I lugged three overflowing grocery bags -- one of which held a whole raw chicken -- into the elevator at my boyfriend's apartment building, the plastic handles digging into my palms. As the elevator lurched up a ways, then shivered back down, then stopped completely, I wondered if I should take this as a sign that I shouldn't try to trick my then-boyfriend into marrying me.
That night, I'd planned to make James, my boyfriend of three years, Glamour's famed "Engagement Chicken," a mystical recipe that's credited to the magazine's former fashion editor Kim Bonnell. The dish gained its notoriety when Bonnell gave the recipe to her assistant, Kathy Sudder, who made it for her boyfriend. He proposed a month later. "It's a meal your wife would make," said Jon, Kathy's now husband. "It got me thinking."
The recipe -- and the myth surrounding it -- conjures images of a culinarily satisfied man licking his fingers with a mixture of glee and awe while silently promising himself that he will never let you, maker of awesome chicken, get away by putting a ring on it soon after.
Bottom line: It's a meal that seals the deal.
At the time I was 23 years old and I realize now, at the wise old age of 28, that coercing one's boyfriend into marriage -- through poultry, no less -- is rather ridiculous. In my case, it was downright stupid, given that the reason I wanted to get married was more about feeling settled, done, secure (and any other synonyms thereof) as I imagined the handful of recently "ringed" acquaintances I envied were.
To my quarter-life-crisis-ridden mind, I wanted both the self-esteem-boosting affirmation that I was James' chosen "one" and a good answer to the endless questions of what I was doing with my life post-college graduation. Despite the fact that I wasn't altogether sure that I wanted to marry James -- our relationship had become akin to continuing to shovel dessert in your mouth even when it's starting to upset your stomach -- I was young and couldn't imagine any other outcome.
I wasn't conscious of all of this then; I simply knew that this so-called Engagement Chicken intrigued me. It made sense: Common knowledge maintained that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, after all. Making it for James would at least give me a good story to tell; at best, it would get me a diamond ring. Win-win, right?
The elevator jerked twice more before smoothly ascending to the 10th floor. I opened the door to James's place with the key he'd made me, unloaded my baggage and set to work.
First, I gingerly gave the raw chicken a good massage, as the recipe instructed. This was my first foray into full-on fowl handling and, that morning, I'd enlisted my mom to kindly remove the giblets for me (who said living with your parents post-college didn't have perks?!) She, of course, was not privy to my plans, merely thinking that I was, well, making chicken.
The main "step" of the recipe calls for drenching the chicken in lemon juice, then sticking three whole lemons up its ass. And this is where my problems began.
Lemon number one was too big. Lemon number two was too small. Lemon number three was just right, but I couldn't get a second one in, let alone a third. I tried to find the right combination. I squeezed. I twisted. I balanced the bird where its neck used to be and tried to shove the lemons into the chicken's slippery body cavity, using gravity for assistance.
Finally, I just pushed the largest lemon up in there and plunked the bird in the oven. (Would the magic of the recipe still come through with just one? If not, I figured could blame the lack of lemon when the chicken didn't work as intended.)
After the allotted time -- which I passed by interminably pacing the kitchen and scrubbing imaginary spots on the counter -- I heaved the bird out of the oven. Something wasn't right as I mentally compared it to the one in the recipe's photo: If that bird was Jamaica, mine was Norway. But, food photographers always doctored up those pictures, I assured myself, by putting lipstick on hamburger tomatoes and using glue instead of milk in cereal commercials, right?
When James got home, I smoothed the worry from my face, kissed him hello and asked him -- in a higher-pitched tone that usual -- about his day, practicing my role as his wife. Beaming, I told him that dinner would be ready soon. And could I get him a cold beverage to enjoy while he waited? (Barf). I hadn't yet realized the difference between doing something because you think you're supposed to and doing something out of love.
When I set the chicken down on the table, James looked at it admiringly, and then promptly dug into the salad (from a pre-prepared bag) I had put out.
"Aren't you going to try the chicken?"
"I have to eat my salad first." James had these weird food rituals, which I never thought twice about until they became super annoying.
