The very first time I boiled a whole chicken, nearly 10 years ago, I was overwhelmed by how much it perfumed my apartment with the scent of my mother’s kitchen. I wasn’t trying to recreate her samgyetang, but I did, by accident.
Fortified with ginseng and jujubes, this Korean chicken soup is a garlic lover’s dream. I remember how the sound of the cloves, plunked into the pot, echoed the syllables of the dish’s name: Sam. Gye. Tang.
But it was the smell of my golden broth that transported me. When I inhaled its aroma, the past ran through me like an electric current, and I burst into tears. Sick with nostalgia (and a gnarly cold), I found myself suddenly in two places at once: my kitchenette in New York City and Atlanta, where I was born and raised in a brick house with a peach tree in the front yard and my childhood bedroom lined with Michelle Branch posters.
There are many definitions of the sensation that overtook my body that day, but perhaps the most famous is what the French novelist Marcel Proust called involuntary memory, and what we now sometimes call “Proustian memory.” It is a reference to one particular scene in his seven-volume novel “In Search of Lost Time,” in which the narrator is suddenly seized by childhood memories after taking a bite of a tea-soaked lemon madeleine.
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me,” Proust writes. “Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?”
When those unbidden memories happen in my life, I try to linger in the feeling.
What excites me in the kitchen, and what provides the most joy, is when I accidentally tap into something old, an involuntary memory, something I had forgotten in the depths of my mind, like the simple smell of a chicken boiling in water.
That’s the kind of cooking I’d like to do more of in the new year. If I resolve to find those small moments of “all-powerful joy” in the kitchen and out, at my desk and in life, maybe they’ll be more likely to reveal themselves to me. Maybe I’ll taste more Proustian madeleines, and maybe I’ll cry more. (Crying has many health benefits, after all.)
Luckily, there are many places to find good madeleines dipped in tea, metaphorically speaking. And when you’re most in need of warmth and succor, chicken soup is never a bad place to start.
Amber Spry, an assistant professor of African and African American Studies and Politics at Brandeis University, recalls making an approximation of her grandmother’s tinola, a Filipino soup often cooked with chicken pieces, fresh ginger and greens.
When she was growing up, Dr. Spry, 32, called this dish “ginger chicken soup,” and it came to mind when she first moved to New York City. She called her parents to ask how to make the soup, picked up the ingredients at a corner bodega and bubbled away a pot of it in her tiny apartment on Amsterdam Avenue.
“It was almost this instinct to create this thing that felt familiar,” she said, and now, “when I crave that feeling of comfort and home, I know that I can get it through this soup.”
Nearly a decade later, conjuring a pot of tinola still carries Dr. Spry’s past into her present. “This recipe was my dad’s and my grandmother’s and probably her mother’s before that,” she said.
Recently, her father cooked his version of the soup, and this time, it was her new husband, David Labuguen, who shuddered when he ate it. “It was emotional for him because it tasted like the soup that his parents make,” Dr. Spry said, adding that there’s great power in simple ingredients, like chicken and ginger, when they come together to form a bridge between people who love one another.
Food is one of the best ways to carry our families with us wherever we go. Save for a flight home, is there anything more transporting than legacy?
It’s never lost on me what a privilege it is to get to cook for a living. But there are days when I languish in the kitchen, utterly sick of cooking. (It’s the cleaning that destroys me most.) And especially this past year, when it seemed that the world was falling apart again, I found it difficult at times to find joy in any of it.
Comfort cooking can be hard to come by if you have to do it.
In Brooklyn, when the chef Kia Damon comes home hungry and tired from a long day of work, she keeps things simple in the kitchen. Tapping into memories of her childhood meals prepared by her mother, who cooked a lot of pasta, Ms. Damon, 28, now turns to her own comfort foods, like carbonara.
“I feel like when I’m super-drained and when I really just don’t have anything churning in my mind, I can still pull out pasta and feel like I really went off,” she said.
As with any craft — and I do consider cooking a craft, especially home cooking — it’s important to recharge when you can. Thankfully, for those of us who cook for work, there are key dishes that help us remember the unbridled joy of cooking.
For Ms. Damon, it’s duck confit perfumed with orange peel, star anise and juniper berries over two to three days. It’s what she would cook if she could cook only one more thing.
“I would eat that, and then wait for the spirit to take me away,” she said.
My last-meal-on-earth cooking is roasting chicken. I love preparing a small bird for myself on the weekend, because that’s when I have all the time in the world. In this case, the process provides the joy. I can salt and sugar the chicken on Saturday, leaving it to dry-brine in the fridge overnight; on Sunday, my dinner is ready for the oven.
The eating is long, too: Roast chicken has many stages of life — I can cook it once and have it for days. Because as much as I love cooking, I love eating more.
First it’s dinner, often the gorgeous chicken breast, absolutely juicy, with crispy skin. Better yet, if you’re like my mother and me, your favorite parts of the chicken are a secret: the two “oysters” underneath the bird, tucked behind the thighs, tender and slicked with schmaltz. One for each of us.
After this first meal, I like to maul the rest of the meat off the bones to fashion into all manner of repasts throughout the week. Then — and this may be my favorite part — I turn the carcass into stock with whatever bits and bobs I have left over in the pantry: bay leaves, black peppercorns, an onion with its peel still on (which my mother taught me lends both color and flavor to soups and stews).
The Instant Pot makes quick work of this. In just an hour, it will pressure-cook my past, present and future into a golden stock that I can drink in the mornings before my coffee. I use the same Ravenclaw mug for both the coffee and the stock, washing it out between uses.
Roast chicken may be my therapy, but chicken soup is my panacea, my madeleine dipped in tea.