Where, oh where, is the boneless chicken breast?
I am staring into the depths of the chest freezer. There are tan plastic grocery bags concealing wonders—roasts and chops and fish fillets and French fries and assorted bags of frozen veggies. There are little one-pound plastic tubs—the same kind of tubs I am SURE I put the chicken in—that hold translucent amber bricks of homemade broth and dark red textured blocks of beef burger. There is a bag of those white freezy things we put in the cooler when we travel with perishable food.
I do not see the chicken.
I move packages, and I plunge my hand, seeking; I stagger frozen food items precariously, searching for the elusive chicken. Food towers sway and my fingers start to ache, and I think hopefully that maybe I put that chicken in the freezer upstairs, the above-the-refrigerator freezer where I store things I want to easily grab.
Upstairs, I open the freezer and pull out two foil-wrapped frozen yellow cake layers.Then three lonely Nathan’s hot dogs. Two chunks of pie crust about the shape and size of nasty, meant-to-hurt, snowballs. There’s half a package of soft tortilla shells, several containers of chicken enchilada soup, and two packages of dark roast decaf. That’s what I can see. More hides in the depths of the freezer; it’s amazing, actually, how much food I can pack into this relatively small piece of frozen real estate.
And it’s amazing how hard something, once securely wrapped and relegated to either freezer’s depths, can be to find. I still can’t see the chicken. And I am thinking chicken stir fry for dinner.
And all this time, a persistent little thought has been running anxiously up and down the corridors of my mind, banging on every door. But my faithful mind-keeper has been one jump ahead, leaping from room to room via hidden passageways, leaning hard against those locked doors, calling sweetly, in a cleverly disguised falsetto, “Go AWAY! There’s NO ONE here!”
But the little thought does not give up. It runs the mind-keeper down, rags her till she’s weary, weary, weary, losing her gusto and her grip, and one of those doors finally opens a tiny crack. It is just enough for the thought I didn’t want to entertain to slip through and demand attention.
And there it sits, plunk in the middle of that bony cavern, right where I can’t avoid it:
“You need to inventory your freezers!”
That’s the thought I didn’t want to acknowledge, because that’s a cold, hard job I hate to do. But—sigh—it clearly is time.
I get out a clipboard and a yellow legal pad. I grab a Bic Biro. I put away the dishes that were drying and clear off the counters. I take a deep breath, open the upstairs freezer door, and I begin.
Everything comes out, every single rigid and frozen package. I spread them on the counter, one by one, and when the freezer is empty, I take my dishcloth and I wipe away all the detritus…coffee grounds and desiccated, frozen, tiny green peas, wisps of plastic packaging. I wipe down the little shelves in the freezer door, and then I turn to the patient frozen friends waiting on my counter.
I find a lot of containers—old cottage cheese tubs and the kind of ersatz Tupperware that some cold cuts are packaged in—full of kale. I know it is kale because my thoughtful past self wrote that very clearly on the lids. What I did not write was the date I sealed that kale up and stuck it in the freezer.
How long ago, I wonder, did I last bring kale home? Was it last year’s CSA? Wait—did we even HAVE a CSA last year?
I open a container and contemplate the pretty ice crystals clinging to the dark green leaves. I contemplate, too, Mark’s response to kale.
“Oh,” he would say. “Oh, joy.”
I find an empty shopping bag, and I begin popping frozen pucks of kale into it, slapping the empty containers into the dishwater to be washed and recycled.
When I am done, there are five aged dark green vegetative disks in the bag. How did I ignore that much kale for two whole years? I sigh in wonderment, tie the shopping bag firmly, and run it out to the garbage bin.
I list other forgotten treasure, such as…
…half a pound of turkey bacon.
…two bags of corn and one of peas.
…half a box of Steakumms.
…a package of cooked boneless pork.
…a package of cooked boneless chicken.
…a single serving package of Edward’s cheesecake. (How did THAT escape notice?)
I put everything back, neatly—the veggies on one side, meat on the other; the nice flat packages on the bottom, the lumpier, bumpier packages on top. I make neat little corridors so we can see what waits for us in those frigid depths.
On the door, I put the coffee, the pie crust, the forlorn and neglected hot dogs. And when it is all put away, I acknowledge that there was no uncooked boneless chicken in this freezer.
I take my clip board and head downstairs.
The chest freezer holds more food and offers more challenges. I line things up on the stairs, and the more I dig out, the farther I lean into the frosty depths. There’s detritus here, too, but it’s not so amenable to being swiped out with a flick of a dishcloth. I try, but little dots of broccoli, errant corn kernels, unidentified hard green things, and shreds of paper and plastic elude me.
Finally, dodging the frozen exhibit on the cellar steps, I run upstairs to get the handheld vacuum. Then I suck those shreddy little buggers out of the freezer. I wipe it down, set the vac aside, and begin replacing items and noting them on my list.
…green beans (x2).
…3 pkgs. ham.
…thick cut bacon.
…one slab ribs.
…chicken broth (x15).
…pork shoulder blade roast.
…corn on cob.
…stir fry veggies (x2).
And on it goes, until all the food has been sorted and neatly stacked into the newly tidied freezer.
There is no boneless uncooked chicken. There just is not.
That afternoon, I look at my list, decipher the things I wrote too quickly with cramped, frozen fingers, and I discard the idea of a stir fry. Instead, I take the boneless cooked pork and the cooked boneless chicken from the upstairs freezer. I left it defrost just a little and then I slice all of it, as thin as my best knife will make it. I defrost, too, the soft tortilla shells.
I shred lettuce. I roughly chop, and then I caramelize, a whole onion. I grate cheddar cheese.
When the boyos come home, I sear the pork meat in one frying pan and the chicken slices in another. I brush the tortilla shells with olive oil and let them puff quickly in a hot skillet. Jim sets out the plates and Mark chops a pepper, and I realize I have used just about every frying pan or skillet that I own. But we have a wonderful fajita bar.
We load the tortilla shells up with the things we like. Some of us take everything. Some incline toward only carbs and meat and cheese. We pour tall glasses of water and carry our plates to the table and we take the day just past, spread it out, fit our pieces together, and wrestle it into sensibility.
Mark pours hot sauce; I go back for the last scoop of onion. Jim asks, “Does anyone care if I finish off the pork?”
We eat every bit of fajita food, and, “Man,” says Mark. “That hit the spot.” He volunteers gamely to wash the stack of pots and pans.
After dinner, I sit down with the clip board. I cross off, “half frzn pepper,” “pkg cked pork,” and “pkg cooked chkn.”
And I contemplate. What could we do with one boneless beef steak? How could I use a pork chuck roast? Maybe I could chop one of those packages of ham into a steaming casserole of scalloped potatoes. Maybe, for a treat, we could have Lee Brothers Mac and Cheese and barbecued ribs on Sunday.
I have that filled-in feeling, that recognition of what is there. It’s out in the open; it’s clear. I know what I have to work with.
Now I can plan.
If I were one of those annoying, aging English-teacher types, I’d say there was a metaphor here, something involving bringing stuff out of dark corners, discarding what’s stayed past its use-by date, and unleashing imagination on those everyday ingredients that had been hidden away. Thank goodness—right???–thank goodness I’m not one of those!