Fall in the Midwest is one of my favorite things. “Things” is a slippery, nonspecific word, but in this case, it fits my purpose perfectly. Compared to other “things” (time periods, places, people, objects, ideas) that I like, Midwest Fall ranks in the top ten, followed closely by Northeast Fall. (Note: had I been born a Northeasterner, I might have a reversed opinion — might.) Nothing pleases me more than a walk at sunset in late September, the shadows slanting long, the still air reddening my ears and the tips of my fingers. The early evenings celebrated with tea, ginger cookies, and a well-worn sweatshirt with the sleeves pulled down, the hood pulled up.
Of course, Fall Foods early helped define the season for me and helped it reach its rank of Favorite. Once the heat of the summer dissipated for good, my mom began her fall cooking routine. We traded grilled chicken for pork roast, fresh corn for squash of all varieties, tossed salads for chard with sweet potatoes and onions. For special occasions, there was pumpkin pie or rice pudding, baked for an hour or so (at a low temperature) to thicken it. I loved stealing up to my room, watching as the unclothed windows grew dim and listening to the jostle of dishes as my parents cooked dinner. Where summer seemed a season of restricted cooking — no baking, so as not to heat up the house — fall reintroduced a slate of dishes temporarily forbidden because of their preparation, which caused the AC to overwork itself.
In the Bay Area, the seasons blend together to form one cloudy, muddling, indeterminate span. Fall used to be — is, technically — my favorite season, but autumn doesn’t feel like autumn here. True, students started classes a few weeks ago, football season has begun, and the farmers market doesn’t offer quite so many berries, but I’m not feeling properly autumnal. This upsets me.
Last Sunday, the breeze and the low-rolling clouds, the slight chill in the air made fall seem like a real possibility, even in No Season Land. I turned on the heat when I woke up; I swaddled myself in my favorite megasized hoodie. When Hook and I made our trip to the farmers market, I admired the young chickens, freshly killed, stacked and stiff in a rolling cooler. I’d planned to purchase one of those chickens and roast it for dinner, but I don’t own a cleaver and would have had no way to remove the heads/feet. Discouraged (but not ready to give up), I purchased an organic chicken from the grocery store.
Neither Hook nor I had ever roasted a whole chicken. We had, however, prepared a whole turkey last Thanksgiving. Despite our failure to remove all of the giblets (oooops), the turkey was a crowd favorite: we’d followed Alton Brown’s recipe for a rub and filled the cavity with coarsely-chopped aromatic vegetables. After a nervous few hours — we had no meat thermometer and so had to estimate the cooking time, based on the bird’s weight — we removed the turkey from the oven and carved it. The skin, flecked by herbs, had crisped beautifully; the meat was juicy and not a hair overdone. Buoyed by this success, we set about preparing the chicken.
The gizzards were not something I wanted to deal with — not especially — but they’re an undeniable part of the project I’d taken on. I’d mentally steeled myself against having to reach into the cavity and remove a cold handful of organs, but the act still unnerved me. I know that organ meats are trendy! But I’m content to buck so many trends, this one included.
I wish I’d paid more attention when my mom prepared chickens for roasting. Knowing myself, I’d have been in my room reading; if I had been in the kitchen — leaning against the counter, occupying more than my fair share of workspace — I [regrettably] wouldn’t have been paying much mind to the prep my mom was doing. I can say with certainty, though, that mom never prepared a rub for the bird, and this is where our preparation techniques diverge.
For the turkey we prepared, Hook and I made a rub of olive oil and spices; we applied it both to the outside surface of the skin and beneath the skin, keeping the meat moist and allowing the whole turkey to absorb the flavors of the herbs and spices we’d chosen. I followed the same process with the chicken, pouring a measure of olive oil and adding salt, black pepper, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, and parsley. I slathered the chicken’s exterior, making sure that every crevice and fold was oiled.
I then gently pried the skin from the meat (taking care not to tear the skin) and rubbed it with the olive-oil mixture. Afterward, I spread a small amount of minced white onion under the skin so that the meat would take on the onion’s flavor. For stuffing, I used coarsely chopped carrots, celery and onion, along with two sprigs of fresh rosemary. Had I thought of it, I’d have thrown a few cloves of garlic in, too, but the cavity was smaller than I thought it would be and it was already full with the aforementioned vegetables. Next time, I’ll be using garlic (and lemon) for sure.
Here’s an embarrassing admission: I don’t own a meat thermometer. I did have one, but at some point during my move from MA to MN (or from MN to CA) it got lost; I keep convincing myself that it’s in Hook’s cutlery drawer, but it never is. Hook and I calculated a cooking time for the chicken based on its weight. I prayed that the meat wouldn’t be overcooked, dry chicken being one of the most boring things a person can eat, and also that it wouldn’t be undercooked. Not that there was much chance of undercooking, but as long as I was fretting, I thought I’d fret about the full range of Possible Things To Go Wrong.
While the bird roasted, Hook and I spent a lazy evening around the house. I internetted and read; Hook put laundry in and also checked the state of online affairs. The house grew warm; the smell of the chicken cooking caused my stomach to gurgle, so I ate a handful of licorices to stave off starvation. I was tempted to open the oven and take a peek, but I resisted this temptation.
After two hours came the moment of truth:
It was beautiful. I let the chicken sit for a few moments before moving it to a cutting board for carving. Long ago — we’re talking a decade at least — my dad explained how to properly carve a chicken, but I did not draw on this long-past lesson. Instead, I removed the breasts, serving one each to Hook and myself.
Hook had prepared his famous garlic-rosemary fried potatoes, the perfect accompaniment to the poultry. I know this sounds like tooting of my own horn (and my opinion may have been influenced by my considerable hunger), but this chicken was the best I’ve ever had. It was perfectly tender, not overcooked in the least, and the meat had taken on the subtle flavors of the vegetables (the onion especially). Hook’s potatoes were crisp and heavy on the garlic — just the way I like. We sat in silence in the darkening living room, the rush of traffic on Stanyan swelling and subsiding and swelling. For a few moments after finishing our meal, neither Hook nor I said anything. Then, Hook got up with a start.
“The wishbone,” he said. “Let’s break it.”
I’d forgotten that part of the chicken dinner. When I was young, my parents would save the wishbone: washing it clean of any meat and setting it to dry on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. Once deemed dry enough, the wishbone was given to me and my sister to crack. Eight times out of ten, Ali won.
Hook and I wouldn’t wait for the wishbone to dry; we didn’t even wash it. Standing at the sink, we positioned ourselves. On the count of three, we broke.
The satisfaction of that tiny snap brought to focus the fact that some pleasures — a warm kitchen, cold wine with fried potatoes, the sharing of a small, superstitious ritual — remain undiminished with time. Indeed, that time and shared experience only improve them.