Jaime Green

Dirty Hands

I come to you with salmonella on my fingers.

You could say I fall in love with the chicken. I touch her tenderly and the tenderness tells me how I feel about her. Her little bones are fragile between my fingers. Her flesh is soft and cool and smooth. She isn't a dead thing, though – she's about life. And she is most certainly a she. I think of her as her as I handle her.

I have a responsibility to her, to make something beautiful. It feels like collaboration, although by the time we're here she's a passive partner. But the collaboration is summed from her life and what I choose to do now. All of my attention is on her; it is all I have to offer. That and my hands. This is intimate and private, alone together in my kitchen, the rest of the world asleep. Tenderness blooms up in my chest, like dye in water. I am sincerely grateful to her.

I got her this afternoon from the butcher shop down the street from me, which I still call Bob & Julio's even though Julio stopped working there a few years ago, replaced by a younger guy. This is an old townie butcher shop, in a neighborhood that doesn't know itself any more. Here are old Irish men and families of Dominican immigrants and newer residents, like me, because it's a nice and cheap place to live even if it's far away from everything except the Hudson. Bob sells cold cuts and sandwiches, more adventurous fare like black pudding and homemade roast beef, and organic chickens from a small farm upstate. Happy chickens, as I like to think of them, as I like to hope. I walked home with her cradled in a brown paper bag.

She waits in the refrigerator while I clean the remnants of dinner off my cast-iron skillet. A friend's husband gave me this skillet after he'd seasoned it for me – cooked in it for months to build up the patina. He'd learned to cook in the last few years, while his wife, my friend, was in grad school. He'd been aghast when he learned I didn't have a cast-iron pan. When he gave me the skillet he included three envelopes, on the backs of which he'd kept a list of every meal that had been made in the pan. Bacon, blueberry pancakes, fajitas, cornbread. Earlier tonight I made hamburgers, but I'm not keeping a list, and the scrubbing after is easier because the pan was so lovingly seasoned. When the skillet is cleaned and dried I chop white, blue, and red potatoes and the too-small sweet potatoes you can only get at the farmers market, a place where strange produce gets loved, like a city pound full of scruffy dogs destined to go home with romantics. The potatoes leech starchy water and my knife starts to stick. I scatter them and the half-moon slices of a carrot on the bottom of the skillet.

Then I turn to the fridge for my bird. As I rinse her over an empty sink, I reach into her cavity and am disappointed that there was nothing there. No neck, no organs, the things my mom and our shtetl ancestors taught me to love. But she is a beautiful bird. I set her on a paper towel-covered plate to get to work. It's 11pm and the kitchen is – everywhere is – quiet. I take a small knife from the set I received cast-off from a friend who moved to California, and I slip it between her skin and the meat at the back edge of her cavity. These layers are connected by tissue just at the rear edge of her body, but once that is severed I can slip my fingers beneath her skin and gently pull it up from her muscle. It takes finesse and patience, but I have nothing else to do tonight except go to bed, and I want to do this right. It's like listening to touch, to know how much pressure you need by the feeling, the right tension, to know when to back off. Cold, wet, smooth, still. Once the space is made, I slip in butter pats and rosemary sprigs as far as they will go, over her breasts and sides, up the length of her spine. Carefully, so the woody twigs of herbs won't tear through.

I'm doing this at 11pm because she has to rest in the fridge overnight and through tomorrow, until dinner almost twenty-four hours from now. My boyfriend has fallen asleep in bed with his iPad open on his chest. (When I wash my hands and come to bed he will mumble, “I fell asleep,” and I'll say, “I know.”) The apartment is quiet and dark, except for the kitchen, which is quiet and bright. My chicken's a little lumpy when I'm done. She will rest on her bed of roots, her skin laid loose over her flesh. Tomorrow I will put half an onion and a fork-pricked lemon in her cavity, and apple quarters under her legs and wings. It is undignified for my poor bird. But I know where this all ends up – skin crisped from the butter beneath it, limp rosemary discarded after it's given all its flavor to the skin and meat below, potatoes caramelized and rich – so, to me, she looks beautiful.

