I was thinking yesterday morning about a dish my step-father made for us once. He cooked chicken pieces in a cast-iron skillet with tons of garlic. I mean, whole cloves scattered all around the skillet, under and on top of the chicken. I don’t remember much about the meal, but I remember the chicken almost sang with flavor, and the little cloves of garlic, perfectly cooked, were soft and almost sweet, suddenly entirely edible in a new way (for me).
And since I was thinking about this dish, I wanted it. I started doing Google searches for cast-iron chicken with garlic. The most popular result of that search was a recipe called “Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic.” The description definitely matches my step-dad’s recipe, though I don’t know that it’s what he made. Myself, I ended up making a slightly different variation, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic is incredibly popular among chefs. Indeed, when I searched for it, I found recipes by James Beard, Nigella Lawson, Ina Garten, Alton Brown, smitten kitchen, and more. But no history. Thank goodness for Nigella; her recipe on the Food Network website includes a lovely introduction to the dish, both its traditional way of being prepared, and her own recipe for it.
Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic is a classic French dish, and as such, was originally conceived by people who raised their own chickens for cooking. These days, if you follow what Nigella refers to as the “contemporary shopping model,” which I do, it’s best to choose more flavorful cuts of the chicken rather than just buying up a whole chicken cut to pieces (she recommends thighs; I went with leg quarters).
One part of her introduction really struck me. In describing her own recipe, Nigella says:
It is not quite the classic version (not that there is only one: food is as variable as the people who cook it), but it sticks to the basic principles.
Food is as variable as the people who cook it. I like that.
A few months ago, I made banana bread and posted about it here. I was very particular about delivering credit to the person I adapted the recipe from (whoever he/she is), and someone commented on my blog, saying that all recipes really belong to someone else, and essentially, I didn’t need to be so careful about giving credit and tracking back the authorship. The commenter probably had no idea the extent to which he/she blew my mind that day.
I majored in English in college, and one of my professors once (half-jokingly) told us that plagiarizers are condemned to the ninth circle of Hell (a la Dante). My educational experience has created in me a very real fear of plagiarizing. And that makes sense. In the humanities, especially in literature and language, the way we write papers is to have an idea, see where that idea sits in an academic dialogue that is already in place, and then to use other voices to either back up or contradict our own idea(s). We create scaffolding around our ideas, bringing sources that previously did not go together to create an argument for a new idea. We use theorists and critics to prove our points, and when you use them, you must correctly cite them. Cite correctly, cite often. It’s a CYA principle, and it’s the difference between passing a class and ending up on academic probation.
So with this pathology of citing my sources and giving credit to authors, I come to food writing and cooking. I can’t tell you the stress I feel when I think about writing a new recipe; I become utterly defeated. I have been programmed not to plagiarize (I don’t want to go to the ninth circle of Hell!), but original recipes are essential in food writing. It’s that next step that I feel completely unprepared to take!
I was explaining a quote to my dad this weekend, one we learned in graduate school, and one that I still tell my students. My dad had watched Mall Cop over the weekend, and he realized during it that it is essentially just Die Hard, but played out in a comedic manner at a mall. I said (with all of the pomp and bravado that comes with a graduate education), “Well, of course, Dad. Because there are no new stories, only new people.”
Essentially, what that means is that stories repeat themselves throughout history. Think of how many times you’ve read a Cinderella-type story. From the actual Cinderella to Pretty Woman to Coming to America to The Princess Diaries, that story is always the same: young woman wants a better life; through the help of various third parties (and a makeover), she is given the confidence to pursue the life she wants; she has to face various trials throughout the quest for her new life, but eventually, she gets there, and she lives happily ever after.
The thing that changes in each incarnation of that story is the person. The Cinderella. Vivian the prostitute, Akeem the African prince, or Mia, the awkward student who has royalty thrust upon her. Their experiences, their circumstances, their ways of seeing the world are distinctly different, and so even though they’re playing out the same old story, they’re doing it differently, in their own way, so that the story becomes new, even though its old.
I can’t imagine watching Pretty Woman and seeing, in the end credits, a list of all of the Cinderella stories that have existed before that film, as a way of crediting source after source until we get back to the original. It’s not necessary.
There are no new stories, only new people. And food is as variable as the people who make it. So maybe, likewise, there are no new recipes. But there are new people. New people cooking it, enjoying it, studying it, tweaking it. I still can’t shake the urge to create a Works Cited list (of sorts) when I list recipes here, but the more I think about cooking, the more I see how it parallels writing – we create the new parts the best we can, but we don’t hate the parts that are old. They’re part of our collective unconscious; food and story: two common languages we all speak.
And now, without further delay, here’s the link to a recipe from a really cool website called Out of the Box Food, a site dedicated to finding fresh alternatives to processed “kids’ food.” I made this Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken last night, and it was delicious. My roommates, girlfriend, and I gobbled it up with a side of sauteed/steamed summer squash. The skin on the chicken gets crispy and salty, and then in the oven, it soaks up all that lemony, garlicky goodness. You will stink for the rest of the night, but it’s so worth it.