A whole chicken to stay

On Wednesday afternoons, when Mia wakes up from her nap, we go swimming. Last Wednesday was business as usual. I wrangled Mia into her bathing suit. (A tankini. A pink and green halter top. I die.) Mia grabbed a floating dumbbell and bobbed around the pool, as is her custom, smiling and waving at anything that moved. She drank pool water, also her custom, drifted along belly-up for a while, got sufficiently wrinkled and shivery, gave me the evil eye when it was time to get out, then cruised naked around the changing room shutting locker doors. Typical. We showered. I dressed myself. I dressed Mia. I stuffed her into her jacket, strapped a fuzzy hat (with ears, obviously) onto her head, and locked the whole squirming package onto my chest for the walk home. Nothing out of the ordinary.

What came next happened so quickly - it was a matter of seconds, really - I keep thinking that perhaps it didn't happen at all.

We pass through a hotel lobby on our way home, and as we neared the door last week, I saw a woman in a wheel chair. She was African-American, dressed all in black, with long silver dreadlocks. At once I had the feeling that I knew her. Mia started smiling and waving frantically, and I swear they locked eyes for a moment, and just as it's hitting me that whoa, WAIT A SECOND, I do know her, another woman rushes up, introduces herself as professor so-and-so and, breathless, looking like she is either about to faint, or cry, or sprint around the block, says, "Hello, Ms. Morrison. It is a pleasure to meet you. I'll be escorting you to your speaking engagement tonight." (I forgot to mention that I was in the middle of dialing Eli when this whole scene transpired, and at the precise moment when it all clicked, he'd picked up, and was now waiting patiently while I said slowly, shakily, over and over into the phone, "Hold on... Hold on... Hold on...") I am at this point blinking furiously, feeling that I might spontaneously faint, or cry, or sprint around the block, and Mia, still in that damn hat with those damn ears, is still waving, then clapping, then blowing kisses at Toni Morrison's back as she's wheeled across the lobby and out the door.

Well. You cannot wave and blow kisses at Toni Morrison, or have the miniature human strapped to your chest wave and blow kisses at Toni Morrison, and then just go home. So we went to the bakery instead for two slices of Boston brown bread, heavy with molasses and serious flours, lightly sweet, speckled with dried blueberries that steam and swell as the dough bakes. Mia loves it, and so do I. While we were waiting for our slices, the guy behind the counter told me about a man and a woman who come in once a week, order a whole chicken to stay, then sit down across from one another and eat the entire thing with their hands, tearing it apart as they go. He called it primal, mildly disgusting, and one of the most romantic things he's ever seen. The person by the register handed Mia a star-shaped cracker the size of her palm. It had anise and almond and citrus in it, and I'm sure a bit of sugar, too, though it wasn't terribly sweet. It's probably safe to say that it was more a cookie, but Mia doesn't eat cookies yet, officially speaking, so I'm going with cracker. It was a real treat.

That morning, I'd read that it was Joan Didion's and Calvin Trillin's birthday. Walt Disney's, too.

Also that morning:  Mia walked.

Brown bread all around.

p.s. Emma Brockes on Toni Morrison here.

Boston Brown Bread
Adapted from Hi-Rise Bakery and Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer

Traditionally, Boston brown bread is steamed in coffee cans for a crust as moist as its crumb. They do use cans at Hi-Rise, but leave them uncovered for a crisp crust. I folded dried cherries into the dough instead of blueberries because they're what I had on hand, and I really liked their deep, winy flavor with the rye flour, molasses, and cornmeal. You might also try dried currants. You'll need two 28-ounce cans or two 8 x 4-inch loaf pans for this recipe. I used a couple of 9 x 5-inch loaf pans (and shortened the baking time), so I ended up with shorter, flatter loaves. It wasn't ideal, but the bread still came out fine, with a damp crumb and extra crust. Please note: I baked this bread according to the weight measurements listed below. I have not tested the volume measurements and, as is always the case when converting from weight, they're approximate.

8 ounces (about 1½ cups) all-purpose flour
8 ounces (about 2 cups) rye flour
4½ ounces (about 1 cup) whole wheat flour
4 ounces (about 2/3 cup) medium- or coarse-grind cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1¼ teaspoons salt
¼ cup molasses
¼ cup honey or maple syrup (I used honey)
2 cups whole milk, plus a bit more, if you end up needing it
1 cup dried cherries (or dried blueberries, or dried currants)
Butter for the pans

Heat the oven to 300 degrees and butter your cans or pans.