I was a vegetarian for thirteen years. Almost half my life.

My hands inside a chicken – this is how it ends up.


Almost fifteen years ago, the week before I started tenth grade, my mother ran over a possum. I became a vegetarian the next day, but the possum wasn't the real why. I'd been thinking about it for a while, in an aimless, speculative fifteen-year-old way. I wanted to give it a try. And then one night I was in the car with my mom and kthunk kthunk, “Oh god.” There was no point going back. We didn't know if the possum was dead, but what could we have done?

I had a friend in elementary school who was a vegetarian, having taken up the cause of animal rights in second grade. In sixth grade another girl did her science fair project on vegetarian food pairings like rice and beans that made complete proteins, matching up all the amino acids your body needs. The idea had always been around. It was a thing to do. My best friend at the time was wearing black lipstick and dying streaks of her hair blue. It was a thing to do.

My mother didn't object. I was a chubby kid, always had been, and this probably seemed like a good change. My own motives weren't so different, even if I didn't see it at the time. My answer to the big why – the incessant why – was, almost from the start, “I just wanted to see if I could, and then I was stubborn and didn't want to quit.” I shrug now when I tell the story and add, “It was a control-over-food thing.” (It is sad that this can be so casual a shrug.) I was stubborn, but I was also a fifteen-year-old girl.

Besides, it was habit. It quickly slipped past action, past commitment or choice. Meat just became a thing I didn't eat, like grass or like wood. My options narrowed down. They say choice only agitates us, anyway, that we're actually happier without it. I never had to make a decision at a restaurant, just scan the menu for the grilled vegetable plate or pasta primavera.

There were lapses. A couple of restaurant soups when I told anyone trying a bite, “Don't tell me if it tastes like chicken broth.” It was easier not to know. I got rebellious – against whom? – once in high school and took a cold cut from the fridge, licked it, and threw it out. I ate fish roe, reasoning – and I knew it was a cheat – that if I ate chicken eggs then why not eggs from fish? And every time I saw fried calamari I wavered. It looked like onion rings, so innocent. It looked like not-meat. And I remembered how delicious it was.

People always think it's bacon, the vegetarian's siren call, the love you never forget. But not for me. Pork products were rare even in my irreligious Jewish home. (I wouldn't get into bacon until my second wave of meat-eating, but then it would be the key to keeping my cast-iron pan in shape.) I sat next to people eating hamburgers, steaks, and brightly grilled shrimp without the smallest twinge of indecision. There were only two things that never lost their appeal: that beautiful calamari and rotisserie chicken, like my mom would get from the back aisle at Costco.

I don't remember what I ate for all those high school dinners while my mom and sister ate Costco chicken. Pasta with broccoli? There were many slices of plain pizza across the street from my high school, and a couple of bad pizzeria salads (and lies that no one believed, that I was just in the mood for a salad while their greasy slices gleamed). In college the dining hall offered a vegetarian option for the entree, but I learned to branch out from friends a year or two older. One girl introduced me to pasta with cottage cheese, apparently a Jewish grandma staple I'd never encountered. We steamed salad bar broccoli between two bowls in the microwave and added shredded salad bar cheese. My senior year, living off-campus, I ate a lot of Easy Mac and mediocre tofu and foil packets of saffron rice. After graduation I shared a tiny New York City kitchen with three roommates. Chik'n patties and hamburger rolls in the toaster oven, pasta with jarred sauce. We ate dinner together, when we were all home, on an unforgiving blue sofa that took up nearly the entire living room. I packed myself lunch sandwiches of imitation turkey with maybe a slice of tomato. I learned to order breakfast sandwiches from a curbside coffee cart. (The answer to “Saltpepperketchup?” is “Yes.”) My first boss taught me to microwave a sweet potato – all it needed was salt, and sometimes I'd make a meal out of that, sometimes with ketchup packets scrounged from the accumulation in the office kitchen drawers.

