I always thought I'd grow up to be Virginia Woolf. I'd write brilliantly lyrical, brooding novels and spend evenings and summers with other supremely smart, melancholy geniuses. Maybe I'd even walk deliberately into the sea one gray day with rocks in my pockets, not for real like she did, but to see what it felt like. I'd be famous, but not care. Or rather, not be gratified by it.
Instead, it's looking like I'll be known as the person who created ... engagement chicken.
It's like this: 104 years ago, when I was an editor at Glamour magazine, I'd often overhear assistants worryingly discuss what to cook for the boyfriend-coming-over-for-dinner moment in their romances. I was seriously into cooking at the time, even doing some catering on the side (a detour from my Virginia Woolfian destiny), and I'd come across, and prepared, a really easy Marcella Hazan lemon roast chicken recipe. Its appeal for me was an amazingly crisp skin, but I also appreciated its ease, subtle flavors, and impressive presentation. I fiddled with the recipe to make it even more to my liking and after serving it on a couple of occasions to men, realized that it was guaranteed guy-friendly: familiar but different, fancier than everyday chicken but not off-puttingly strange or fussy. (Rule: Dishes with more ingredients than you can count on one hand are too much work for you and demand too much fawning from your guests.)
So this chicken popped into my head when assistants worried about their date-night menus, and I shared it with them, spelling out every teeny little step. Success! They'd report back the next morning about foolproof results and rave reviews.
And, it seemed, betrothals. Maybe not that very night but with unmistakably related-to-chicken timing. With an eerie predictability, women became engaged to the men for whom they prepared this chicken. Voila: engagement chicken.
The whole thing spread around the office and, presumably, to staff's friends and families. I completely forgot about this minor phenomenon until, in 2004, as a freelancer, I was invited to become a contributing editor of Glamour and immediately help with a small bit they were doing on, yes, the story of engagement chicken. Out it went into the wider universe, where it took on a life of its own, complete with Howard Stern's now-fiancee, Beth, preparing it for him, and 604,000 other Googleable incarnations. Glamour is most often cited as the source, not me, which is basically accurate and fine, since I'm still going for the Virginia Woolf-esque sort of fame. But having been asked to do a few minutes about E.C. on the Today show
the other day, sparked by Glamour again publishing the recipe in the May issue, I thought, ''Okay, girl, seize this chicken. Take the fame you're given." Maybe not a wise lifelong policy, but not a bad one at this minute.
Here's the recipe, straight from the source and a tad updated using high-temperature roasting. But don't think this is all I have to offer. You haven't tasted anything till you've tried my Brownie Chips. Or read my novel, To the Mailbox.
Engagement Chicken (serves 2- 4)
3-5 lb. whole roasting chicken, extraneous fat removed
2 whole lemons, washed
about ½ cup fresh lemon juice
kosher or other big-grain salt
Preheat oven to 400. Wash chicken inside and out, and dry with paper towels. Drain it in a colander. Ideally, chicken should be out of the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before cooking. Liberally sprinkle lemon juice over and inside chicken. Follow with salt and fresh pepper, again liberally and all over outside and inside cavity. Puncture lemons with a fork all around, five or six times; place inside cavity. (If lemons are hard, roll them on the countertop before puncturing, using some pressure; this will help release juices.) Turn chicken breast side down and roast in the center of the oven at 400 for 15 minutes. (You may use a rack but it's not required.) Lower heat to 350 and turn chicken breast side up. (Use wooden spoons or mitts to do this safely.) Continue roasting for about 30 minutes. A meat thermometer should read 180 degrees, or you can jiggle the leg --- if it wiggles easily, chicken is done; if you feel resistance, continue cooking and re-check in six or seven minutes. Timing will vary depending on the oven and the size of the chicken.