He, of course, had no idea of the effect that the meal was supposed to have. Not telling him killed me. So was my face with all that fake smiling. I was tired. And sweaty. My previously flat-ironed hair frizzy. Being a (wannabe) wife was hard work.
As soon as James polished off his final bite of lettuce and scraped dregs of salad dressing from his bowl with his fork (Why don't you just lick the damn thing, too, buddy?!) he -- finally! -- cut into the chicken's thigh.
Any excitement I felt quickly dissipated when bloody juice streamed onto the white plate, the meat pinkish red. I sprang from my chair, grabbed the knife from him, and made a larger cut in the breast. The meat there was white, but it had a congealed, Jello-y quality. (One word entered my mind: Salmonella. I wanted the chicken to compel James to propose, not perish.)
Highly unsatisfied with the situation, there was nothing for me to do but get whiny. This was a bad recipe, that's all. I could cook, you know. I took our plates away and, dramatically holding them over the trashcan, declared that I was throwing it all out.
Annoyed, James told me I being ridiculous. (I was.) Begrudgingly, I cut the chicken into pieces, put it in Tupperware and tossed it into the microwave. It wasn't that much better cooked but we ate it anyway.
Later that night, I broke down and told James I'd made him Engagement Chicken. As I explained to him what in fact Engagement Chicken was, I felt like a total loser. After all, I had no reason to believe the recipe would be amazing, or even good, except for the legendary story that came along with it. He tried to make me feel better by assuring me that he wouldn't have proposed anyway.
Less than a year later, we broke up.
Now that I've learned that life does indeed go on beyond age 23 and that I will in fact manage to meet someone other than my college boyfriend, I'm grateful that the chicken failed -- both in recipe and in purported outcome. It provided the "very least" of what I expected from it, a good story to tell ... if by "good story" you mean "embarrassing reminder of how immature and downright stupid my young-twenty-something-self was."
I wish I could say that I learned my lesson about using fowl as marital coercion and that I completely forgot about the recipe, but that would be a lie. Just less than a year ago, I made the chicken again.
My curent boyfriend, Greg, and I had been living together for almost six months and dating for almost two years when the "Game of Thrones" season one finale rolled around. Given that we are both obsessed with the show, I wanted to do something special for the occasion and settled on the idea of surprising him with a themed dinner that we could eat with our hands, Medieval Times-style. I decided that a whole roasted chicken would be the perfect entrée.
Naturally, the only other time I've roasted a chicken -- an Engagement Chicken -- crossed my mind. I decided to give it another shot.
Don't worry -- I wasn't expecting Greg to drop to one knee afterward (not that I would have rebuffed him, of course). Making it a second time was more vindication that I could indeed cook, dammit, and less about wanting the chicken to do some kind of job. More than anything, I wanted to find meaning in that failed attempt four years prior. (I'm a sucker for symbolism, especially when I can extract it from my own life.)
This time around, there was far less drama: I bought myself a roasting pan, gathered my ingredients and proceeded through the steps. (I even reached into the chicken's body cavity and pulled out my own damn giblets.) The chicken came out perfectly: crisp, juicy, delicious. Greg was impressed. In fact, the very next day, he asked me to marry him.
Actually I never even told Greg that I "used" the recipe on him (surprise, babe!) In fact, I've made the chicken for us again since, improving upon the originally lemon-heavy formula by adding my own touches of crushed fresh garlic, basil and rosemary.
As for symbolism, what I've gleaned from my dual-Engagement Chicken experience is this: While I'm sure that the recipe "works" for some women, I bet that for most of us, it provides a much-needed wake-up call instead. When I was younger, I clung to the recipe's gimmicky promise and, somehow, thankfully screwed it up. The failed chicken exposed me for what I was: a confused post-grad who was putting on a façade of who I thought I should be, and where I thought my relationship should be.
Plus, as I've grown up -- and realized that I have more to offer a relationship than my ability to play the traditional role of "wife" -- I'm not so sure that I like the idea of my chicken roasting skills serving as the tipping point of whether or not I am worth marrying.
Below, photos of the author cooking and with her boyfriend.
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