The last potpie
As daughter heads off to college, a mother makes a favorite recipe, imbued with memories, love
Off to school: I had been feeding these girls for years, and I would badly miss them. It saddened me to see this way of eating, and being, disappearing. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
That's what I cooked when the going got tough. Some moms shopped; some drank; I cooked, and that's what sustained me until the pain passed.
I was about to say goodbye to my youngest who was headed to a big university a thousand miles away, so she hosted a send-off party, the final get-together with her friends after high school graduation. Some were going to the Ivies, a few to the Big Ten, the rest to small colleges scattered all over the place. The one who was a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe last Halloween was taking a gap year.
I had been feeding these girls for years, and I would badly miss them, at backyard camp-outs, for "House" television marathons, at Fourth of July cookouts on the beach and on snow days when they dragged in sleds, toboggans and discs, and needed constant breaks for grilled cheese panini, and, well, OK, chocolate fondue. In came the dirty plates, and I washed them as if born to it.
It saddened me to see this way of eating, and being, disappearing.
My offer to pick up a tray of lasagna for the party provoked a huge frown and an emphatic no. "All my friends like your cooking," my daughter begged. "Don't pick up."
Perhaps she was feeling some pain too — that the kitchen she grew up knowing wouldn't be there for her. I knew we'd both miss the steady rhythm of meeting in the kitchen every night, sitting down and sharing a meal. We built our family that way. Avid eaters and home cooks.
As she searched the fridge, I saw her most frantic face when she discovered we were out of homemade guacamole, as in the one from Cook's Illustrated. And we were low on the batch of Rick Bayless' agua de jamaica, hibiscus water we made from scratch in a color that can only be described as a full-bodied pink.
My biggest food critic was way beyond an entry-level foodie. As soon as she was eating solid food, she knew kiwi, not Pop-Tarts; steamed artichokes, not canned hearts; and she was acquainted with creme caramel before she ever knew what Big Macs were. Good or bad, she was possessed of the most fastidious palate in her group.
So, for the party, I made potpie, sturdy food that gets you through.
Potpie isn't just a term. I got out the pot the night before, simmered a 3-pound chicken with some vegetables and herbs, waited for it to cool and picked the bones clean.
The next day, from my post in the kitchen, I could hear everything in the next room, therefore I, too, was listening to Counting Crows: "If you don't go take a wide-angled turn in your life and try new things, you haven't lived."
There were nine of them, gearing up for a "Dexter" marathon, oblivious to my presence nearby. As I cut the cooked chicken into small pieces, I wondered what my wide-angled turn would be. And then the memories flooded in.
Like the time when I booked a downtown Chicago hotel with my daughter and her best friend for two nights. It was December, they were 10 and I splurged on a late-night horse-and-carriage ride down Michigan Avenue, wrapped in wool blankets, munching on a bag of those divine-tasting nuclear orange Circus Peanuts while gazing at Christmas-y lights. It was 17 degrees. You did what you had to so they could have fun.
I told the girls that General Mills loved those Circus Peanuts so much, they decided to put shavings of them in Lucky Charms. The following morning that's what they asked for, then strategically ate around the cereal.
The memories of our weekend didn't stay in that hotel room. They were right there, at the counter where I was cooking, stirred back and forth into the thickening sauce.
And there were so many other little vignettes, like the times she walked home from grade school with a rock, a ginko leaf, green sea glass, all beautiful to her, all meant as gifts for me.
Making potpie wasn't about culinary imagination, where obsessing over every detail and element enhanced the dish. Potpie was a staple in my kitchen, a family favorite, and because I wasn't feeding field hands or using leftovers to stretch food dollars, I couldn't help but raise it to an aristocratic level by using a free-range chicken grown without antibiotics or hormone shots.
This bird was not denied the pleasure of sunlight, nor had she lived in a scandalously small cage stacked on six or seven others so that she could not do that most natural of hen things — spread her wings, flutter them a bit and relax. Maybe she even had a roost for the night. The very thought made me feel better.