This will not be a diatribe on my core values, a schpeal on how I find some
restorative beauty in the season’s changing leaves, or even a modest proposal for world peace. Some may consider it insignificant, simply and naively just food, but I joyfully disagree; this grub has a place in my heart. I believe in the yearly splendor of my mother’s Jewish chicken, the way the flavors coalesce on the palate. Hands down, I have faith that, one day, it will appear on the laminated menu of some cramped, family-run deli in New York or Philly.
I believe that chicken relies on the way you dress it up. I like to think of it as a blank canvas. Potential and ability to transform. But unlike the artist’s often unarticulated technique, there is technique behind Mom’s savory dish. It is no ordinary chipper chicken, dry as a dessert and tasteless as a bran muffin.
The recipe originated in Bubby Ann’s kitchen. She arrived here from Austria. The recipe has climbed three generations of people, through the crinkled hands of hard-workers—moms. It has brought family together to celebrate, rejoice, and honor many a Hannukah. The boldness of the dish’s name matches the tenacity Ann had to move her existence to the United States, to leave a war-torn nation behind and pick up a new identity. Through Ellis Island, mom recounts. Through Ellis Island. The wooden docks to a new world.
Jewish chicken requires perfect alignment of the stars—almost. Mom and I carefully yank out the recipe card from archives, barely able to decipher the oily, spotted paper and cursive letters. Once a year, always the second night of Hanukkah, we do this. I believe that beauty lies in this simple togetherness. There is comfort in rituals, a certain inexplicable knowing. We traverse Friday Los Angeles traffic in search of our ingredients at the farmer’s market: paprika, white onions, garlic, Nya fat, and, of course, chicken. We peruse the vendors’ stalls and look for perfection in each onion, a glow of ripening. The ingredients are simple, but the past is rich. Flavors in the mouth have the ability to stimulate memory and salivary glands. The flavors exist even though someone may not. I believe in these flavors. These wonderful juices of life.
I believe that Jewish chicken must be eaten in the company of a crisp potato latke and pulpy apricot date compote. And it’s okay if these all get mixed up on the plate; it’s better this way when all the juices blend. The braided candle, that which links past, existence, and future, must be lit. I mutter a prayer. Essen, mom says. Eat. So dinner begins. It’s silent first, but then conversation picks up at high speed. My belief is grounded here; this glorious food drives the night. Heritage alive and bellies satisfied.
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