for burn marks in the Red John pattern, just in case it's a sign, and I still leave the Pancakes to my father.  I stick to his chicken recipes.
The pattern of houses after I moved to Michigan went so:  There was the apartment in Queens where I was practically in a closet with a giant cartoon vulture on the wall protecting me, where he was poor enough that I discovered I loved having ice cubes wrapped in paper towel for dessert; The sounds of Jazz, ambulances, and occasional loud shouts, maybe even gun shots from past the graffiti infested walls of the park across the street from his second apartment were my lullaby, the train here still bringing me a soothing sense of home.  I have fond memories of painting with him on the fire escape, and discovering I had a loft constructed by my techie father, like a treehouse.  We started a mural of a lake with cattails which staid unfinished and was painted over when he had to move again;  The switch out of the city ended up in the highest level in an old Victorian Home in Sleepy Hollow with fun slanted ceilings and walls and mirrors that reflected back show posters like Porgy and Bess and accent walls of bright rust colors;  then the next place where I had my dream room that was the four poster bed inhabiting it.  There were narrow ceiling high shelves cramped next to it with cloth and swords and skulls and old books for decorations; then there was the third house previously mentioned and then there was the shift to the house shared in Suffren with work friends Louis and Courtney and their dogs.  Even the human-wary animals remembered me from Queens days where they lived on the first floor. I was at that house once.  Dad and I finished my Brown RISD dual application with 30 minutes to spare on New Years Eve and then proceeded to swing dance knocking over chairs in his flat space also known as the basement where we ate takeout Chinese instead of the Japanese that was tradition, and then there was the final transition to his current house in Nyack which I have been to for a day and a half, because we technically stayed in his ex Girlfriend's for my last visit.
This is where I learned Chicken Marsala, which is now my go-to dish.  It involves chicken (as always), flour, salt, pepper, oregano, mushrooms (optional), butter, olive oil, and Marsala and sherry (both can be either the alcoholic or cooking type, depending on who's going grocery shopping).  At the time, I was getting ready to start college, and we both knew that meant that our 4 month intervals was going to become longer, such as the 9 months since I've seen him last.  Hence him not teaching me Chicken Tiki (his new favorite) yet.  He guised this meal under "you just got out of a bad relationship, so I'm going to teach you a dish that's a test run for a good relationship." I test ran this recipe with someone who I wanted to know if a friendship would work out.  We sat on his apartment tiled floor, using the back of a frying pan and paper towel for lack of a cutting board or clean/stable counter, laughing in such a way that I knew if we could get through that with classiness and joy while I barked orders for "more pounding!" or "FLIP FLIP IT NOW" we would be fine.  How the meal is cooked is you first heat the pan.  The way to tell if the pan is hot enough is if the "water dances".  If when you flick water accusingly at the pot and it beads and runs around, then it's ready.  While you're waiting for the pan, you flatten chicken, preferably with a meat flattener on a cutting board with a rim that will cut the juice, although substitues will do.  This is also a recipe I use for when I'm stressed, for obviously implicated reasons.  Then you get your hands comfortably coated, dipping the chicken in the mix of flour, oregano, and seasonings, as if making a sand castle.  Then you carefully plop it into the pan, which you've already put butter and olive oil in.  Then let it become golden like marshmellow's are supposed to, adding the mushrooms in on the flip, then rinsing it all into a larger pot (or the same pot depending) with Marsala and sherry, putting a top on it, and letting it simmer either in the oven or on the countertop.  Then put over a startch, grab a green, and enjoy.
Recipes with my father are memories, with chicken being the national meat.  Maybe it has something to do with us having such short intervals of time to establish our own miniature complicated culture of father daughter.  It feels like home.


  1. McKenna! There's so much life in food. I love how you tie you and your dad together through these recipes that he swears by. This is a winding story and covers a lot of ground. At one point you use flower instead of flour, just a heads up. All of these memoirs are making me hungry....Your memoir really depicts a not easy, but delicious life that you've had. I can't believe that about the robber! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I always manage little silly mistakes like that. Looking forward to hearing ideas on how to make my windiness more coherent.

  2. Very personal. I like how each different chicken dish had a separate aspect of your father and your relationship attached to it. I also like how all the foods are very different. Overall, very interesting and insightful pieces.

  3. Your paragraph on chicken masala is making dangerously hungry.

    I like how you tell us the importance of chicken in your family dynamics, but then you show it too through your experiences and your memories associated with specific dishes. I also how you bring up the Belgium pancakes in the beginning, then bring it back so it remains relevant throughout your memoir (as well as bringing the focus back to chicken):

    "If I had gone downstairs to make myself a second helping, I wouldn't have gotten to learn how to make Belgium Pancakes at the very least. I still can't make a crepe to this day without checking for burn marks in the Red John pattern, just in case it's a sign, and I still leave the Pancakes to my father. I stick to his chicken recipes."

    Also, as you know McKenna, I love puns. I think you can tweak this sentence into something hilarious:
    "As someone who at the time couldn't find it in her heart to like liver (although I tried), I was amazed to find an adoration in the texture and flavors of chicken hearts."

    1. I would love to learn how to make my writing more punny. Humor isn't my strong suit. Let's brainstorm!
      Thanks for the kind comments.

  4. Great piece McKenna! I love the storyline after all the dishes that your father has taught you. Also, your wonderful descriptions of the dishes bring out a lot of the senses... I find that very difficult to do. One thing you might want to do is to go in detail and contrast your life in Michigan to New York. Thats just an idea though, great work!

  5. Mckenna,
    I really loved how you equated yourself with food! I thought it was especially powerful when you were talking about chicken heart and said "maybe you are what you eat" after all. I thought it evoked a lot of emotion and showed your feelings about the situation you were dealing with.

    I also loved that you chose one central piece to focus on. Using chicken as a gateway to a thousand different things. It allowed you to touch on multiple memories without being too random or jumpy.

    On thing I would consider revising is some of the sentence structure you use. It can make it fragmented and hard to read. I sometimes feel like you're talking about an inside joke that I'm not a part of or something.

    Overall I thought your piece was very thoughtful and thought provoking!

  6. McKenna,
    I love your voice in this piece! Chicken is so symbolic of your family's dynamic, not only between you and your dad, and I think you illustrate that really well!

    Like Taylor, I think you may want to take a peek at your sentence structure. I'm sure many of your phrases were structured stylistically, but I found myself slightly confused at some points. It might be helpful to examine the structure of each sentence and see if you can simplify it at all.

    I love the pictures you attached in the next post! It's so nice to see things illustrated sometimes!

    1. That confusion is typical for my writing. I'll bring my red proverbial pen!
      Thanks for taking the time to look at the pictures. Sometimes words fail, and they're important memories to me.

  7. Maybe if you decide you want to come eat my mom's food you can request her chicken tikka masala (yes, she takes requests too). I don't like it (it's too spicy for me), but you probably would. My dad and my brother absolutely love the stuff.
    I really liked something you said in class, about how no matter where you were it was the food that made the place home. I think the exact words you used were "gypsy home." I LOVE THIS IDEA. You might even take that and run with it, thinking about how you took the dishes he taught you to other places you went (e.g., college), and whether or not the food makes wherever you are home even though your dad isn't there to share it with you.