My roommates and I had a communal Fresh Direct order then. That first, tiny apartment was subdivided in a building in a neighborhood none of us would have been able to afford except for the way we were sardined, and every grocery store within walking distance was priced beyond our means. So we split the $4.95 for delivery, and lounged on our hard Ikea couch waiting through delivery window hours for the doorbell to buzz. One day we got a box that wasn't ours. I called customer service and they said, “Eh, keep it.” There was a gallon jar of bread and butter pickles, a very large block of cheese – preparations for some strange party – and three or four beautiful pieces of fish. A pinkish-white tuna, gorgeous salmon. I'd been having dreams, then, of chopping off my waist-long hair and of eating meat. (I have an extraordinarily subtle subconscious.) And then this fish came, and it waited in my freezer, more and better than I could ever afford to buy myself. It was there, ready whenever I was. But I wasn't.


My slow creep to readiness started when I moved into this one-bedroom apartment, up the street from Bob & Julio's, miles north of the sardine tin and barely still in the city, surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbors and no one I knew. After three years with roommates, I was on my own. I didn't have cable. I had my cat, who missed my roommate's grey tabby, now living forty blocks to our south. I had new time to kill, and a farmers market a five-minute walk up the street every weekend.

I was being paid the pittance you can be paid when you work in the arts. I wanted to spend less, so I knew I needed to cook. I didn't think of myself as not knowing how. And it didn't scare me. I had spent many elementary school snow days paging through my mother's yellowed cookbooks for something to bake. She gave me free rein of the kitchen for hours. I think the last of those adventures was the chocolate cake that called for breadcrumbs. The only breadcrumbs I'd ever known came salted and seasoned in a canister, and the finished cake, after a first bite, went pitched wholesale into the trash. My mother was broke in those days, single-momming me and my sister, and I wonder if the wasted contents of that springform pan, the eggs and flour and chocolate and Italian breadcrumbs, were a loss. Now I was getting to know that awful stomach clench, at the sight of a cracked and ruined egg in a carton or a bag of frozen spinach that's all stems.

My one-bedroom came with an eat-in kitchen, at least by Manhattan standards, and I bought an impossibly heavy table from some a guy in a walk-up on Avenue C. It was silver-speckled white formica with a black border, like something from a 50s diner. I put two chairs at the table, a little act of aesthetic balance or hope.

I don't know why I didn't ask my mother for advice. Instead I found recipes online, frugal cooking blogs and vegetarian blogs and meal planning and the website of a couple eating, together, on $30 a week. I learned to soak dried beans, and then learned that buying canned beans for ninety cents was worth saving the headache. I bought a ten-dollar rice cooker, bright red to make me happy and to satisfy my strange sense of what matched the green and teal kitchen, and I invested the time to save money by not buying instant rice. I also just liked it, the bag of grains, the from-scratchness, the salty burned bits that stuck to the bottom of the pot no matter how closely it was watched. The little red pot simmered and steamed in the kitchen while I chopped vegetables or sat on my bed with my laptop. I learned to make rice and beans into something I liked, with an onion, a carrot, and store-brand teriyaki sauce.

I settled into an austere grocery routine – soy milk, beans, tofu, rice, eggs, peanut butter, and vegetables – that cut my costs in half and still yielded more meals than before. There was no joy in that regimen – a bit of relief, maybe, and the satisfaction of accomplishment – except in the ten dollars of vegetables. The walk to the farmers market in torn jeans and the disintegrating t-shirt my roommate had called my “weekend shirt.” Sometimes a phone call with my mom for the seven minutes of the walk. Empty tote bag over my shoulder. A turn up a hill beside a hundred-year-old church. The market takes up both sides of a block at the edge of a park. Beyond the park, the Henry Hudson Bridge soars over the waters of Spuyten Duyvil, the creek that makes Manhattan an island.

