At the end of a day of writing, reading other people’s work, and catching up on articles about the technical issues of creating work, there is nothing better than doing something that doesn’t require a computer. Something that makes me stand up, move around, be with other people. Leave the virtual world behind.
For me, that means getting into the kitchen. That ritual of creating a meal to share teaches me about patience, using my senses, selecting the right ingredients.
Over the weekend, my partner Mick and I got a whole chicken at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market. On Monday night, after a day of being less productive than I would have liked, I decided to pan roast it over a bed of potatoes and onions.
It’s a simple technique. Put a heavy skillet in the bottom third of the oven and preheat the whole thing to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut some good potatoes into half-inch wedges. Cut a couple of small onions into wedges, too, but leave the root end intact. Toss the vegetables with a little olive oil, some kosher salt, pepper, and whatever herbs you have on hand that go with chicken. Pat the whole chicken dry, stuff some herbs beneath the breast skin. Poke holes all over the skin, especially where there’s some fatty deposits. Rub the whole thing with a mixture of kosher salt and pepper. When the oven and skillet are all preheated, put the potatoes and onions into the skillet, listen to the sizzle. Put the whole chicken, breast side up, on top of the vegetables. Stuff the skillet back into the oven. Set the timer for about 55 minutes. Check the temperature of the chicken when the timer buzzes; make sure the breast temp reads about 165 and the thigh about 175. Take the chicken out of the skillet, put it on a plate, and put the skillet with the vegetables back into the oven for about 15 minutes.
When the chicken has rested for about five minutes, slash the skin between the thighs and breasts to let the steam out. Wait until the vegetables are done cooking to cut up the chicken. Let it reabsorb its own juices before taking it apart. The scent of roasting chicken and vegetables fills the whole house. The crunch of crispy chicken skin satisfies the tongue. The dog knows there’s good food to be had, waits at the feet of whoever cuts up the cooked bird.
Put the meat, potatoes, and onions on a big platter, serve it to anyone who’s hungry. Pour a glass of wine. Have a conversation. Savor the flavors of simple good food. Give the dog a sliver of chicken. Don’t rush through a meal; honor it.
Everything about cooking can be applied to writing. The attention to details, timing, layering ingredients. Letting the steam out of the chicken to crisp its skin a little more. Assembling a final product that appeals to someone who’s hungry. Using only ingredients that enhance the flavor, leaving out anything that is unnecessary. Noticing what works, what doesn’t. Remembering that what we create as cooks is meant to be shared. Generosity matters.
When I returned to my desk on Tuesday morning, the memory of the roasted chicken still fresh, I thought about the way poems are constructed, the way poets send their work to those of us who help decide what gets offered on a platter to the world’s readers. Poets who have not been patient, who have not paid attention to the layering of their ingredients and the use of senses, produce work that isn’t ready for anyone else to consume. I see that all the time when I read slush for Gyroscope Review. And I won’t deny that I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing, forgetting to step back far enough from my own work to see it for what it is – or isn’t – or waiting long enough for the ingredients to blend together in the right way.
Just as cooks evolve through constant practice, we also evolve as writers. We keep experimenting with images, thoughts, reactions, ideas about how things could be. Submitting work can be an act of bravery. But it’s also an act of generosity, of putting work out there with the idea that someone else might hunger for it, might find it satisfying.
Good work and good food cannot be rushed. We need things – art, literature, chicken – we can savor. Preferably with those we love. And, above all, we need the patience to do it right.
Photo by kcmickelson 2018