My 88-year-old father is making Chicken Marengo for me. He has made it many times before, but these days it is a labor of love, effort and infinite patience. I watch as he slowly debones and slices the chicken thighs, his head stooped over so he can see.
“Why didn’t you buy boneless thighs?” I ask.
“I couldn’t find them,” he answers, with that quiet, resigned smile he uses so often now.
I don’t know if he means the store didn’t have any or he couldn’t find where they were. Shopping is a daily ritual for Pavle, one that can take several hours, and the meat and produce he sometimes forgets disintegrate in the refrigerator until someone throws them out without a whisper of the deed.
I offer to help, but Dad says he doesn’t need any help. He tells me to go outside and relax, as if I could when I know he is sweating in the kitchen alone.
In Denver today, the temperature reached 100 degrees, and in the cramped kitchen, it is still 100 degrees even though it is past seven. My father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Actually, he doesn’t believe in home improvement of any kind.
The screens are ripped. The carpets are stained and shredded. The wallpaper is peeling in every corner. The curtains sag from one or two stalwart rings, while the rest of the fabric hangs like a sail from a broken mast.
And yet Pavle is the most elegant man I know, even at his age. He wears dark slacks and a pressed collared shirt every day, often with a cravat tucked in at the neck. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts, and his white hair is carefully combed back from his high forehead. He has always been a handsome, well-groomed man. How is it possible that someone so formal and meticulous with his person can tolerate such abysmal surroundings? Maybe because people are full of contradictions. Or maybe because many men without women lose their sense of order.
To get to the garden, I must pass through what used to be an enclosed porch but is now a wasteland of junk and broken furniture. Around the outside patio, huge untrimmed juniper bushes hide the balding lawn below, where mushrooms sprout with abandon. The patio chairs are torn or sagging. The white siding on the house looks gray, and the wooden roof shingles are all askew, just waiting for the perfect storm to fly far, far away.
Which I will do in a week, leaving the scene of a disaster that would make my deceased mother, a lover of nature and beauty in all things, wail.
What became of her carefully tended flowerbeds?
Where has her beloved glass dining room table gone?
Pavle lives at that table, now buried under bills, papers, magazines, newspaper clippings, containers of nuts and random piles of crackers and cookies. Sometimes he sits at his computer writing his memoirs or trying to access his e-mail. Sometimes he scrutinizes his pile of junk mail as if it contained the secret to immortality. Helter-skelter files surround his feet and precarious bookshelves lean from the wall behind him, where an abstract oil painting has tilted up to the ceiling, caught by a wayward curtain.
In this dark room, the wrought-iron chandelier my mother found in Mexico is always on, but the ugly coils of low-energy bulbs have replaced the pink candle-shaped lights she favored, and their harsh, unforgiving glare intensifies the dusty chaos below.
Sensing that Pavle would enjoy my presence, and knowing how slowly he moves, I insist on coming inside to help him. I chop the garlic and parsley and boil and peel the tiny pearl onions as he sautés the chicken.
Both my brother and my nephew, who live with my father, have gone out this Saturday night, and the house is unusually calm and quiet. Outside, if I look up through the circle of trees at the waning silver light outlining the blue-gray clouds of a Colorado evening, I can almost imagine I have traveled back in time. I am still married, and my husband is pitching to one of the boys. The other children are shrieking as they slide down the Slip‘n Slide. My mother is cooking inside. My father is leading baby Malia around the patio by both hands, trying to teach her to walk.
Today is Malia’s nineteenth birthday.
As I set the patio table, I try to recall how Mom’s pink and white Iceland poppies swayed in the evening breeze. How her off-tune voice seeped through the open doors from the kitchen, where she sang in French as she cooked for her children and grandchildren.
Only the rhythmic hum of crickets and the poignant calls of birds remain the same, enduring talismans of those summer days. The rest is ruin and loss, neglect and decrepitude.
But in the kitchen, my 88-year-old father is alive, cooking Chicken Marengo, just for me.
