When I Couldn’t Say It Out Loud, My Burnt Chicken Cutlets Said Everything

An essay with food.

October 23, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

He appreciated everything I cooked for him, from the fancy white bean dip I desperately tried to impress him with, to the chicken cutlets he dubbed “the best chicken cutlets he ever had” (even though I had burned them to a crisp). I had cooked for boys in the past, using what I was good at in a desperate attempt to woo them. But this felt different. He told me that cooking for him made him feel special. And I wanted nothing more than to do just that, over and over.

Cooking together became one of our go-to dates. Dinner was our way of slowing down after work, opening up to each other over a bottle of wine and getting to know the rhythms of our separate lives. On nights like these, we never had to spell anything out because we had all the time in the world. To talk, to make dinner, to express ourselves through food. I don’t think I was ready to come to terms with those feelings of comfort, but with each meal we shared, there it was.

The dish I most vividly remember making with him were those cutlets topped with herby potatoes. It was early in the relationship; we were cooking in his apartment. He made the potatoes, tossing them in tart lemon juice and fragrant dill, while I breaded the chicken breasts. When it came time to fry the cutlets, I was so nervous I burned them.

We ate at the counter, dirty dishes piled in the sink, a smile creeping up his face. It’s hard to say if the chicken was actually any good, or if it was just the culmination of the entire night. But the dish was perfect to him and that in turn made me full. The kitchen radiated with warmth. Maybe it was the wine.

One day down the line, somewhere between the kissing and herb picking and potato chopping, the alchemy of the kitchen faded. I messed up. I was reckless and took our time together for granted, and he broke up with me.

There would be no more poking fun at the way he cut tomatoes. Or laughing at how little spices he cooked with. Our kitchen dates would no longer be an activity I could look forward to. The happiest moment of my week was seeing him, watching his eyes light up, knowing that through my cooking, I could say everything I needed to.

But maybe I didn’t say enough. There’s only so much a chicken cutlet can say.

Those unspoken words haunted me for weeks, until he texted me one night, “Let’s try again.” Thoughts rushed through my head of everything we could cook together. My mother’s caramel recipe. The roast chicken he begged me to make him. Dates I would once again look forward to all week. Words I was finally ready to say. The warmth of his kitchen radiated back into my life.

If my cooking has the ability to make him feel something, then I have no plans of stopping.

I now have a full menu of dates planned out: a Concord grape pie, cinnamon rolls, octopus—all of his favorites. And the chicken cutlets, of course. I’ve cooked the same chicken for others since (without burning them). The flavors transport me straight back to his kitchen, where past, present, and future converge, and for a moment I feel full again.

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