The Lost Art Of Roast Chicken

That most traditional of Sunday dinners can be a daunting test for home cooks.

September 14, 2005|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

Whatever happened to the roast chicken dinner?

The one your mother made on Sunday, when the preacher came for supper or when the out-of-town cousins came to visit?

The one Mother made for the parents of the boy Sis hoped to marry or when her son came home on leave from the Army?

Whatever happened to the roast chicken dinner?

The one that filled the house with that unmistakable aroma for most of a hot summer afternoon?

The smell that also heralded pan gravy, corn bread, mashed potatoes, Grandma's beans and maybe apple pie for dessert?

"When I was a child," writes Nigella Lawson, cookbook author and food writer, "we had roast chicken at Saturday lunch and probably one evening a week, too.

"It is partly for that reason that a roast chicken, to me, smells of home, of family, of food that carries some important, extra-culinary weight."

Sad to say, roast chicken most often comes in a bag or in a plastic bubble these days.

The National Chicken Council reports that the number of whole birds sold - as opposed to, say, boneless, skinless breasts - has been dropping for years "because people don't take a whole chicken home and roast it anymore," says spokesman Richard Lobb.

Whole chickens now represent about 11 percent of the market, a figure propped up, Lobb says, by rotisserie chicken sales. About 600 million of the 1 billion whole chickens produced this year will enter American homes already roasted.

Roast chicken is no longer the mark of a confident cook. It is takeout. It is an afterthought on a crazy day. It is something you pick up on the way home from work or soccer practice.

Along with the mashed potatoes, corn bread and pan gravy.

"Roast chicken is such a potent recipe," says cookbook author Lauren Groveman, who considers cooking for her family an act of love.

"Like chicken soup, it is a way to make someone you love feel good.

"It is a way to make a home come alive with an aroma that tells everyone to come to the kitchen because something is happening."

That aroma is reduced to a whiff if all Mom does is pop the plastic dome off a store-bought rotisserie chicken.

But something else may be at work here.

Perhaps it is not simply that Mom works until 6 p.m. every day or that the kids have soccer practice at 6:30 p.m. Or that the Sunday blue laws have been repealed and Mom is out doing errands instead of home roasting chicken.

There may be another reason why American women are outsourcing the roast chicken.

Test of a cook

It is at once the simplest and the most confounding meal to prepare.

If it were not so simple, the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher would not have started a recipe with "roast a nice chicken" and then fail to offer a word of instruction on how to do so.

If it were not so difficult, Julia Child would not have written that it "takes years of training to produce a juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird."

Roast chicken is both the first lesson and the ultimate test of the home cook.

No better illustration of the inherent complexity of roast chicken need be offered than the recently published The New York Times Chicken Cookbook (St. Martin's Press, $29.95).

In the introduction, food writer Julia Reed says, "I think it is roast chicken that best exemplifies the bird's intrinsic greatness."

There follow 34 recipes for roasting chicken.

Chicken also can be baked, broiled, boiled, fried, braised, barbecued, stewed and prepared with the stamp of every culinary tradition of every country in the world.

But roasting is its most elegant and elemental form. As famed chef Alain Ducase wrote: "A roast chicken can be stupidly simple, but it can also be magnificent."

Roast chicken can be fitting for Sunday company or midweek supper. It can be good enough to be a celebrity chef's showpiece, but elemental enough to comfort a child.

Americans will eat more than 85 pounds of chicken per person this year - significantly more than beef, pork or fish - so it is hard to believe that the roast chicken was once available only to the rich for special occasions or to those who raised chickens and were willing to part with one of their egg producers.

It was only after World War II and the industrialization of chicken farming that chicken became the Sunday dinner of choice.

Chicken is so much the answer to "What's for dinner tonight," that food brands from Kraft to La Choy offer the exasperated home cook an easy set of chicken recipes using prepared foods.

There are also cookbooks offering new ways to prepare the rotisserie chicken. In other words, they tell how to cook something that has already been cooked.

But the critical mix of crispy skin and meat running with juices seems to be too much for the home cook, especially considering the effortless alternative.

"People buy into the fact that it isn't necessary to do it anymore," says author Groveman.

"It seems like it is better to know how to work an iPod than it is to know how to roast a chicken," she says.

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