On Chicken Croquettes, sort of
Updated: May 22, 2019
My mother’s favorite meal when I was a kid was frozen chicken croquettes, baked in the oven, and served so hot you couldn’t even taste them. I think her brand was Weaver, but could have been Goya. For the uninitiated, chicken croquettes consist of an eggy sort of cooked chicken salad that is then breaded and deep fried: think round mozzarella stick but with chicken, and a watery brown-flecked mushroom sauce in place of marinara. She’d make two boxes, and we’d pop them into our mouths without using forks, for minimal resistance. The frozen varieties were terrible, even in my childhood memory: mushy salt grenades that exploded sour in my gut.
The vast majority of my childhood food came from either a can or a box in our freezer. Wet string beans sitting limp on the plate next to the dry pork chop, a pile of lukewarm and unnaturally vivid peas and carrots, the bright and satisfying POP of the biscuit tube as its contents spilled out into the atmosphere.
By the time I was in high school, I hated food. More specifically, I hated my body, but what registered was a bone-deep disgust with all the salty, greasy, flavorless things I’d subsisted on before puberty. This dovetailed nicely with my mother’s journey into the center of her depression and vicodin addiction: when I hit high school she stopped cooking dinner almost entirely, opting instead to make herself a lavish lunch—usually shrimp scampi—which she ate in front of her soap operas before passing out for a few hours. I would get home from school and the house would be saturated with the smell of garlic, my mother asleep in the recliner, and I would go to my room and close the door.
I never wanted to be like my mother. I wanted to be like my father. And when I had to leave him to live with my mother at age 12, my entire identity became about Not Being Like Her. My father’s house is immaculately clean, he works with his hands (a plumber by trade but a woodworker at heart), he avoids taking so much as aspirin for a headache, and my father… doesn’t eat. He’s a 61 year old man who hates food, eats barely enough to survive. A day for him is coffee for breakfast, a bottle of water for lunch, some tuna salad on toast for dinner, a few handfuls of M&M’s before bed. He is a beanpole, over six feet tall and no body fat, and I was so mad to be stuck with my mother’s build and not his, so afraid of the disappointment he might feel that I would always be fat. I sincerely thought I could starve myself into being like him. He was thin because he was strong and I was fat because I was weak.
And so instead of food, I drank a slim-fast for breakfast, drank exactly $.87 of soda from 7-11 for lunch. Then, late at night, after my mother was in bed, I’d grab a box of Apple Jacks or a bag of Goldfish crackers, eat the entire thing while staying up too late listening to music or playing video games. Every day of high school, I lived on this exact sustenance, punctuated by the odd half-portion of diner fries, sneaked one by one off of the plate of a stoned boyfriend. I dreaded mealtimes, avoided food-based functions, loved to feel the sharp poke of a hunger headache behind my temples. This was, of course, anorexia, but in manifested in me as absolute revulsion at everything edible inside our cramped, disgusting house coupled with a deathly fear of enjoying food of any kind for any reason.
I subsisted this way though most of my twenties—dizzily hungry, always ignoring it, always looking down into the bag of Goldfish crackers and wondering who ate all of them.
When I was 27, my husband and I had some friends stay with us while they apartment hunted in San Francisco, where we lived at the time. One night, they wanted to make dinner for all of us, and they came home from the market with what I clocked as a tree branch, but which was actually a stalk of Brussels sprouts. This panicked me because I had never eaten a Brussels sprout before. I did not announce this to my friends because I was still sensitive about my food terrors and also because I didn’t want them to fuss over me. I leaned against the opposite counter sipping wine and watched my friend K slice them off the stalk, trim them, and place them cut-side down in a pan full of butter. After they were golden, she dumped a few tablespoons of water into the pan and let it boil out, softening the sprouts. She seasoned them with salt and pepper, and that was it. The whole operation took about five minutes. I was gobsmacked at the utter simplicity of it. And then I tasted them, and I was shocked: the salty butteriness, the soft texture with a bite at the center, the GREENNESS of them, they tasted GREEN. For two months after that, Brussels sprouts appeared in various forms on every plate of food I made for dinner. I probably drove my husband absolutely mad.
The thing is, by then I’d lived almost a third of a lifetime without experiencing the peppery zing of arugula, or the sour tang of collard greens, or the delightful contradiction of a radish slathered in butter. I didn’t know you could slice zucchini and fry it in oil and eat it with basil in pasta, or that butternut squash tastes like candy if you roast it. I didn’t know that za’atar is a miracle that tastes good on every actual thing. I learned these delights one by one, recipe by recipe, from Smitten Kitchen or Food52 or a goddamn Better Homes and Gardens recipe binder I found at a Goodwill. I cooked, and I cooked, and I cooked.