Inspired and mystified by my local farmers market, I got a book from the library that told me how to store, prepare, and cook every vegetable under the sun. I went to the market and bought what was cheap and pretty and took it all home and figured out what to do with it. Vegetables I'd never eaten growing up – kale, cauliflower, lambsquarter, purslane – became regular visitors to my kitchen. Sometimes I played music or listened to a podcast, but just as often the window was open to the courtyard sounds floating in from below. To that soundtrack and the quiet of sunlight or streetlamps and my cat watching me from her sprawl on the floor, I lost myself a little in the work. It took time, but I had time.

Time and quiet yielded gifts. I discovered the secrets in a cauliflower – the fractals that branch out to each floret, tiny, pale green leaves that cup the white florets like gentle hands. There is art to cutting a whole cauliflower down: never just chop it, but follow each forking branch, keeping the florets in small whole pieces, themselves. An hour later I would be standing in my pajamas over the cooling oven and the hot baking sheet, eating almost the entire head of roasted cauliflower right there, saving none for tomorrow's lunch because it was so good. And yes, also because I lived alone, and those are the sorts of things a person living alone sometimes does.


The first winter in my one-bedroom, I crashed hard off that first high summer of hot pans full of fresh and local things. By November I found myself disoriented, returned to the garishly lit supermarket aisles I'd so happily left behind. New York farmers market's produce wanes by November. Once the first frost hits all you're left with is apples, onions, potatoes, and winter squash. I suppose that's something a person can live on, that people have lived on it for centuries, but we are spoiled by trans-continental transport. So I set out in search of something green. But there were almost too many choices in the supermarket now. I was aimless without the guidance of what was ripe.

I was cheating on my farmers. I still went to the market for eggs every weekend, but then sadly crossed the cold street to C-Town. The produce was always a little rotten. Something about the poverty or geographic remove of the neighborhood, I guessed. Winter is a sad time for a girl who finds so much pleasure in the greenmarket, stuck with supermarket peppers that taste like nothing, from nowhere that seems real. California, Chile, and Argentina seem intangible compared to the farm up the Hudson. I could see the river through bare trees in the winter on my walk.

Some combination of this lost new love, dwindling sunlight, and hours at home under no watchful eyes left me auto-piloting through the supermarket on my way home at night, a supermarket too conveniently set between the subway and my home, and then found me sitting at my computer before bed, often with no lights on, in some sort of trance with a bag of Doritos. Off-brand Doritos, even, that weren't that good but were ninety-nine cents for a bag much larger than one person should eat in one sitting. For a girl with no money to spend on herself, ninety-nine cents of cheese-flavored powder was a treat. I was miserable at my job and probably lonelier than I realized, and this was a little respite, a grocery-induced reverie, just as long as it took to finish the bag. And then I would brush my teeth and go to sleep.

It didn't make me happier, of course, though that didn't make it easier to stop. But I brought myself around by spring. The sunlight helped, the bite leaving the air.


That was the year that I first commandeered Thanksgiving. I asked my mother if I could help cook, and she was surprised – I was a little indignant that she was so surprised, because I don't like to be thought inept at anything – and she was thrilled to hand over the reins, to everything except the turkey, at least. Thursday morning, she and my stepfather left for the local Turkey Trot; I woke early, too, and padded from my futon into the kitchen, still in my pajamas, which, if it was an average visit to my mom's, were actually her pajamas because my own were piled with the rest of the laundry I'd brought to wash.

My mother's house is clean and quiet, two things that my city apartments have rarely ever been. Warm wood panels, open space, walls of windows looking out into trees. Smooth, moss-great granite counters line the kitchen. Six burners. Two ovens. I filled it all.

I chose the recipes with giddy abandon, freed from the constraints of my tiny city kitchen and my tiny arts-employee budget. My mother still talks about the ten-dollar vanilla beans, but she doesn't deny that the whipped vanilla sweet potatoes were worth it. She made the turkey – I pled squeamishness but really would have dropped dead if I'd added a ten-pound bird to my list – and I made the rest. The sweet potatoes, which sat in hot water for six hours to draw sugar from the starch; garlicky mashed cauliflower; bourbon cranberry sauce; Brussels sprouts with apples and pine nuts.

