The Dinner Dance
For Summer Miller, dinner is more than a chance to feed her family.
I'm cooking two days ahead, but I'm right on schedule. The enchiladas are prepped for tonight. The chicken—the chicken is for tomorrow. Or maybe leftovers, but probably chicken.
The children set the table—plates, cups, forks, napkins. My back is to the room, placing a 9-by-13 baking dish in the oven.
"Dinner should be ready in about 20 minutes. Why don't you go outside and play?"
My son wants to play video games and my daughter wants to watch people make slime on YouTube. I insist and the house is quiet for mere minutes, until one storms in the front door hurt in some way by the other's lack of sharing or turn-taking or poor negotiation skills.
I exhale, defeated, and tell them to wash their hands for dinner.
My husband emerges from the basement wearing his pajamas, because it's 6:30 p.m. and he always changes into pajamas when he gets home. Unless he's going for a run, or a bike ride, or he has to mow the lawn.
We kiss briefly, like old acquaintances being reintroduced at a party, then discuss the regular things people who've been together for nearly 20 years discuss.
"How was your day?"
"Good, busy. Yours?"
"About the same."
The children appear and the enchiladas are nearly ready. I finish cutting wedges of lime, chopping cilantro and crumbling cotija cheese.
"Can you grab the sour cream out of the fridge?"
"Here's a spoon."
We sit down to eat.
The kids discuss their day. My mind wanders. I sort of just ended up spending my life with Steve. I know I shouldn't say we made a huge lifelong commitment this way, but we did. We met. Dated for four months. I left the country for two months. He picked me up at the airport, took me back to his place and I never left. That was 18 years ago. Still, we were both sure of the other person. I knew very clearly what I loved about him, and he knew what he loved about me.
Our first date was the unveiling of our many differences. He was eight years my senior and owned a house. I owned as little as possible. I was urban. He was rural. I was (then) a vegetarian. He was a hunter. I hated guns. He owned four of them. I knew nothing about his world, and everything about him seemed exotic to me. He was unquestionably different than the artists and musicians I often dated. I was nothing like the small-town girls he knew. He had a sturdiness and reliability about him that I loved. He was manly in a way that made me feel safe, but gentle in a way that made me feel cherished. It's still what draws me to him.
The kids clear the dishes. My husband begins to load the dishwasher. I grab a saucepan and fill it with water before putting it on the stove. I set the burner to high and prepare the ingredients for brining the chicken for tomorrow night's dinner. Or maybe the night after, I haven't decided.
Into the pot I toss half a lemon, bay leaf, peppercorns, fennel seeds, thyme, garlic and equal amounts of sugar and salt. It simmers for a minute or two, steady and just below a boil—that place where heat and tension marry.
I've found many ways to roast a chicken. You can peel back the plastic package, still dripping with the memories of a grocery store cooler, and dust it with salt and pepper. A quick plop in the oven and an hour later you have cooked meat. Many chickens have been made and eaten this way. But that's not how I make chicken, and it's not how you make good chicken.
Try Summer's recipe: Oven-Roasted Whole Chicken
I take the 5-quart mixing bowl from the cabinet. It once belonged to Steve's mother. I add a few handfuls of ice and pour the seasoned liquid into the bowl. Steam billows, and eventually it's cold enough to submerge the bird. Into the fridge it goes to sit, wait and infuse the meat with the salty, acidic brine.
My husband is nearly done with the dishes. The kids have dispersed to their ends of the house. We try and fail at discussing politics. We try and fail at small talk, mostly because he loves it and I hate it, but sometimes in the empty spaces of a marriage the weather is all there is to discuss.
We shuffle through our evening routines: showers for the kids, a glass of wine for me, a nip of whiskey for him. He will go to bed early, or I will. It just depends. And tomorrow the day begins again.
I spend my workday in black felt clogs walking the century-old floors of a white converted schoolhouse that doubles as both a test kitchen for recipes I develop and the place where I feed my family. It's a tricky thing to write about nourishment. Trickier still to nourish others when you're hungry.
I bake and style pies and cakes, prepare stuffing for the holiday menu and make lists upon lists of notes. I dissect flavors and sample slices. I break the dish down and build it up. As the day comes to a close, I write the recipes, wash the dishes and wipe down the counters.
I take the brined chicken out of the fridge. Just in time for the children to storm the entryway, dropping backpacks and kicking off shoes. My husband walks in behind them. We kiss like acquaintances being reintroduced at a party.
"How was your day?"
"Good, busy. How was yours?"
We unpack three weeks of minor aggressions. A disagreement about -parenting our children. A misunderstanding about who was responsible for what. We pause and look at each other like two people who want to find answers, two people who know this is hard. Right now, we are at a loss. So I will make chicken, and hope that it buys us some time.
I remove the submerged bird, pat it dry and place it on a baking sheet covered in foil for easy cleanup. The children enter and leave the room. My husband changes out of his work clothes.
I stuff a lemon and some herbs inside the cavity of the chicken and tie it with twine. I use the tips of my fingers to massage olive oil onto the bird and put more herbs under the skin. I am intentional and deliberate. I wash my hands.
He re-enters and begins to set the table–plates, cups, forks, napkins. We unpack more accumulation. More missteps and misunderstandings. I crack pepper over the chicken's surface and sprinkle it with salt and herbs.
I place the bird in a screaming-hot oven and stand still at the counter. My back to the room and to him. My gaze out the window.
He leans in. A hand on my hip. I exhale and turn toward him, our bodies touching briefly. I look down. He kisses my forehead softly, gently. With slight trepidation, he makes a joke. I laugh tenderly, grateful for his ability to break through tension with humor. I lean in too.
Summer Miller is the author of New Prairie Kitchen and a senior editor at SimplyRecipes.com. She lives with her family in Nebraska.
This article is part of Stirring, a series about the intersection between food and love—and why being in the kitchen just makes life better. Read the other articles in the series, including Gabrielle Hamilton's relationship with her wife and their love for coffee and Adam Dolge's relationship with his daughter through cooking. The series originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, January/February 2020.
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