On Flesh

Some thoughts on what it means to have a body:

One: All the good street art faces east. We are riding the train north, passing one of the Red Line burning men—long-faced, suited men engulfed in pink and green flames—when the suited middle-aged lady beside me extracts a roll of toilet paper from her large straw bag. She begins to blow her nose, emitting this percussive, unrelenting, glottal-sounding sound, the relentlessness and percussiveness of which I am powerless to describe.

All the good street art faces east, and a lot of mediocre street art. When I say relentless I mean for twelve stops—a good 25 minutes—she persists in blowing mean-sounding snot globs into an increasingly embattled-looking roll of toilet paper.

Others on the train are beginning to give each other the shifty, lidded look people on trains give each other when they share a harasser. We grow conscious of breathing less deeply.

She gets off, beaten-looking, at Howard. A lady in all respects, trailing a legacy of toilet paper.

Allergy season. We feel awe. The power of the most infinitesimal things.

Two: Running along the lake, two miles out from home, I slam my heel on a rock that twists my ankle. The pain is endurable, fuzzed out by the thrill of really sweating for the first time in a long time, so I keep running. A bird, plain but orange-breasted, digs for worms beside the trail.

I’m racing the other runners. I am the only one out here wearing battered old gym shoes. I’m the only one not plugged into a device. This used to bother me.

Later, at home, an orange-breasted bird perches on my windowsill and is not afraid of me. The pain in my ankle has been replaced with pangs of a different kind. I pull a pint of something from the freezer, palpate the layer of fat that’s befriended my lower belly, and put it down.

Three: If this story had any structure or sense, it would end with me making this chicken, and I would have made it tonight or yesterday, and some bodily revelation would have followed, something about how it’s good and lucky to have a body because hunger is good and lucky to satisfy—and maybe symmetrical revelations about the bird and the incident on the train with the toilet paper.

But that’s not what happened. What happened: I made this chicken a year ago, it feels like. Today I stood on a sunless sundeck listening to a customer service rep from Groupon talk about how great it is to work at Groupon. I was wearing shorts but should have worn jeans. I nodded helpfully until I couldn’t anymore. I tried to ignore the new insistent geography of goosebumps on my thighs, and watched young men in flip flops play chess on a giant chess set. Then I drove home, snapped these photos of sunflowers, fell asleep and woke up panicked in the dark because I promised someone I’d write tonight and hadn’t.

And this is no revelation but I want to remind you tonight, especially tonight—because sometimes even we need reminding—that we’re lucky to live in our bodies. We are. Hunger we understand, you and I. We’ve made a study of it. We speak less often of appetites. And by appetite I don’t mean the vague, bubbly emptiness that passes for hunger among the well-fed, that presents itself simply as a need to be filled. Instead I’m talking about a desire that’s discerning and specific and keen—about connoisseurship, about taste. The body filtered through the mind.

It’s a rare nourishment that meets the needs of both our hunger and our appetites. This does, I think. It’s rustic and soul-satisfying but with a hint of something like style. The details matter: lemon sliced thin as lace, goosebumps of good salt still visible on the skin, and the juice, rich and plenty and clean-tasting.

So I make this for the ones in my life I want to stay. Even when you can’t stay–no one can, really–you want to.

Skillet Chicken with Mushrooms


– One 3-4 lb whole chicken
– 1 lb white button musrhooms
– 1 head of garlic
– 1 lemon
– Olive oil
– 1/4 cup white wine
– 1 large handful Italian parsley, chopped
– Kosher salt
– Pepper


Flatten the chicken. With a sharp knife, remove the back and breast bone of the chicken so it lays flat, with both the legs and the breast facing upward. Pat the bird dry with a paper towel and season liberally on both sides with Kosher salt and black pepper.

Heat olive oil in a cast iron skillet over a medium-high flame. Sear the chicken, breast-side down, for 3 minutes until the skin has browned.

Remove the chicken from the skillet and set aside. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

Clean and halve the mushrooms. Separate the head of garlic into cloves, discarding the excess skin. Keep the cloves intact–do not peel the garlic. Halve a lemon, reserving one half and slicing the other half very thinly on the cross section. Arrange mushrooms, garlic and lemon in the cast iron skillet. Drizzle with olive oil. Do not season.

Lay the seared chicken, skin-side up, over the mushrooms. You do not have to season the mushrooms because it will get plenty of flavor from the seasoned skillet below and the salted bird above.

Place the skillet in the oven and roast for 25-30 minutes, or until juices run clear at the thigh.

Remove the skillet from the oven. Remove the chicken from the skillet and set aside. Do not tent the chicken with foil–this will cause the skin to lose its crispiness. Place the skillet on the stove over medium high heat and add white wine and the juice of half a lemon to the mushroom and garlic. Remove from heat when it reaches a healthy simmer.

Place the chicken back in the skillet and sprinkle with Italian parsley. Carve, and serve with crusty bread straight out of the pan. (If you like, have it with feta stuffed mushrooms. I promise it’s not too much of a good thing.)

Squeeze the garlic cloves with your knife and spread the melted garlic on the flesh of the chicken like butter.

I mean it when I say serve this chicken straight out of the skillet. Slap it right on the table. It’ll sizzle. It’ll make him hungry.

There won’t be leftovers.