The Brussels sprouts were a secret I'd learned that first autumn of my forays into vegetables. The secret is that Brussels sprouts are delicious. I'd only ever known them by reputation and smell, the rottenness in the air when my mother had boiled a small batch to accompany dinner, taking for granted she would be the only one eating them. But it turns out, and you would never know it from the smell, that a roasted Brussels sprout, golden brown and pan-fried, a tiny cabbage furled like a little green brain, is one of the most delicious things in the world. I would cook them for my boyfriend on one of our early dates; he said they were like vegetarian bacon. They were something else to me, though, their worth not diminished by comparison to other food, to meat. They were delicious on their own. The best vegetable.

That first Thanksgiving I cut them into shreds – easier to perfect than finicky, prettier halves – and cooked them in a pan in hot oil and salt. I added apples cooked barely to softness with garlic, in a salty mix of maple syrup and soy sauce and, at the very end, pine nuts I'd toasted in a dry pan just before. The trick is to cook this at the very last second, or else it gets that soggy rottenness, and to bring it to the table immediately.

A couple of Thanksgivings later I made a pie for our dinner, and a second one that – I told no one this – was for my boyfriend. We'd been dating about a month, then, a thing too new to tell my family. I said the second pie was for a friend who wasn't making it home for the holiday, and once you were making a pie, a second was easy enough. So a secret, not a lie. (And indeed, he was in his grimy Sunset Park apartment with a Costco ham and one roommate, celebrating a sad little bachelor Thanksgiving, boys who lived too far from home to fly back for one night.) I brought him to my mother's house in the woods the next year.

I do this every year now. My mother still takes care of the turkey and stuffing but the sides, the vegetables, are mine. (She won't let me roast the cauliflower in bacon fat, though. I don't know if for an echo of kashrut or cholesterol fears.) I eat leftovers for a week, yams and cranberries and the green bean casserole I learned to cook for my boyfriend's Midwestern holiday palate, without milk for my dairy-intolerant family.


You can cook for hours and the meal is still gone in minutes, so there has to be a reason for it other than to eat. To do something competently. To apply intuition and guesswork and have the result come out mostly right. To make something delicious, something you've never tasted before, because of a recipe you found or, even better, your sense of what will work. I'd been living – and cooking – on my own for a few years when my boyfriend and I spent our first New Year's Eve together holed up, cozy and uninvited to parties, in his apartment. I planned to come over and cook dinner, but I arrived to an empty-fridge welcome, and the supermarkets had all closed early. He was despondent, hopeless in our chances to find anything to eat, but I led us out confidently on a bodega expedition. I lived in a bodega neighborhood, too. We returned with canned chickpeas, queso blanco, avocados, a red onion, cilantro, and little white tortillas. I browsed the scant spices and took a guess. Salt, cumin, paprika. The onions were sweet and blackened, and the chickpeas cooked up creamy and soft. It worked.

I came to love the improvisation, the little communion between me and my food. Like a dance, it happens somewhere between conscious thought and physical impulse. Just a sense that this would be good with garlic, that needs cinnamon, this wants another dash of cayenne. Muscle memory in your hands and your sense of smell. Breaking down a cauliflower: the pleasure of a dance once its steps are in your bones. And the body-listening of a dance with a new partner. I met so many exotic accomplices. Dark, leathery string beans as long as my forearm, the little teardrop leaves of purslane, delicata squash. The discoveries: that green bell peppers actually have a flavor; that there are kinds of grapes beyond green and red, varietals named after the planets, so good they will stop you in your tracks when you reach for a greenmarket sample and pop one in your mouth.

But the limits that I worked within narrowed my options so much – there are only so many vegetables. There are only so many ways to cook them cheaply, quickly, and for one. Even with the wonderfully weird bounty of a local greenmarket, even with the flow of the seasons, from delicate greens to bright tomatoes and peppers to the hearty roots and sweet Brussels sprouts of fall. Even then. After a few years, I knew what I was doing too well. Eventually I had danced with everyone in the room.


