Top | First Person

Cooking away trouble

(article, Merrill Stubbs)

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John and I have been friends for 15 years. Miraculously, until recently we had never had a real fight. Oh, we’d been snippy with each other at times, but it never amounted to much. Like so many disagreements between friends, in hindsight the details seem ridiculous. But at the time, it felt as if the world had come to an abrupt and excruciating end. 

For an entire weekend, John and I didn’t speak. Total radio silence. I was a nervous, nail-biting wreck — and so, I learned later, was he. 

On Monday morning, I couldn’t take it anymore. Heart thudding in my chest, I picked up the phone and, in what I’m sure was a completely transparent attempt at breeziness, I invited John to dinner. I hoped we’d be able to sort things out over a good meal.

I’d recently tried and loved a New York Times recipe (published way back in 1980) with the strange-yet-endearing name of Chicken Betty’s Fried Chicken and Gravy. I felt sure that John, who is from the South and considers okra its own food group, would appreciate the splendor of this incomparably crisp fried chicken. So that we’d have something to sop up the peppery gravy, I decided to make the cream biscuits from my frayed and yellowed copy of [%bookLink code=0679450815 "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook"].

[%image chicken float=right width=300 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Geoarts" caption="Can fried chicken heal an injured friendship?"]

On the appointed day I was, as usual, running behind. Just after I had shut the oven door on the biscuits and started heating the fat in the pan for the chicken, the door buzzer blared. I went to the door, wishing I could hide in the kitchen.

“Hi,” I said to John, unsure of what to do or say next. 

“Hi,” he replied warily, and we gave each other a stiff hug. OK, so this is how it’s going to be, I thought grimly.

John followed me into the kitchen and began helping me with dinner. As we worked side by side in my small galley kitchen, we talked about the art class he’d been to earlier that day, about our plans for the coming weekend — about anything but the reason my hands were trembling as I trimmed chicken fat. If one of us made eye contact, the other nervously looked away. The elephant was not only in the room with us; it had a few tusks poking out of the kitchen and into the hallway. 

The phrase “social lubricant” flitted optimistically through my brain and I said brightly, “Why don’t I open a bottle of wine? I just discovered this really great burgundy.” John nodded enthusiastically (was that relief I detected in his eyes?) and I poured two generous glasses. 

The wine was delicious, but it wasn’t until a few minutes later — after the chicken had been dredged in flour and dispatched to its bath of bubbling fat — that something remarkable happened. As we watched the bird sizzling and popping, we stopped the awkward chitchat and began talking turkey. Or, rather, chicken. 

A lovely, mahogany-brown crust was enveloping the chicken in the pan. “Look at that color!” John exclaimed.

“It reminds me of caramel,” I said. 

“No, maybe it’s more like toasted almonds.” 

Marveling together at the transformation, we finally started to relax. Our tensed shoulders gradually eased away from our ears, and we began to resume the air of old friends.


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Later, as John and I sat on my sofa, plates overflowing in our laps, there was again a good deal of silence, interrupted only by the sounds of enthusiastic eating. But now it was OK. Without harping on who had done what, we simply said what was necessary to forgive each other and move on. By the time the last smears of gravy had been wiped up, my heart felt light for the first time in days.

While we washed the dishes, I considered how lucky we were to have stumbled upon this magical recipe for salvaging a friendship. Could it possibly be this easy to resolve all conflicts, or was it merely a one-time deal? 

Just in case, I sent John home with the leftovers. I wasn’t about to take any chances.

p(bio). Merrill Stubbs lives in Brooklyn, where she writes for the New York Times and other publications.

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