It is a cold, gray, wet afternoon, and the streets are coated with leaves, sodden and slick.
I talk my self out of the walk I should take and decide to make some soup instead.
I find a baggie of red pepper slices and a package of boneless chicken in the freezer. It occurs to me that we have not had chicken corn chowder in a long, long time. I rummage in the cookbooks and find The Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes (copyright 1999; Mark and Jim got this for me long years ago). I open the book; it flips right to Chicken Corn Chowder. We have made this recipe many, many times, especially during the law school years.
The kitchen becomes a bustling place. I put the solid, frozen poultry block in a big skillet, pour water in up to its knees, set it to steam on a slow burner. The chicken was a deal Mark picked up when he and Jim were in Westerville; they stopped at Fresh Thyme and snarfed up bargains, including boneless chicken: 1.69 a pound.
While it poaches, I chop veggies: the pepper while it’s still frozen-crisp, potatoes, and onion. And I remember that the potatoes and onion are freebies. Visiting a friend, I went to her local supermarket and discovered an amazing sale. If I bought a plump chuck roast, the store would give me nine other pot-roast-y items free. The onions and potatoes were in the mix. I filled a cooler and brought my goodies home to unpack and ponder.
The roast was so big I cut it into three hefty pieces. We used one chunk that night, making beef fajitas. I froze the rest, with hazy thoughts of soups and stews.
But now I dig into the sack of small potatoes, wash them well, dice them fairly small, put them in a bath of cold water. The chicken sizzles and spits; I add another inch of water, and I flip the fowl, which breaks apart into separate, still pinkish, cutlets. I sprinkle on light seasoning—just a little salt and pepper—and go back to my chopping.
I peel my freebie onion, toss the skins, and dice that too.
This is a pantry-shelf kind of dish. While the chicken completes cooking through, I search my cupboards and shelves. I pull out a can of creamed corn; way back, I find a can of evaporated milk. I measure the half cup of milk I need and pour the rest into a plastic container and slide it into the fridge. In the back of my mind, thoughts about how we can use that extra milk begin to simmer.
I dig out the packet of herbs de Provence I bought at the farm store. This recipe calls for a little cayenne, too.
I chop the chicken, thinking that Jim won’t eat the chowder, and I remember there’s a jar of Alfredo sauce in the pantry. That came from a burgeoning basket we won, and James loves chicken Alfredo.
I fill the big pasta pot, drizzle in some oil, and put it on the simmer burner to warm up to the boiling point.
The chicken is done. I turn off the flame, look at the clock, and head off to pick up Jim from work.
We need a dessert, I think, and I pull a butter wrapper from the freezer. I shine up the insides of my baking pan. While the chicken cools, I boil together corn syrup and sugar. When they are bubbling hard, I turn off the heat and stir in a cup of peanut butter. It’s a thick, hot, viscous syrup, and I pour it over the crisp rice cereal I’ve dumped into the pasta bowl.
I stir, vigorously, and rice krispies fly everywhere, until they are tamed into obedience by the sweet syrup. They tumble into the pan; I press them down and melt chocolate in the microwave to spread over the top. Buckeye bars, we call them, sweet and chewy and not a shard of gluten in the mix.
I put the pan, warm and heavy now, on top of the toaster to cool.
Jim chortles over something he’s watching in the family room.
The rain begins again, hard and insistent.
I pull chicken from the frying pan, I get the big knife out, and I chop.
Mark comes running in, glinting rain droplets, a little after five, and exclaims about good smells. There are three pots simmering on the stove. The chowder lifts and bubbles, lofting herb-scent into the warm, steamy kitchen. The Alfredo sauce heaves sullenly, weighted down by its own richness and its bounty of chicken chunks. The pasta water is popping, jittery and anxious.
Jim decides he’d like linguine noodles, and we pull them from their plastic package and satisfy the agitated water shivering in the pasta pot.
Mark lights the fire in the fireplace to cut the chill, and we gather over steaming plates. And it comes to me, rich and fast, the meaning of thankfulness, the reality of bounty. We have enough and plenty; we have true gifts of food…food we bought with the pay from our labors, food that was gifted to us in surprising, delightful ways.
Mark savors a spoonful of chowder.
“Such good flavors,” he says. “Remember how Cheek used to love this?”
Todd, a young law school classmate, used to pass Mark notes in class when he was in need of a home-cooked meal.
“I like chicken corn chowder,” the note would say.
Soon, we would cook up a batch, and Mark would invite Todd and other friends over.
Tonight, this food has the savor of herbs and the comfort of memory.
The canned Alfredo sauce, Jim says, is really, really good. And when I washed the jar, I discovered it was beautiful and decorative, a stamped mason jar…something we can use, maybe to pack up some kind of savory Christmas goodies.
There’s past, present, and future in this meal.
And a call to remember and be thankful, in this month of Thanksgiving; we have much to give thanks for, and that is not true, we know, for everyone tonight. A call to action; a time to reckon how we can share our gifts.
I take a long, sharp knife and cut the rice krispie treats into bars. We carry dishes to the dishwasher; we fill the sink with hot soapy water. Jim wipes the table. I lift burners with a potholder and sponge off the dappled, overworked stove top.
Mark is elbow-deep in soapy water, telling a story about a very nice person from his office who went home for lunch and never had time to eat. Outside the last sip of sky-light is gone and the sky gentles into full dark.
Dishes done, table cleared, I take my book to the reading chair. I munch a Buckeye bar and read about magicians in the Victorian era, and my socked-up feet toast in the warmth of the fire.
Warm and dry and sated, family safe around me, I am struck, physically, by my luckiness, a luck I enjoy, but did not, particularly, earn.
The rain still comes down, relentless, steady.