A New Cook in Town

I’m slowly pacing in front of the meat counter at the Super Value in town. I forgot, again, to get anything out of the freezer this morning before I left for work. The pork chops look good. Naw. There’s still one left over in the fridge from the last time I cooked pork chops. The round steak could work. Beth used to cook those in the crock pot with a tomato sauce. Nope. That takes all day.

I settle on a pack of boneless chicken thighs. Baked parmesan chicken comes to mind. Golden brown. Sizzling in a dish hot from the oven. A little parmesan cheese sprinkled over the top and lightly toasted. Sounds perfect. I know I have veggies in the fridge at home.

I stop in the middle of the store. Seems like maybe she used to put breadcrumbs on the chicken when she made it. I’m not sure. I better take a look. It takes a few minutes, but soon I’m standing if front of a shelf full of breadcrumb choices. Original. Zesty. Italian. Mediterranean. Old South. Spicy hot. Cajun. In a moment of clarity, I go for the Italian, drop it in the tote basket and head for the checkout line.

Checkout lines at the local grocery store can be a place where you bump into old friends. It happens to me more than half the time. When I step up to get in line, there’s my buddy Cliff. I haven’t seen him in a few months. I had heard that he was sick with Covid about the same time that Beth and I got sick. Word was that he was in bad shape. I was glad to see him out and about.

“Hey Cliff. It’s good to see you’re standing on two good legs.”

Cliff is one of the best diesel mechanics I know. He’s old school. His ability to diagnose a problem doesn’t depend on a computer. He listens. He gets behind the wheel and takes her for a drive. He sees in his mind the inside of a motor as plain as I see my own face in the mirror.

“Yeah, I’m finally over it. I didn’t think I was gonna make it for a while. I ain’t never been that sick before.”

“I know what you mean.”

“Hey. I’m real sorry to hear about your wife. It just breaks me up.”

“Well, I appreciate that. There’s been a lot of folks who’ve suffered some awful losses from that virus.”

“I know” he said, “but I’m just so sorry for you. I can’t imagine.”

And he stepped around the corner of the counter and gave me a big old sideways one arm bear hug. Coming from Cliff, that meant a lot. He gathered up his bags. I paid for my chicken and breadcrumbs. And I walked out to the truck a little lighter on my feet.

One of the things I miss is walking in the door at the house with the aroma of supper already in the air. Pots and pans on the stove. Steam rising. I crack open the oven door to see what’s inside. Beth poking at me for letting all the heat out of the oven.

“It’ll be ready sooner if you’ll let it alone.” She was a great cook.

I set the bag on the counter and walk to the bedroom. It was cool this morning, but it got hot this afternoon. I put on a clean T-shirt and take my boots off. I wash up and head for the kitchen.

Marshall is home, and he is excited about parmesan chicken. He remembers her parmesan chicken, but I wonder if he’ll feel the same later this evening.

I push the bake button on the oven and click it up to 400°. I get her favorite knife out of the drawer and peal back the plastic cover from the Styrofoam tray. I’m not sure how to trim the fat, but I work at it. I’ve watched her enough to know that if I slice these thighs into smaller pieces, it will cook better and faster.

Once it’s all cut up, I bring the glass baking dish out of the pantry and start putting the chicken pieces in place. A little olive oil. A little butter. A little salt.

Marshall chimes in. “Is that how you do it?”

Understand. Marshall is a pretty good cook in his own right. He has done a lot more cooking than I have. I don’t think it was his intent, but his question makes me hesitate.

“Am I doing something wrong?” I’m thinking he knows something I don’t.

“No, I was just wondering if you know what you’re doing. It looks like you do.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m making it up as I go along. It feels right. You think it’s okay?”

“Looks good to me” he says.

I add the Italian breadcrumbs. It looks light. I add more. The oven is ready, and I slip the dish onto the rack about halfway back. I check the clock. “How long do you think it should cook?” He says, “About 20 minutes should do it.”

While the chicken is working, he makes tea. Neither one of us has her touch when it comes to sweat tea, but we do all right. About 20 minutes in, I check with Google on how long chicken should cook in the oven. The recommended temperature is 400°. I’m feeling lucky. The recommended time is 22 to 26 minutes. Bingo. Not too bad for a guy who lived on beanie weenies for some period of single life way back when.

I grab the hot pads to take the chicken out of the oven. I do know that she sprinkled on the parmesan cheese near the end. I am liberal with the cheese. Way more than she would have used. This is my kitchen now, and I can make it any way I want. Double cheesy parmesan chicken is the new recipe in this house.

By the time we finish making the tea and warm up a few leftover peas and beans, the chicken comes out of the oven sizzling hot, with a layer of lightly toasted cheese on top. Looks pretty darn tasty to me.

I get out the real plates this evening. This is not a meal for paper plates.

“What do you think?” All true southern cooks fish for compliments.

“This is good. Moist. Tender. I like it.”

“Yeah, but it’s not as flavorful as Mama’s. I gotta remember to add something to it next time.” Beth always apologized for every meal. I figure I’ll keep up the tradition.

We both looked at each other and at the same time said, “Bacon.”

We cleaned up the kitchen. When I went to put the breadcrumbs away in the pantry, I looked for where she might have kept them. And there on the shelf already were three cans of breadcrumbs. Two plain and one Italian. Now we have two of each.

I told Marshall, “Remind me that I don’t need to buy any breadcrumbs for a while.”