Whisk together the dry ingredients (flours, cornmeal, leaveners, and salt) in a large bowl. Add the molasses, honey, and milk, and mix with your hands until the dough just comes together. Do not overmix. If it's crumbly, add more milk, a tablespoonful at a time, until you have your dough. Gently fold in the dried cherries.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans or pans, and bake for 60-90 minutes (my 9 x 5 inch loaves were done in 50) until deep brown with a hard, crisp crust. You can stick them with a toothpick, if you want to make sure their insides are cooked through.  Remove from the cans or pans while still warm and transfer to a rack to cool.

Serve with cream cheese.


Anonymous said...

Chills... one, two, three, make that FOUR times.
Beautiful. Thanks Jess.

Molly said...

love. this.

Adrienne said...

Oh MY. What a day you two had.

Shanna said...

I loved this post so much, I have no words. So good.

shari said...

oh jess. i love this post.

Jacqui said...

MIA WALKED!!! Please post a video asap. Also: I took a class in college with a reading list that consisted solely of Toni Morrison's works. "Song of Soloman" is one of my all-time favorites. I love the image of Mia blowing kisses to one of the greats. Happy Day!

Katoshiko said...

and she was amazing! we saw her speak at harvard and just her rolling out on stage was enough to make me cry--i didn't realize she was in a wheel chair. she spoke about goodness and altruism in literature and that we must let goodness drive our narratives in our writing (or that was the message she seemed to be giving to me directly :D), lovely post.

Sally said...

This was such a wonderful, wonderful, story. LOVED it.

(is it weird that the chicken story reminded me of the girl in Girl, Interrupted who ate chickens like that?!?)

CONGRATULATIONS on the walking!!!

alanachernila said...

My favorite post of yours ever. And I have many favorites but really, ever.

Allison said...


ebkr said...

Thank you for sharing this fabulous afternoon!

Alison Borgas said...

Loved your description of the swimming outing with Mia - you really are a superb writer! ;)

amber said...

What an amazing story! I would be totally star-struck around such an eminent author. I bet she appreciated the blown kisses and bubbles.

Kelsey said...


Hannah said...

Ah, this makes me both happy and weepy. So much feeling all around - what a day. Hugs to the little cruiser - and her mama too!

Jess said...

Thanks, all, for your notes. I loved getting this day down here to share with you. And I so appreciate hearing back from you!

Jacqui - I loved Song of Solomon, too. It was the first of hers that I ever read. And YES! She DID! She DOES! I'm sure those Directr weirdos will be all over this soon enough...

Katoshiko - I read the piece in the Gazette about her talk. Sounds like an amazing night. Would love to hear more about what it was like from where you sat. xo.

Sally - I've never read or seen Girl, Interrupted, but now I want to. Thanks for your cheers!

And thanks again, to all of you, for reading and saying such nice things.

Kay said...

Wow. Just wow.

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

I can't tell you the pleasure it brings me to read something and then smile uncontrollably. From Mia's waves to the primal whole chicken, lady, this was the perfect post to start my Friday.

Sarah Shermann said...

I love reading your blog and love this post

Jess said...

Thanks, you three!

Plum - Now I'm the one smiling uncontrollably.

olga said...

this is really lovely, jess! and wow. i would've just been breathless - toni morrison... wow. and hooray for walking! another mileston. also, definitely a cracker ;)

Amy said...

I really enjoyed this post -- thank you! And I have a perfect mental image, not only of Mia's actual bathing suit (I was a little disappointed that the link goes merely to "tankini" generic), but of the astonishing Ms. Morrison in her hotel lobby splendor. Am baking spider cake but it's at the end of the cooking time and V-E-E-R-R-Y jiggly ... perhaps the pan is not really 9"?

Jess said...

Thank you, Olga. Yes, it was all I could do to remain upright and conscious! Amazing.

Amy, hi! Do you mean the custard-filled cornbread on this site? Jiggly? Uh oh. Yes, if you used a smaller pan, and the batter is consequently deeper, you might need to add to the baking time. I forget - do you have an oven thermometer in there? I wonder if your oven is running cool. I know I've made that recipe at least once in your kitchen - I think I used a square 8-inch or 9-inch pan - and it came out great... Let me know what happens. xo.

p.s. One day I'll have to get someone to tag along to the pool so we can get some photos.

charlotte au chocolat said...

This post so beautiful, Jess. I recently read Toni Morrison's "Sula" which blew me away... Thanks for the link to the article about her- so inspiring!

Anonymous said...

what a fantastic post! and a perfect day. can't wait to start some swimming lessons at the Y with my little one (11 months old).

Pia said...

What a day, Jess. I love it when everything good, sweet and gushy are thrown at you, all at the same time. I just finished Morrison's Jazz; and though I would've done exactly as you did - blinked and stared and had a fit - good girl Mia for blowing her those kisses! And, for walking. On Joan Didion's birthday. That's got me mean something.
We're off to India this weekend, to warmer weather and family, but before that: Happy holidays to you and yours :)