“I miss the old you,” my mom texts. The words seem to echo from their gray text bubble. I stare, exhaling deeply, before squeezing my phone so hard that its sides feel like they might warp. Tears press against my shut eyes, but I will them away. Angry. I feel angry. No, I am hurt.
This “old” me has been the source of countless arguments, tense exchanges, and thinly veiled pleasantries between my mom and me the past few weeks. I changed, she says, I've become a new person during my senior year of college. I don’t want to come home anymore, she says, unlike when I was a freshman. She reminds me how I used to beg her and my dad to make the two-hour drive from Buffalo to Syracuse, New York to take me back for the weekend. Now, I value my friends over my family, she says. It was better when I didn’t have any friends at all, she implies. She says I don’t care.
It’s not that I don’t. I care so much that every text message makes my heart hurt. I replay, “you’ve changed,” “forget it,” and “whatever, I’m over it” again-and-again in my head like a bad time-loop video. I care because my mom is my best friend. She always has been. She’s my confidant, support structure, and cheerleader. She’s my volunteer stablehand at horseback riding shows. She hasn’t missed a single marathon (and that’s a lot of hours standing on the sideline). She’s the one that holds me, rubbing my back and telling me it’ll be okay, after I’ve had my heart broken.
I need to reconnect with my mom—to feel something that isn’t sadness or disappointment. I need to make Chicken Marbella.
Of all my mom’s signature dishes—she also does a stellar mac and cheese with something like six cheeses—Chicken Marbella has always been her go-to special occasion meal.
As a kid, I went wild over the sauce: slightly tannic from the wine, sweet from the brown sugar, and rich from the chicken’s juices. I felt like an adult, eating something made with alcohol. Of course, the sugar helped. Spoon the sauce over anything, and I would’ve eaten—no, inhaled—it. Which is probably why my mom thought to add kale to the dish, putting her own spin on the Silver Palate Cookbook classic. The kale stewed beneath the chicken, rendering it tender and with a subtle, earthy flavor that complemented the sweet prunes, briney olives, and salty capers.
Now, at 21, I’ll eat the kale with that same fervor as my 10-year-old self. For my own kitchen, I’ll buy a whole bird, breaking it down and marinating it with an ample amount of olive oil, puréed garlic, and dried oregano. It’ll sit overnight—proving 24 hours does, indeed, feel like a long time. I’ll think about my mom, about how I’ve been an unfair daughter. I’ll feel shame over the number of purposefully missed phone calls, ignored text messages, and months away from home.
I will put a layer of kale into a baking dish, then the chicken and the rest of the marinade components, and, lastly, a heap of brown sugar and a bit of white wine. Into the oven this will go, for about an hour. Maybe, in that time, I’ll call my mom.
“I miss the old you,” she might say. The me that wasn’t independent. The me that was shy and subservient. There was a lot of good to that girl, but a lot of not-so-good, too. I’ll cry; she’ll hold back tears. She’ll say she misses me and I’ll say I miss her. We will apologize to one another and she’ll plan on coming to visit that week. We’ll go out to dinner—no, I’ll offer to make Chicken Marbella. “I love you,” my mom will say. Because that’s how unconditional love works. You forgive one anothers' faults. You acknowledge that, yes, you have changed, but that’s okay. My mom and my relationship isn’t over, just morphing, expanding, and adapting. “I love you, too, mom,” I say, then the oven’s timer will ring.
Serves 4 to 6
2 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered
1/2 head garlic, peeled and finely pureed
2 tablespoons dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup pitted prunes
1/4 cup Spanish green olives (Manzanilla work well)
1/3 cup capers, with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1/2 bunch kale, stemmed and leaves roughly chopped
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons Italian parsley or cilantro, finely chopped
Crusty bread, for serving
What's the dish that always brings you back home? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo of kale by Mark Weinberg; all others by James Ransom