Somehow in my life I have managed to know only a couple real sensualists, despite being an enthusiastic one myself. There have been moments in the last four years–many of them, and vivid–of walking into rooms full of people, all of them supposedly having fun, while a single sad mantra runs through my head, almost insane in its insistence: Where are my people? Where are they?
There is something more than joyless about this: you walk into a party, and find no one at home. I mean, there are people. Kind of. There are bodies, and some of them smell, and most of them are too drunk. There’s beer pong. The beer is warm and flat and tasteless and has bits of carpet fiber and crumbs of Cheetos floating in it. The music is loud and misguided. The whole thing is thoughtless–supposedly fun, but designed in no way to induce pleasure. For you, for the sensualist, who loves to drink well and eat well and laugh with good companions, it is worse than walking into an empty house. What you do is, you feel alone.
Which brings us, as the form demands, to roast chicken. It’s not a cure for the alienation induced by hanging around too many of the wrong kind of people, but it is at least a respite, an escape. Because a good meal reminds us what time and care and the boot camp of life often tempt us to forget: that it is sometimes necessary for us to live in our bodies.
I know that this is true, and that the life of the mind depends on it. The body is the garden of the soul. I heard someone say that once, in a rare and potent moment of television. Most of the people I’ve met at the university possess passably good minds, but they have forgotten this, the truth of the body, or have never known it. So they are not my people, and I would never invite them over for a chicken dinner.
I’m not here to tell you what chicken to make. I made my own, a take on Thomas Keller’s simple, blazing-hot roast chicken. I can tell you that my recipe promises crackling, salty skin and the tenderest, juiciest breast meat you’ve ever tasted. But I can also vouch for Alice Waters’ slightly more involved recipe, and I’m sure every home cook worth her salt makes a supremely good roast chicken that’s better than everyone else’s. Point is, it doesn’t matter which roast chicken you choose to make, so long as it’s so good that you need to feed off it like a savage.
That’s my story. A take on a favorite theme: food as escape, pleasure as contact with the sublime. An old idea, and I know it is not an untroubled one. But for now, I am a sensualist, and sensualists live from escape to escape, from meal to meal. And I know, as well as I know anything, that it could be so much worse. I could look at this chicken and not get excited. That would be worse.
My Favorite Roast Chicken
On this chicken, the skin disappears first. Let it. Cold chicken skin makes lousy leftovers.
– 1 whole roasting chicken, 3 lbs.
– Lemon pepper
– Kosher salt
– Cracked black pepper
If you know you’re going to want this chicken in advance, it is best to salt the bird overnight. Combine 1/2 tbsp Kosher salt in a small bowl with some lemon pepper and carefully massage it into the breast and thigh meat, under the skin. If you are not confident that you will not break the skin, just massage the seasoning onto the surface of the bird. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and lemon pepper into the cavity of the bird. Truss the chicken, then place it in a small roasting dish or pan and store, covered, in refrigerator overnight.
A couple hours before you’re ready to eat, take the chicken out of the refrigerator. You want the bird to reach room temperature before you put it in the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel, then sprinkle another 3/4-1 tbsp of salt all over–breast, legs, back, thigh, wings. Do this from a distance of at least 8 inches to achieve an even coat. Season to taste with fresh cracked black pepper.
Place the chicken in the oven. If your oven’s heat source comes from below, as mine does, position the chicken on the lower rack. Roast for 35-40 minutes, until it is crackling and brown and the skin between the leg and the breast is taut and has separated from the meat. If you are unsure about the doneness, pierce the bird at the thigh. If the juice runs clear, the chicken is done.
Untrussing the bird is like unwrapping a present. But you have to wait. Let the bird sit, tented under foil, for ten minutes before you eat. This allows the juices to settle. Roast chicken is usually thought a formal kind of meal, but when I eat it, it is with my hands. Save your fork for your salad.
Slathering hot chicken meat in butter, as Thomas Keller suggests, will shorten your life by years, but in a nice way. So will drenching each bite in chicken fat and pan gravy, but also in a nice way. The wings, salty and fatty and crisp, are my favorite. And I will fight you for them. Best stay out of my way.