Laurie Colwin might have felt liberated by rental house cooking, but I was stymied. It was one of those ill-advised invitations that is extended on the shoulder of the morning caffeine high and by mid-afternoon, I was thinking, “What was I thinking?”
I invited Mom and Steve to come to dinner. I chose to make a simple white wine and tarragon braised chicken. Apparently, not only did I leave all my cookbooks behind in Virginia, I also left my lifetime of accumulated experience, experience that would have guided me away from braised chicken with vivid memories of its rubbery texture, would have warned me off cooking with white wine bc the flavor is so unpleasant, so sour and tangy, so like white wine. And never mind the tarragon. In Virginia I knew to elide tarragon in any recipe. Here I embraced it like some 1962 House Beautiful-reading, Julia Child-imitating Stepford wife.
The first thing I was missing was a wine bottle opener. Well, really the first thing I was missing were chicken thighs. None of those to be had, so I subbed in breasts and drumsticks. I burned the butter and browned the chicken in it anyway; I burned the shallots, but the recipe said they should begin to caramelize, so I flipped them over and burned the other side.
Then it came time for the wine. No opener, not even a Swiss army knife. Nary a Leatherman to be found. Who lives here? Pentecostalists? Everything is in English. Mormons? Only one master bedroom.
After a few misbegotten attempts with a flat-nosed screw driver and a hammer, and then a Phillips head screw driver and hammer, I found my way with this tool.
Not sure what it’s called, but it worked beautifully to hammer the cork into the bottle and then to hold the cork at bay as I poured the wine out. Mustard, tarragon, simmer til done, simmer til thick, simmer til rubbery, then simmer some more to reheat.
I had decided to accompany the chicken with Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon. I’m not sure about the complementing flavors, but usually I love these. The rental house oven needs some calibrating, so in the time it took to walk Mom and Steve around the house looking for the cable box, the Brussels sprouts had been burnt to their carbon essence.
I had bought a loaf of olive bread, so there was that.
The finished chicken was gray. There was the assaultive white wine flavor. And then there was another off flavor, something with a vaguely chemical top note and a decidedly petroleum finish. I thought it could have been from the shreds of wine cork which were actually plastic—classier than screw top, but without the pretentions and impracticality of real cork. Then I wondered if I should have washed that mystery tool before I poked it into the wine, at least rinsed off the Rust-Oleum. When a green flatworm wriggled onto my fork, I realized it was the tarragon. It came back to me with the force of a fabricated repressed memory of devil worship and kitten sacrifice—I loathe tarragon.
Mom repeated a variation on, “This chicken is delicious” at least ten times. After the second time, you know it is just pity praise. Not only was the chicken disgusting, it was so rubbery cutting it risked some terrible slapstick routine where the chicken goes flying into your mother just as your chair loses purchase and tips over backwards and only the dogs are happy until one of them chokes on a bone.
When I said that I thought the Brussels sprouts were burned, she insisted that she likes them crispy. With a mother like that, a dismal dinner can transubstantiate into a tolerable meal, and you wake up the next morning telling yourself, “That wasn’t so bad,” and answering, “It could have been worse,” reminding yourself that the wine was good (mom brought it, with an opener) and reflecting that the napkins sure looked peppy.