There’s a lot of meat on a chicken if you’re willing. Willing to plunge your fingers into a cold body after its been sitting a few days, and tear the flesh away from the bones, willing to again burn the meat of your own hands after you’ve boiled it down for stock and a mash you’ll give the dog, of the sinewy parts.
It begins this way: a meal, on a Sunday night, the skin all crispy, salty perfection, the wine buttery, the lineage of this cooking coming down from a Jewish Auntie and a friend’s husband who also was instructed in the art of roast chicken by the Yiddish people that took him in after school while his mom worked and which he made for you on a birthday he knew you felt alone on. The reminders come, of how this is your favorite meal because of the times you’ve shared it. How your mom used to make a chicken every Sunday, mashed potatoes with real milk and butter, salt and pepper, a respite from the blocks of government cheese, the only day in the week you ate meat as a child, both out of principle and necessity, how Sunday was then somehow better than the other days.
This night, the conversation is sweet; the man you are feeding knows how to carve the bird and does this wordlessly for you. The meat is not overcooked as is so easy to do; instead it is tender and juicy, so much so that you think about all the finicky people it would make nervous and you chuckle together. You wonder about the different roads that have brought you two here, to this, with simple appreciation.
A day of leftovers, serving as a reminder of the fact that it just might be possible to love yourself again, to take joy from food, instead of carving out the pieces of your own heart for a dwindling sustenance as you have for nearly two years now. You remind yourself that life isn’t just a tearing down; it is a building up, sometimes.
Days later, you pull the cold meat from the bones, feeling your hands stiffen as you work. You cut onion and carrot, denude cloves of garlic and fill the pot with water, boiling it slowly, letting the scent fill your house a second time. You pull and twist and cajole and unfold what is left out of crevices and bone clefts, learning this body further, and it seems there is so much left, from the heat, working as quickly as you can. You realize you will never get it all. You imagine all the women before you who have stretched and pulled and you wonder if they were as grateful as you are, for how much the life of this feathered thing has provided you. You think about how the little dog by your side will enjoy these last parts, her expectancy as she watches you. You contemplate what it is that humans want, and what it is that they do not. You imagine the soup you will make, months from now with the stock, how proud you will feel. You wonder what the air will feel like that day.
Outside, the sun has come out. Your hands are wet with fat and lessons. The wind blows April into your life, still cold. You imagine spring, as you’ve known it before, when it brought love with it, out of the snows of February. You think about the words, and that man and the snow. And you make chicken salad, by again cutting onion and carrot, tossing in salt, sesame, and rice vinegar, something spicy. You commit to a week of sandwiches feeling the utility of that, the inherent tedium of repeated meals. You think again, about the words, about how you throw yourself into them, how love is utility and not, how you loved that man so deeply it nearly drowned you. How that was not so long ago.
You think about the way out, which is really the way in, and that this digging, this gift of a bird’s body, guides you through some places you still fear in your own heart, how it brings you tenderly face to face with them. How you arrive and return again and again at the miracle of sustenance. You wonder if it is the same for others, whether by heartbreak or time or nature. You imagine yourself this way, as if it were your body, as if you could give every ounce of yourself, willingly or not, to the service of sustenance. You whisper to the flesh itself, faceless as it is, but not unknown, and to your own hands, grateful that you are able to not turn away, grateful that she gave herself, not wanting that to go unrecognized as it so often is with women, and you whisper your prayer to this, the intersection of love and sacrifice.
You think about the things your mother gave you—the first person to roast a chicken for you, to show you how delicious the hot, salty outer layer is, how she taught you and loved you, how she couldn’t save you from your own broken way of love, of how many forms love takes, from its first warm perfection, to the unrecognizable parts that have been cooked down to nothing, but which have become a part of the next story you will tell.