We met in a college writing class, and then some time later again at the University’s heath center; and while sharing a box of Kleenex and comparing antibiotic prescriptions, Jonathan and I became the closest of friends. He taught me how to use Photoshop, and built shelves in my new apartment, and assembled the perfect mixed CDs every time I went through another breakup. I introduced him to a cappella and the beauty of burrata, and instructed him on how to walk away from a woman you still love. Jonathan is the guy that every leading lady ends up with in every romantic-comedy movie Hollywood ever made. But in this case, it’s not that kind of story. I wouldn’t want it to be. Because as my closest friend, and only a friend, he’ll be around forever.
It’s a balmy Monday night, the kind that musters a perpetual dampness at the neck’s hairline, and Jonathan is visiting from Brooklyn. We decide to ignore the fact that it’s the beginning of the week, and disguise the Monday in a celebratory coat of a wine-flowing Friday. I will cook. He will provide the wine.
“Anything else you need me to bring?” he asks before we hang up the phone.
“Just Taylor Kitsch,” I respond.
Jonathan arrives at my home ten minutes early and looks like he just swept through a Parisian market – two bottles of deep reds clutched in hand and a bag flung over his shoulder with a long french baguette peeking out.
“I looked for Taylor on my way here but I couldn’t find him. I brought you the next best thing.”
He hands me a heavy wedge of extra aged Gouda. It’s the hue of watercolor clementines with a busy printed rind reading, “Beemster Classic.” I jump up and down, like a giddy teenager, and squeal, “A sharp Gouda?! My favorite!”
“You requested a man, I brought you cheese,” Jonathan says, a wide grin rolling across his face.
“And yet, I’m not even remotely disappointed,” I reply, already unwrapping the Gouda.
The evening’s carte du jour will include a caprese salad with a twist of avocado, and a recipe for chicken fingers that I’ve pulled from Saveur magazine. We decant a luscious cabernet sauvignon and then I shake a spoonful of whole black peppercorns in a mortar and pestle and hand it to Jonathan, “I will cook for any man that enters my kitchen as long as he completes the singular task of grinding pepper from scratch. It’s just my rule.”
“Fair enough,” he says as I start to hear the ceramic crunch against each tiny orb.
I slice up juicy tomatoes and top them with thick pucks of fresh buffalo mozzarella. Then I crown each round with a tower of ripe avocado, sea salt, a pinch of pepper, and a couple spins of olive oil.
Sometimes I follow recipe directions closely, examining whether each measurement is perfectly flush against each calculation line. But when I cook in front of company, and more honestly – when I’ve had a few swigs of wine – the recipe becomes a loose substructure for my creative whims. The more wine I guzzle, the more I interpret, and usually by the time my dinner guests are shoveling forkfuls, what they’re actually tasting is my day’s emotions. I go heavy-handed on ingredients like garlic and sage when my heart is full and bursting. The stark days of loss and regret produce dishes that are over-spiced, as if trying to elevate my emotional state through the shock of heat.
So I chop and I mix. We drink. And we commiserate — he over his ex, and the fact that he thought she was the one. And I, about all the men I never loved, and the sole one that I thought I could have. By the time the chicken is hissing in the frying pan, we’re finishing up our second bottle, Francis and the Lights is blaring at full volume, and the two of us are deliriously cracking up every time the oil violently splashes from the pan, dodging each scalding firecracker like children playing games. Finally we sit down to eat, gnawing through each battered chunk, while the meat is still hot, and the mustard dill sauce, still chilled.
Then we walk down to The Surly Goat and gulp down a couple of Belgian ales over a few rowdy games of shuffle board.
The next day, Jonathan flies back to Brooklyn.
A few days later I’m missing the one that got away again – the one I thought I could love. In a fit of complete lack of consideration, I dial Jonathan at 4 am.
“Hello?” Jonathan croaks, picking up the phone.
“It’s Tiff. I’m so sorry,” I confess. ”I’m just missing him. And then I’m getting mad at myself for missing someone I never had.”
I sob quietly into the phone. I hear Jonathan shuffling, most likely scooting up, or out of, bed.
“Why do you think you liked him so much?” Jonathan asks.
“Because no one has ever made me laugh as much as he did,” I respond.
“But he’s not chasing after you, Tiff. If he were the one, he wouldn’t have let you go. No matter what.”
“But maybe–” I start to say.
“No, maybes. Trust me. I’m a guy. When we really like a girl, we go after her. This guy just let you get away.”
I hear him sigh. Then I sigh.
“Let him go,” Jonathan continues. ”Let. Him. Go.”
The next day, twenty red tulips arrive at my office with a note that reads, “If he doesn’t see it, he’s an idiot. JRD.”
My eyes well up with hot tears. Good tears. The ones that would drive me to cook with extra garlic. So maybe I didn’t get the lover I wanted.
But at least I got the greatest friend.
MITZI’S CHICKEN FINGERS
Published in Saveur Magazine
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE:
1½ cups mayonnaise
¼ cup honey
2 tbsp. roughly chopped dill
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp. dry mustard powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
FOR THE CHICKEN FINGERS:
2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 3″-long-by-1″-wide strips
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
1½ tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. dry mustard powder
1 cup flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups finely ground fresh breadcrumbs or panko
Canola oil, for frying
1. Make the dipping sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise with the honey, dill, mustard powder, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, and stir together until smooth; set honey-dill dipping sauce aside.
2. Make the chicken fingers: In a medium bowl, toss together chicken, sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and mustard; set aside. Place flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs in 3 separate shallow dishes; set aside. Pour oil to a depth of 2″ into a 6-qt. Dutch oven; heat over medium-high heat until deep-fry thermometer reads 325°. Working in batches, coat chicken in flour, shake off excess, and dip in eggs; coat in breadcrumbs. Fry chicken until golden brown and crisp, about 3 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining chicken. Serve with dipping sauce.