From vegetables I moved into snacks, roasting up almonds in herbs and salt to eat at my desk during work, making granola bars on weekends and picking at them all week. From there I moved onto meats, roasting chicken different ways and marveling at the fact that I’d managed to eat hundreds of pieces of chicken in my life without ever knowing the decadent magic of crisp skin and salted dark meat. The first time I made Samin Nosrat’s buttermilk roast chicken, I popped a bite of thigh in my mouth and was so overcome at the indulgence and simplicity of it all that tears, and I swear this is true, welled up in my eyes. I could have been cooking and eating, this whole time.
Bread is my latest revelation, the last frontier in my food anxieties, the forbidden carb of carbs. There’s something about bread dough that appeals to me very much right now, at whatever point in the recovery process I am in, despite the outré, that’s-so-five-years-ago-ness of it all. It’s tricksy and finnicky and responsive to its environment. With dough I have to build something, it’s alive and it cares about the humidity in my kitchen and the draft from my open window. I work WITH it, with my hands and my muscles and my time, and it responds by growing and staying alive, and eventually, hopefully, feeding me. It rewards patience and careful attention and intuition.
When I am kneading, I think about my father. His tools, the bookcases and coffee tables and household oddities he spends his weekends making out of scraps. My mother’s chicken croquettes were the Ikea furniture of food, sawdust molded into the shape of something functional, an item that could never leave any meaningful impression on its consumer. My father’s furniture is love, it’s art, it’s intention.
There’s never not something half-built in his garage or living room when I drop in. The things he makes are beautiful, often odd, and always made with stunning attention to detail. Everything mitered gorgeously and all the connecting bits covered with wood, the final result solid, heavy, and pretty to look at. I have a bookcase he made me over fifteen years ago that has moved with me half a dozen times and still seems brand new. For his own home, he makes rounded window frames that look like puzzle pieces and secret doors with the knobs hidden in rotating pieces of trim and cabinets that slide out from walls. Nothing is wasted, everything is custom, every single thing had his hands on it. He once inherited a grandfather clock from a customer of his who was going to throw it out. He ripped out the guts, cut a hole in one of his walls, rebuilt the clock mechanism inside, and covered it in plexiglass. Yes: his house has a clear wall with a clock inside, ticking away. He winds it every now and then to make sure it stays precisely five minutes fast.
I once brought him a homemade soft pretzel, leftover from a batch I’d made for a party. It took a few minutes for me to convince him I had actually cooked it, that it wasn’t Play-Doh. He was absolutely certain it was Play-Doh. “I didn’t know you could just…make things like that,” he said to me in his living room, visibly awed at the idea. We were standing near the coffee table he built out of the arms and frame of an old couch, the coffee table in an oblong hexagon shape with invisible hinges securing the top to the secret compartment beneath where he once kept the weed I wasn’t supposed to know about. My father, the man who built this coffee table, was amazed that food could just be made.
I lived my life in fear of becoming my mother. I was terrified of addiction and depression and abusive relationships and a sad life spent scamming social security for checks and sleeping in a recliner during daylight hours. At some point while cooking, I realized I have inherited some of the parts of my father that I admire the most. I can meditate on the making of a thing in a way I have never been able to before. I can take my time and use my hands and my gut and quiet my anxiety for a little while. He makes all his own furniture; I make all my own food—from the simple to the complicated to the cookies I eat for dessert. I like to experience everything all the way through the process of it becoming food. I like to feel the promise of a future meal, and the flickering idea that maybe I have become neither of them.
I had the idea, recently, to make chicken croquettes from scratch. She made the frozen ones so often, my mother, that I couldn’t stand the taste of them by the end. I wondered if I could redeem them now, in my own kitchen, secure in the knowledge that she doesn’t even have my address anymore.
I think about buying the chicken and the panko and the mushrooms and I’m intrigued by the idea, curious about what it would feel like and what they might taste like. More than that, though, I’m afraid to smell them. Deep in my brain, if I close my eyes, I realize that chicken croquettes smell like the overflowing ashtray on the kitchen table next to the lazy suzan full of prescription bottles, they smell like fear of my mother slipping into addiction and out of my life. They smell like my stepfather’s inexplicable anger and my realization that if I simply did not eat dinner I wouldn’t have to be around either of them. Chicken croquettes smell like a total absence of the right kind of control and a poisonous abundance of the wrong kind.
They say we recreate the relationships from our childhood to reenact them and yield different results in adulthood. It occurred to me that putting this energy toward repairing my opinion of chicken croquettes might be a misappropriation of a limited resource. So instead, I texted my husband and asked him to take me out for a burger. The burger was delicious.