I gauge his progress while I refill my wine glass. Here, wine is a necessity, a buffer against reality. It is still unbearably hot inside, and Pavle is trying to cool off with his second whiskey and soda. Meanwhile, the chicken and mushrooms are swimming in a broth that won’t reduce to a sauce, and he is worried.
“Stop worrying,” I tell him. “Sit down and let it reduce by itself.”
He has been standing for at least two hours, and he looks weary.
The kitchen is in shambles. Dad has left all of the drawers and cabinet doors open, and herbs, onion skins, utensils and dirty dishes litter the chipped brown Formica counters. As I clean, I try to imagine what this once-beautiful house might look like if anyone still cared.
When I am sure Pavle has gone back to his dining room headquarters, I sprinkle Wondra flour into the soupy broth and stir until it finally thickens. Through the kitchen door, I can see him hunched over the New York Times, munching on pita chips.
As requested, I make a plain green salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Anything else, he has told me, “just doesn’t go with Chicken Marengo.”
The baguette is already hardening in the dry air as I slice it. My father never eats a meal without bread, preferably warm. Maybe it’s bad for his health, but he is the one who is 88 and still reading the New York Times!
I shut off the television droning in the background for no one, and put on a Norah Jones CD. Her mellow voice fills the heated air. “I don’t miss you any more,” she sings, over and over again. The CD is a cheap copy and skips repeatedly. I think of my mother and my ex, my grandparents and my children, my friends and family scattered everywhere. I will always miss everyone who once mattered to me.
Norah sings, “What do you say when it’s all gone away?”
Nothing, I guess. There is nothing left to say.
“I’m starving, Dad!” I shout, knowing he is going deaf. When he doesn’t move, I feel bad and walk to him, then touch his shoulder gently and ask if he wants to eat. By now, it is dark and nearly nine.
“Yes, yes, darling,” he says, smiling that familiar, resigned half-smile as he rises painfully from his chair.
He makes his way ever so slowly across the family room and down to the patio as I add the olives and pearl onions to the perfect sauce, pour it into a bowl and top it with chopped parsley. The air outside has cooled, and we sit down together to eat.
Before we start, Pavle tells me his version of the history of Chicken Marengo. On June 14, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte won a narrow victory over the Austrian troops occupying Italy on the Marengo Plain. While he was waiting for the second half of his troops to arrive, late due to his own geographical miscalculation, he got really hungry. He sent his soldiers out to forage for food in the surrounding villages. They found chicken, olives, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Napoleon’s chef was on fire that night and created Chicken Marengo.
Fortified by a full belly and a second-wave of soldiers, Napoleon beat back the Austrians.
When he finishes his tale, my father takes the first bite and says, “Don’t you think it’s a little too salty?”
“Maybe a teensy bit,” I answer after I swallow, surprised that his taste buds are still as sharp as his memory for stories. “But I love it the way it is.”
And I do. Yet, as I sit under the infinitude of stars on this warm summer night, what I love most is not the taste but the sense of my father’s love in every delicious bite of Chicken Marengo. The dish he has made, just for me.
PAVLE’S CHICKEN MARENGO
3 TBS oil
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, whole or in pieces
1 chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Bay leaves
1 TSP dry or fresh thyme
12-15 pearl onions or more, cooked and peeled
1 can chopped tomatoes or 5-6 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup black olives
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 TBS tomato puree or paste
2-3 TBS (or more) of Wondra flour
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Cook the onion until it is soft.
Brown the chicken in oil. Drain the fat before adding the chicken to the cooked onion.
Stir in herbs, broth, wine, garlic, tomatoes and tomato puree. Thicken with Wondra.
Add mushrooms and pearl onions and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
When the sauce has thickened, adjust seasonings and add the olives and parsley.
With due respect to my father, serve with whatever you think “goes” with the chicken!
And make sure to cook the dish with love for those who matter the most to you.