Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When I was very young, my mother reveled in the kitchen, working side-by-side with my father to recreate delicacies that couldn't be found in America. Traditional, complicated foods were plotted and savored with some regularity. Deep fried fritters that required a strange powder for the dough to hold were prepared in our little kitchen and doused with honey. The skins of the oranges we snacked on after dinner were saved for weeks so that we could make dried slivers of zest to tuck into rice, along with pistachios and barberries and saffron. We would pick the stems from leaves of parsley while watching The Cosby Show, before my father would take a big mezzaluna to chop it down into a fine mass along with other picked over herbs, before my mother would fry the herbs until they turned a very dark color, and they were ready to be stewed with onions and meat for several hours before being served with rice. There were nights when we would sit at a picnic blanket in the living room, smacking and sucking marrow out of bones, eating a mash of beans and meat with our fingers, using thin lavash bread to scoop it up.

Then came the doldrums, roughly the years surrounding my grandfather's long illness and his death. With his passing, something in the house unraveled, the tie to fatherland grew dim, and my mother's enthusiasm for filling the house with the smells of her childhood home seemed to wither for a time. And so, the cooking began to fall to me.

There was one dish that I made for many years, at the direction of my mother. Chicken with onions and turmeric. It is exactly what it sounds like, a most unenthusiastic recipe that filled our bellies without flair or nostalgia. Sliced onions were briefly sauteed before raw chicken and a heaping tablespoon of turmeric were added to a pot. A cup or two of water was added and a long simmer was set under way. I'd make a little pot of white rice and a salad of lettuce and tomato dressed with lemon and olive oil and that would be that. I was probably 11.

I later joked that eating this chicken so frequently made me become a vegetarian for 10 years once I turned 15. That might be true.

Tonight I came home somewhat late, and decided to bank a bit of cooked protein for the remainder of lunches this week to tie together all the loose bits of leftovers in my refrigerator right now. I'd thawed some chicken, but I cook chicken so rarely that I hardly know what to do with it, really. So I made the chicken with onions and turmeric, slopping it together in the pot on a sort of auto-pilot that hadn't grown rusty in the many years since I last made the dish. Then that yellow smell filled the house, and I remembered how long it had been.

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