Katherine Lanpher’s when-in-doubt chicken

In 2004, Katherine Lanpher gave up her radio gig in Minneapolis and moved to Manhattan to serve as co-host of The Al Franken Show. A year and a half later she quit the show to write Leap Days, a memoir about leaving behind the life she knew and making a home in New York City. Nowadays, among other things, she interviews writers and musicians for Upstairs at the Square and guest-hosts for Leonard Lopate.

Below — in a slightly modified excerpt from Leap Days — Lanpher divulges her strategy for staving off existential doubt.

By the end of my first year in New York, I suffered from a mood so grim that I coined my own diagnosis: displacement dysphasia. I would be walking down a street and suddenly the oddness of my surroundings would hit me with a painful clarity. This wasn’t home; these weren’t my streets. What was I doing here?

To root myself back in the world, to show myself I still existed, I cooked. My dictum in New York became: when in doubt, roast a chicken. I’m not referring to the doubt you suffer when you aren’t sure what you should eat. I’m talking about existential doubt, the gloom that gnaws at you as question your place in the universe.

I have few memories of actually eating these chickens, but then their preparation isn’t about that kind of hunger anyway. What I remember, actually, are the smells — the way rosemary tickles your nose with pine, the almost floral sharpness of a cut lemon. With each deliberate motion of my hands, I am willing myself to the next. Most days, I like to think that I am constructing a life; but on these bleak evenings, I am settling for an hour and the hour after that and the hour after that.

Cooking is the way I stave off the hunger pangs I feel for a rooted life. These small kitchen acts are like the tracery I did as a child, when I would place a piece of translucent paper over a beloved illustration and carefully, carefully trace with my pencil. Now, I am tracing acts of sustenance.

When-in-doubt Chicken

1 roasting chicken, around 5 pounds, preferably organic
Carrots and leeks, chopped in one-inch or so pieces
A handful of cloves of garlic, peeled or not, to your taste
Butter (it’s worth it to splurge on the European style)
Salt and pepper
White wine or vermouth
Optional: chicken stock

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the chicken and then pat dry with paper towels. Take a nice helping of the butter — this effort is aided if you let it sit out for a while and get soft — and massage it into the skin of the chicken. Take the carrots and leeks and garlic cloves and sprinkle them over the bottom of a Dutch Oven or roasting pan. This will function as your roasting rack. Take a few sprigs of rosemary and a lemon cut in half; place in the cavity of the bird. Slosh some chicken stock or white wine in the bottom of the pan.

Put the bird, uncovered, in the oven for 15 minutes. After that, turn the oven down to 350 degrees. Figure 15 minutes per pound. I add more stock or white wine as the hour or so progresses, basting the bird more than I need to. You can do it every 20 minutes or so and be fine. After the allotted time is up, pierce it with a large fork. If the juices run clear, it’s done. Put the bird to rest on a carving board.

Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon. These will be the best carrots you have eaten in a long time. Put them in a small bowl and cap with foil to keep them warm. Then pour a large splash of white vermouth or wine into the pan, turn up the heat and stir while you reduce the sauce. Once you think you have boiled off the alcohol, pour into a separator to reduce the amount of fat you’ll be eating. By now, your chicken is ready to carve.


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