In honor of the incredible Faye Moskowitz’s 80th Birthday I was asked to contribute to a collection of essays and stories surrounding food and the only requirement was that you share a recipe. I believe the collected stories were presented to her last night at the annual Washington DCJCC Writers’ Retreat, so now I am safe to post this…
My mother writes to me:
So I have no recipe for chicken marsala – I just make it from memory
Pound the chicken cutlets until they are thin
Dip in seasoned flour and brown in olive oil
Place cutlets in a baking dish
Slice fresh mozzarella cheese and put a slice on each cutlet (this is your memory)
Slice mushrooms and lightly coat with flour mixture
Lightly sauté mushrooms – add more olive oil if needed
With mushrooms still in pan, add a cup of chicken broth, ½ cup white wine and mix until sauce thickens
Pour sauce over cutlets – cover lightly with foil and bake at 350 for ½ hour – longer for thicker cutlets
Remove foil for last few minutes
This was my favorite dinner that my mother would make when I was growing up. I have not eaten it in many years – not since I began keeping kosher and forsook all that combined milk and meat. Intellectually, I have problems with the dictum that milk and meat should apply to poultry at all: the commandment tells us to “not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” The logic goes that to do so – to literally boil the slaughtered flesh of a premature lamb in the substance it’s mother’s body excretes with the intent to nourish it –would be cruel. I can see their point.
But chickens produce no milk. They do produce eggs in abundance, but there is no similar prohibition against dipping butchered fowl in a yolky-albumen cocktail of its never-to-be-born offspring. Such are the vagaries of kashrut. There is, of course, a lengthy chain of Talmudic logic that gets you from cheeseburgers to chicken parm. I will not trouble you with it here. It is a logic I begrudgingly accept as an article of faith, in part because the logic is so extended and because I doubt faith supported by less serpentine logic would qualify as faith at-all.
It is for that dubious faith that my mother’s Chicken Marsala is now a dish consumed only in my memory where it comes out of the oven piping hot, bathed in brown gravy with stray whorls of mozzarella cheese floating about, tempting you to pluck them out at the expense of singed fingers and scalded tongue. Once cooled and served with a healthy portion of rice pilaf (via Rice-A-Roni), the dish is a perfect combination of the slight crunch of tender chicken, the milky sweetness of gooey cheese and the earthy, savory warmth of that gravy. Honestly, I could drink that gravy and many times I literally licked my plate. If I were a deer, that gravy would be my salt-lick, and the last thought that would go through my mind before the bullet sent it, along with my skull and six-point antlers to the wall of some survivalist supply store would be, “Yum.”
My mother claims that the detail of the cheese on top of the chicken is an invented memory, belonging only to me. Technically, she is correct that traditional Chicken Marsala is prepared without cheese. But if we were to get technical then I would be compelled to note that nowhere in my mother’s recipe does the ingredient Marsala wine appear. And come to think of it, I don’t remember any mushrooms either. That detail doesn’t jibe with a dish that was imprinted on my psyche at an age when I was most certainly not yet reconciled to the view of fungi as fit for human consumption. And looking at the recipe, there is no reason I couldn’t make this dish now and stay within the bounds of kashrut by simply withholding the (possibly fantastical) cheese.
And perhaps some day I will. But I am already bracing myself for the letdown when, inevitably, the alchemy of this childhood dish fails to reactivate. Even if the cheese is a pure fabrication, it stands in-place for the one-way passage that delivers us from childhood and the comforts thereof. I can no more be the little boy licking his plate clean than I can convince the Sanhedrin that dairy and poultry really is kosher. Would that I could do either.
Cross-posted to The Blog at 16th and Q