My first bite of meat, after those thirteen years, didn't take place in my own kitchen, but at an Italian restaurant with some extended family. Calamari. My white whale. An argument was brewing about the Middle East. I don't remember what I was thinking. I looked slyly at my sister across the table, and then at my boyfriend next to me. I made sure no one else was watching and then I snuck that little fried ring into my mouth. I stole a bite of sausage from my boyfriend's pasta, and he was aghast, eyebrows up and an O of a mouth. I felt excited. I felt free.

Since then it's been a year and two pork shoulders. A beef brisket. Countless chicken legs and thighs and several slow cookers of pulled pork. Two batches of chili, one of meaty tomato sauce. A few ice cube trays of homemade chicken stock. One batch of beef stock that made my apartment smell like rotten roast beef for a week. Another batch, fastidiously skimmed, which gelled up in the fridge the way it should.

And chopped liver, right in the first couple of months. It was near the top of the list of challenges and missed chances, the years I needed to make up for. The little tub of chicken livers came frozen from Bob & Julio in red ice that thawed bloody. I rinsed them in a metal sieve, but they still stained my cutting board red. A chicken's liver has two lobes that spread like a pair of slick, brown wings. I laid them out and sliced off little bits of fat and connective tissue, separating the wings so they would cook more evenly. Helping along the transition from anatomy to meat.

I used my goyishe friend's mother's recipe, but it tasted just like my grandma's, rich and sweet and smooth. We used to spread it on matzah crackers before the Passover seder. I ate my batch with baby carrots, but it still transported me to that studio apartment on Long Island. I didn't know what a studio meant then, always assumed there was a bedroom off the hall somewhere, but my cousins and I sat on my grandma's day bed, which I now realize was her bed, our little legs dangling off the floor in white tights. And we ate chopped liver. So I made that.


One day last winter, several months after my return to eating meat, I took the subway to Queens to visit my friend whose husband had given me my cast-iron pan. They had a new baby – she is the first of my friends to have a baby. I spent the afternoon with his fat little blond head against my chest in their slightly too-warm living room, red-orange walls and rows and rows of photographs – family, college, trips to Morocco and Greece. My younger face appears in a few. I drank hot mugs of the blueberry tea that sits in their cupboard and only gets brewed when I come to visit. Her husband joined us in the evening, slipping into the kitchen every so often to check on the meal. It was delicious, and as we ate, I made him talk me through the process, the bed of potatoes and root vegetables, the overnight rest uncovered in the fridge, the tender surgery of herbs and butter beneath the skin. I took seconds even though no one else did, a hungry graduate student in the company of exhausted new parents. The next day I bought a chicken from Bob & Julio, and that night I prepared the recipe for the first time, for Sunday dinner for me and my boyfriend. I fell in love with that chicken then, the gift of something new.


My chicken spends her night in the fridge, and when I take her out she looks sickly and wan. I rub olive oil onto her skin, to brighten her up and because once there are pats of butter under your bird's skin, you might as well go all the way. I let her and her skillet come closer to room temperature – she'll take the heat willingly but the cold iron in the oven will stay obstinately cold, and then so will the roasting potatoes. And then I put her in the oven and walk away, trading the 11pm work last night for a Sunday evening hour on the couch. Fifteen minutes per pound at 350 degrees.

She is delicious, and that is another wonderful thing about this recipe. I know it works. But the work is strange enough – the incisions, the 24-hour delay – that it is still a joy when it all comes out well. Amazingly well. I sit next to my boyfriend and say to him through mouthfuls, “Isn't this good?” or, “Do you like it?” Or I say to myself, “This is so good,” and bounce a little in my seat. I'm proud of this delicious thing that I made. When I bake I bring leftovers to the office or to friends, watch them take a bite, grin when they say that it's good. This chicken is just for us, though. She is delicious and will feed us for days.

Jaime Green teaches writing at Columbia University and produces the forthcoming literary podcast, The Catapult. For Thanksgiving this year she cooked mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, cranberry sauce, cornbread, and an almond pear tart. She washed her hands afterward, she promises.

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