When I Wanted to Help, I Thought of a Chicken

by Samantha Peale
Originally Published: 

When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, my family ate dinner every night at 6 p.m. My father worked in paving construction and my mother was back in school, getting her BA and then her Master’s in art history. It wasn’t until I was an adult, living with my own family in California that I wondered how they found the time to make a hot meal for my brother Mark and me each night. Dinner was treated as a necessary collaboration, not a virtue. Everyone had to help.

My mother cooked up big, one-pot meals that Mark and I gave cruel nicknames like “Sludge” (wide egg noodles with ground beef and a mysterious medley of frozen vegetables) or “Death Warmed Over,” a chicken and rice dish that would have been tasty if not for the abundance of lima beans. My father plated and ran the clean up.

A pot of “Death Warmed Over” could get us from Sunday to Wednesday. I remember my relief when the serving spoon scraped bottom. But no matter what was on our plates, we met at 6, all together with our massive appetites and the news of our days—the laments, the hyperbole, the triumphs and failures. That’s when we laid it all out.

Once your napkin was in your lap, you made an effort to be good company, even if you were a surly teenager or a tired parent.

If you weren’t at the table at 6 p.m., an explanation was required.

“Driver’s ed. with Mr. Viviano.”

“Dual-meet versus Plainfield.”

“Gravel delivery.”

“Renaissance in Italy.”

You showed up for the family. Once your napkin was in your lap, you made an effort to be good company, even if you were a surly teenager or a tired parent. Jokes, riddles, gossipy anecdotes, stories from the newspaper—the range of acceptable topics was broad. Sometimes we ganged up on each other. Mark and I tried to make our parents laugh.

Now I have a husband who grew up eating dinner at 5:15 p.m. We have our own two kids. The four of us race around separately all day. Sometimes I feel as though all I do is say goodbye to my three favorite people.

“Goodbye, see you later, have a good day! Bye!”

Until dinner, that is. We aim for 6, sometimes it’s 7:30. I love to hear all the news, hot off the presses: who got in trouble at school, who has a crush, who scored a goal or defended one, who’s reading which novel, heard something wacky on NPR or committed an unsafe lane change. The meal is like a magnet that pulls us together again when the sun goes down. Often our table includes an additional soccer player or a friend who might have stopped by around 6. Family dinner provides on an as-needed basis.

Recently, my 8-year-old said he wanted to slice the cucumbers for our salad.

“Aren’t the cucumbers really good tonight?” he asked when we were all seated.

“You cut them, right?” said his older brother. “Good job.”

“Thanks for helping,” said my husband.

Last winter our neighbor was diagnosed with colon cancer. His kids go to school with my kids. I wanted to be helpful but I wasn’t sure how. We did some carpooling; their kids came over to ride the zip line and watch a movie with my kids. But it didn’t feel like I was doing enough.

One Thursday, when I was picking up a chicken for dinner, I bought a second bird and roasted it for the neighbors, too. I dropped it off on their porch, piping hot, just before the dinner hour. My neighbors texted their thanks. I started to drop off a bird each Thursday. When treatment changed from chemo to radiation, I added potatoes and a vegetable, all thrown together in an aluminum pan that could be recycled, or not.

I learned their Thursday schedule; I announced the drop off by texting a dumb chicken joke or a simple “Cluck cluck.” The weeks and seasons passed, I hit every Thursday.

What I make for my family, I make for theirs.

The food is fresh, organic, colorful, and prepared with love. Chicken breasts, thighs, or a whole bird, seasoned with salt, pepper, herbs and lemon or in a bath of coconut milk. Baked baby dutch or fingerling potatoes, sautéed kale, haricot verts with onions, or roasted broccoli and bright bell peppers. Sometimes there’s a vinegary chickpea or lentil salad, with lots of scallions and parsley. What I make for my family, I make for theirs.

On a recent Thursday, the front door was open and my neighbor and his son sat on their living room couch discussing Samuel Beckett’s plays (no joke!). I handed over the pan and gave my neighbor, two weeks post-op, a hug. His wife and daughter appeared from opposite corners of the house and joined the theater discussion. It was great to see my neighbor smushed between his wife and kids. It was the best part of my day.

I didn’t stick around to see whether they ate then or saved the food for later. No matter. They could continue their discussion of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, no need for anyone to clear counter space and preheat the oven. When hunger set in they could peel back the foil on the pan and dig in.

I walked home to my own family. I felt a little helpful to my neighbors. I like to think the dinner I dropped off works as a family magnet for them, as it does in my house. Instead of cooking dinner and cleaning it up, on Thursdays at least, they can cut straight to getting together for the meal. Maybe try to make each other laugh, the way my brother and I used to.

Since I started cooking for my neighbors almost a year ago, I’ve learned that the only thing better than family dinner is family dinner for two families. Today my neighbors are going to visit friends for their Thanksgiving feast. Next Thursday, I’ll pick up with them where we left off.

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