On Writing and Roast Chicken

on June 23 | in Featured | by

On Writing and Roast Chicken
by Susan Rebecca White M.F.A. ’05

The delicious connection between cooking and writing.

My writing life is cyclical. Sometimes—and this is my favorite cycle—I am completely immersed. I’ll spend long days at my computer, not aware of time passing. I’ll eat something simple for supper, pasta with jarred sauce, or a tuna fish sandwich. At night I’ll dream of my characters.

That’s how I was during the last two months of writing my novel Bound South. I was living in Atlanta, and each morning I’d drive to the windowless office where I write, playing the same song again and again on my car’s CD player. The song was “Black Flowers” by Yo La Tengo, and depending on traffic, I could usually play it through three times before I arrived. Hearing that song would get me pumped up, would let me know that I was about to re-enter the fertile world of my imagination.

Other times, I’m empty. I will go to my office to write, but I’ll only feel sleepy, not inspired. I’ll take naps on the floor, jump up for cupcake breaks (to the detriment of my blood sugar levels, there is an excellent bakery in my office complex), and leave early, without having accomplished much of anything. At least not anything concrete.

During the empty times, I cook. A lot. Indeed during those times, when attempting to write, I will become distracted by thoughts of what I might make that night for dinner. Will it be braised chicken finished with mustard and cream, pasta with a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and sausage, or maybe a whole trout, stuffed with shallots, parsley, and breadcrumbs? Such thoughts of cooking are quite seductive because, let’s face it: creating an elaborate meal is far more satisfying than nodding off in front of a blank computer screen.

A few years ago, during one of my “empty times,” I was living in San Francisco, where I had moved after graduating from the M.F.A. program at Hollins. I had lived in San Francisco before and had loved it. But to my surprise, this time around, living on the West Coast felt strange, foreign, and I found myself yearning for the South. (Which was particularly surprising, because growing up in the South all I wanted to do was escape.) While I was in San Francisco my mom sent me Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’s The Gift of Southern Cooking, an exhaustively researched and gorgeously written cookbook that is as compelling as any memoir I’ve ever read. My friends Kasey and Christa lived nearby, and they were good enough friends that I could call them up at the spur of the moment to see if they wanted to come over and eat dinner with my husband and me. They almost always did. This was great, because it’s more fun to cook for four than for two.

During that time of missing the South and not being able to write, I prepared almost all of the recipes from The Gift of Southern Cooking, from candied bacon to macaroni and cheese to a roast duck stuffed with red rice and oysters. Kasey and Christa would come over and we would listen to Lucinda Williams, drink too much, eat too much, and in general have a fine time. It helped that Kasey was also a southern ex-pat and was thrilled by Scott and Edna’s dishes.

Of all the meals I prepared during that time, my favorite was roast chicken. Growing up, all my mom ever fixed was boneless, skinless breasts, so using the whole chicken was a revelation for me. Scott and Edna’s version is brined, then rubbed in herbed butter, then cooked in a hot oven. The meat is salty and tender, the skin brown and crisp. It is a deeply satisfying dish to eat, especially when coupled with roasted potatoes with rosemary and sea salt.

As much fun as it was to cook southern food for my husband, Kasey, and Christa, I felt a little ashamed during the days that followed those nights of cooking, eating, and drinking. I wondered: Had I lost my writing ambition? Would I ever return to my novel?

Not long after, an opportunity presented itself that gave me access to an empty room in a San Francisco private school to use as my writing office. Free from my kitchen, and free from other distractions, I returned to writing Bound South. And having taken what was probably a necessary hiatus, I was ready to re-immerse myself in its world. I resumed writing at the point where Caroline Parker, a privileged daughter of the South, is living in San Francisco with her new husband. Caroline is struggling. Disconnected from her husband, disconnected from her family, disconnected from her southern roots (however mixed her feelings are about them), she comforts herself by cooking. The first book she reaches for is The Gift of Southern Cooking. She learns how to brine then roast a chicken. She feeds herself. She feeds her loneliness.

Now, Bound South is not autobiographical, and Caroline Parker and I are cut from different cloths. But I discovered, through the process of writing, that we both share the same interest in cooking, and that cooking helps us through the empty, lonely times. What a discovery, to realize that the time during which I thought I was being least creative would inspire a future writing streak.

All of life is material, I suppose.

This essay originally appeared in “A Good Blog Is Hard to Find” in 2009 and is reprinted with permission. White’s second novel, A Soft Place to Land, was published last year by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster. She now lives in Reno, Nevada.

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