Yesterday morning a grandson who lives at a distance called, said he was in San Francisco, could he come down this afternoon for a visit? The young man is a world traveler, bi-lingual (French), a bec-fin. We were delighted. But what to cook for him? Something French, something superb. I went to Patricia Wells’s “My Master Recipes.” Wells, a lucky American living decades in Paris and Provence, has illuminated French cuisine for the rest of us. On the page of her “Chicken with Tarragon and Cream,” I’d scribbled “fabulous.” That would do it.
Tucking his phone back in his pocket, Bill asked would it be too much to also invite the two grandsons who live in Santa Cruz?…of course not. Dear Grandpa with four grandsons at his table—and our Cameron with his brother and two cousins! Ah yes, there was also a live-in girlfriend. We’d be seven.
Wells’s recipe is for six servings. “Servings,” as you have doubtless learned, is an amorphous term. For sure a number of our guests would want two of everything—one “serving” for them was two by recipe measure. I’d need to prepare eleven servings… I’d make a generous one-and-a-half times Wells’s recipe. No, double it.
At our market organic humanely raised whole roasting chickens were temptingly on sale. They were big. I told myself that was a break…weightier birds than the 3-to-4 pounds Wells called for would provide enough for a second night for us, bonus for the cook. I nervously chose two 5-pound birds—that’d give us four big drumsticks, four large thighs, four nice wings-with-breast-meat, and four breast pieces. Sixteen plump pieces.
I realized I was being curiously flustered in putting this supper together. Why? It was family, after all, and I’d cooked for everybody plenty. But the subliminal was reminding me that more and more I’ve come to feel Millennials and Generation Zs verge on the alien…dwell in an alternate universe. More and more I get the uneasy feeling that what is real to Bill and me, significant—the perilous state of the union for starters—is of no concern to–does not interest them. I guess I’ve felt this since Cameron came to live with us and spends much of his time noisily playing games in cyberspace with friends from here to Canada to Peru and back again. Jolly Monopoly around the kitchen table it ain’t.
The young are immersed in machinery I can’t fathom. Last night for example one grandson described something to me he enjoys in his free time and I could not comprehend what he was describing—was it a box that created tools for cyberspace? was it a gizmo that produced a game? He spoke quickly, in Millennial palaver…I was lost. I now think of my mother when the Internet was introduced, how it baffled her, how it concerned me that it baffled her, a woman who until then seized life with both hands. Her eyes went vacant when I described how to write and send a letter on the Internet. That was scary. Now it verges on the scary. I’m not accustomed to feeling uncomprehending. But of course not a day goes by that on the news we don’t see an M or Z doing gallant good, striving to improve our world. I wish I could hug Greta Thunberg…she’d make me feel better.
Time came when I steeped fresh branches of tarragon (a favorite herb) in heavy cream as called for (mouth-watering)…neatly sectioned the birds…nicely browned the pieces in butter and olive oil…tossed bits of shallots and garlic in the chicken-browning pot…returned the pieces to the pot with chicken stock and set it to simmering. Time came to boil up the linguine—freshly made here in Santa Cruz—a suggestion of Welles’s. Oh gosh, it looked floury. Simmered two bags of frozen baby peas. Set out the salad makings but would they want salad? Something told me no so I left the frisée in its bag, didn’t lift the mixed baby greens into the salad bowl… But I did chop the second bouquet of tarragon for finishing the sauce…
I was realizing one unhappy thing: weightier chickens was a mistake. A 5-pound bird is luscious when roasted in heat from every direction. But individual pieces were too large, too fleshy for the gentle heat of braising. Also, to my dismay, fatter chicken resulted in a float of golden fat atop the sauce. I’d never seen that.
Making the sauce, because the chicken pieces were so large I’d had to add so much broth to cover them that at the end there was an ocean of sauce. It needed thickening. Rather than delay serving by simmering down the sauce, I confess I whisked in instant flour. Surely a No-No in Pat Wells’s kitchen, but in our part of the world, cream sauce is a No-No if it’s runny. I kept whisking in the Wondra but somehow couldn’t bring the sauce to velvet. Finally I said the hell with it and in went the chopped fresh tarragon. Maybe it would be okay. But okay wasn’t what I’d expected.
On serving, everyone wanted white meat. Oy. Cameron, being youngest, was served last so I could say, “Cameron, here’s your fave, a drumstick—TWO drumsticks!” Big smile. But the guest of honor kept pushing his chicken-wing-with-breast-meat around his plate—“Let me give you this juicy piece, my dear…” “No, thanks, this is great…” It was left on his plate half-eaten.
The fresh fettuccine was gummy.
“Ah…anyone for salad? I have lovely greens…”
The peas were good. Next to the great La Brea Bakery baguette, the peas were the best part of supper. No, that’s not true. For dessert I’d combined fresh raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and quartered strawberries, topped each serving with a scoop of mango sorbet. Scottish shortbread on the side. That was the best part of supper, Mother Nature composed the dessert.
So after four thousand years of cooking for my parents then my husband and children then guests then more guests then cookbooks and whomever there was wanted to eat, I was embarrassed to think I knew better than the lesson you’re taught, I’m told, in every cooking school: For a meal that matters, make something you’ve successfully made before—and make it the way you made it before!
But here’s what I’ll do next time when serving Millennials and Generation Z’s. We’ll have the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once” playing in the background so anything I cook that proves absurdist will fit right in.
Wanting to please them I would posit is akin to a fool’s errand. When visiting Grandma’s I always wanted what was familiar at Grandma’s and always anticipated that treat along with the warmth of her table and persona. Actually the food was much less important than Grandma, IMHO.
As for hugging Greta Thunberg – ewwwww!
Your Grandma was a fortunate woman to have so sensitive a grandson!
I’m sure that your meal was fabulous Sylvia. Younger folks were probably not hungry having spent the hour before dinner at Starbucks. Their loss. Hugs to you and Bill.
Just saw this, Michele–sorry!and how sweet of you…most immensely appreciated. Big love to you all!
Trust me, Gen Z still gets hungry. I feed our doctoral students at my apartment from time to time — though much less ambitiously than Sophisticated Sylvia — and always plan on double or more, so I too can live on leftovers for a day or several. It never happens, everything goes. Maybe it’s their parsimonious fellowships that leave them so eager for a free dinner.
They are SO FORTUNATE to be your guests, Professor…in ever so many ways.