I am an adequate cook. I got by through graduate school with hand-me-down cookware, in a studio apartment in Albany. I was pleased to find a place on the bus route to school, but I didn’t think about how I might get to a grocery store. Winter was hard that first year, because I didn’t own a car. Eventually, I offered to exchange cooking services for rides to and from the grocery store. That’s how I met Ann, and how I convinced her that I should continue to do most of the cooking after I married her.
By the time I was working on my dissertation, Ann and I had moved to Havertown, just outside Philadelphia. Little had changed in my cooking habits. We had a loft apartment with a galley kitchen. I didn’t have much room to cook, but I continued to operate under the assumption that school writing is a bit like sensory deprivation. If you spend your day at a computer, you starve your nervous system, and it ends up heightening sensations so that even a Milky Way bar is a revelation. What happened then was simply an accident. I was a year into the dissertation, when I realized that my reading habits were getting in the way. It was bad enough continuing to read new books that related to my dissertation, but I would try to shoehorn in anything I was reading—stuff about comic books, about psychological experiments performed on cats, about complexity theory. The draft was hemorrhaging badly. So I called for a year of no distraction, a Year of No New Books. No scholarly books. No fun books. No any kind of books.
Cookbooks were allowed because I needed something to do at the end of the day, and I couldn’t really see them as being a distraction. No one really reads cookbooks. They don’t curl up on the couch for hours on end only to find themselves wondering where the day went. They browse, they skim, and they leaf through pages to look at pictures. Worst-case scenario, I’d be up in the middle of the night, drinking a shot of Bushmills, waiting for sleep to come, and Judy Rodger’s The Zuni Café Cookbook would give me a sudden urge to roast a chicken. But then Ann is asleep in the other room, and I don’t actually have a chicken—so I’d let it go. That’s the kind of distraction I could live with. So the cookbooks came steadily in, for a year, then two or three. I finished the dissertation and the prohibition, but the cookbooks keep coming in at an alarming rate. The only difference is that now I have more disposable income, so I don’t have to limit my searches to used bookstores, cut-out bins in megastores, or promotional offers from thegoodcook.com to sate my appetites. I can read and eat what I want.
You say you never wanted to cook chickens after midnight? You’re not reading the right cookbooks. Wait until midnight and read Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad. Think of tucking a plump, little chicken into an 8″ cast iron skillet and popping it into the oven on high roast. Think of the sizzle it makes after ten or fifteen minutes to tell you that the temperature is right. Think about the smell. Everyone talks about the smell of herbs and spices, but an unadorned chicken has its own distinctive order. It’s a smell that you can live in like a house or be buried in after you die. Think about the weight and the warmth of the cast iron in your oven mitt when you pull it from the oven and about the sprinkling of kosher salt still visible on the blistered skin like a flurry of snow.
Still don’t want to roast chickens after midnight? There’s nothing I can do for you. I hear there’s a whole world of blogs out there, and perhaps another will appeal to you. Try scrapbooking or dog fighting. Try reading about how to add a spoiler and new rims to your 1992 Volkswagen Jetta. But I’m writing for people who gain inspiration from cookbooks and would at least entertain the thought of chickens after midnight. People who believe that digestion is not just about turning chicken into calories but culture. People who believe that cookbooks are not about recipes, but origin stories, histories, family lore, kitchen anecdotes, the science, anthropology and philosophy of food, all the stuff that shapes the ways we think about food. I know you can get a finer-grained education from growing up in a family with a rich culinary tradition or shucking oysters in a school where everyone wears poufy white hats. But for those who are born without these privileges, there will always be cookbooks.
This week’s tip(s): most cookbooks treat chickens the way factory farmers do. They’re all about big birds and predictable results. They recommend cooking at a median temp of 375 degrees to cook evenly, and they recommend cooking for way too long. The results will never be like the kind of roast chicken you get at a restaurant, which is often a “high roast” designed for an extra crisp skin and moist interior. Once you cook chickens on a high roast, you might never turn back, but you must use a SMALL bird. Otherwise, it won’t cook all the way through. If you don’t feel confident about doneness, use an instant read thermometer to make sure–testing the temperature near the thigh bone and breast bone. If you’ve ever bought an organic chicken and didn’t think it tasted that much better than a Perdue chicken, try again with this method. I think it tends to magnify the differences. Kosher chickens are also good, but remember that they’re pre-brined, so you won’t need to use the full allotment of salt JR recommends.