I've been sick for the last week with a severe cold or mild flu -- either way I've been coughing up thick viscous things my friends no longer wish described to them and living with a head that feels as full as the A train at rush hour, and just about as civil. I ventured into the city yesterday to make up a computer class I missed, starting to feel better, and today I felt like I was past the worst for the first time.
I’ve been living on Whole Foods soups and homemade soup or stews I froze in individual servings months ago. When I was out yesterday I stocked up on a few things and bought some chicken breasts for when I started getting back my appetite for more solid food. Today I decided to go for it. I crushed a bunch of garlic cloves, threw them into a pot with baby carrots and sliced shallots, with the intent of pouring in a cup of red wine before I tossed it in the oven with the chicken. I cleaned the breasts and laid them on the veggie bed, and looked for some seasonings as I salted and peppered them. I have a jar of smoked paprika I bought at a friend’s suggestion that comes off the shelf from time to time to jolly up a meal, so I pulled it down.
The only reason I don’t use it more often is that the jar has a cork, not a shake lid, so I can’t sprinkle things with it. I don’t have a small strainer, but still fuzzy headed, I devised a plan with a fork and the big strainer I use to drain pasta that ended with the lightly oiled chicken completely covered in paprika. I decided to just roll with it, add a couple cups of red wine and put the pot in the oven to brown the chicken before I covered it and let it slow roast.
Looking down at the chicken my first memory had been of a dish my mother used to make that she called Paprika Chicken. It was only chicken breasts sprinkled with paprika and broiled crisp. I loved the crunchy skin, tinted dark red and brown by the flame and seasoning, remember it as one of many “special” meals my mom made for us. She also made Egg Foo Yung, bamboo shoots mixed with egg and spices and fried into pancake-sized discs drenched in sweet brown sauce; Tuna Casserole, creamy canned tuna, with crunchy crumb topping; Turkey ala King, chunks of white breast meat simmered in cream of mushroom soup from whatever cans hadn't been used in the tuna. My mom knew how to work a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup.
I can’t remember them all, but they flew through my head as I stared down at the paprika covered chicken. Looking back, most of them were budget stretchers, ways to feed a family of six on a limited income, ways to make meat go farther and still nourish your children. The reason we never felt like we were "eating poor" was that my mom made something wonderful out of it, turned their introduction to the table into a treasured family treat!
I LOVED Egg Foo Yung night! I didn’t eat sprouts any other time, and couldn’t see them in any other dish -- it was the only reason we had Soy Sauce in the house, a meal with a combination of flavors I didn’t eat any other time. We didn’t live in New York with a Chinese Restaurant every two blocks. My mother’s table may have been the most exotic around in places like Biloxi, Missisippi, where we lived in Air Force housing and could do as we pleased.
It leaves me with ever more respect for my mother, and the slight of hand tricks she used to keep us in line and on the straight and narrow. No matter what our reality may have been in good or bad years, when she was married with a husband’s support, or single and sometimes only just surviving, she never let us feel anything less than proud, and I think it was the greatest gift she gave us.
Spilling paprika on chicken is a funny trigger to take me there, but that is how the writing mind works, freely associative, and in times like this when it takes me to a pleasant place I haven’t been to in decades, it’s a very nice thing to have in your head. It’s also nice to remember where these things come from as I recover enough to go back to work on the novel.