NO MORE NOT COOKING: Chicken Potpie with Cheryl


Following instructions but not writing them down.

Several years ago I decided it was time for me to learn how to cook. My strategy was (and is!) to ask friends who are good cooks to help by giving me informal cooking lessons. I call my project No More Not Cooking. There are certain friends I dearly wish to learn from, and Cheryl was, from the beginning, one of them.

That said, it took me at least a year to coax Cheryl to help me with my No More Not Cooking call to the kitchen. No, “coax” is the wrong word. I would only try to coax Cheryl to do anything for a few seconds at a time, and only if she was giving me her interested, with-you, half-smiling look that shows she’s willing to tolerate and even consider and even possibly act on the subject of the coaxing. If Cheryl doesn’t want to do something, I would never, never risk leaning on her. Leaning, you see, could cause the annoyance of Cheryl. Woe to the unlucky person who causes the annoyance of Cheryl!

Let me be clear: While I would never lean on Cheryl in the pressuring-her-to-do-something sense, I feel I could lean on her in the lean-on-me-when-you’re-not-strong, time-of-need sense.  (Indeed I have, but this is another story, an episode in which I took a break from No More Not Cooking to recover from surgery on my spine; a time in which I was doing a lot of leaning in the this-pillow/person/chair-cane-will-prop-me-up-while-I-rest sense; I needed a lot of help, to put it mildly, and Cheryl along with others came to my and my family’s rescue…).

All aspects of leaning aside, I do feel that when Cheryl shines her light on me, all is right with the world. Not that it’s a warm, cozy light, mind you, it isn’t. It’s a warm, keen, penetrating light, and it can also be a very revealing light, in terms of showing me things about myself. Like how about it’s time to get it together and stop playing dumb and read a cookbook-that kind of thing. This was the light in the kitchen when Cheryl came over to my house to do the chicken potpie. For the record and to return to my initial point, it was not my coaxing that lead Cheryl and me to cook together. It was more like a very encouraging form of lying in wait on my part. Then, at the slightest suggestion that she was ready, I was on it. Like crust on a pie pan, so to speak.

As it turns out, part of the reason it had taken Cheryl and me so long to get together to cook was that Cheryl had gotten “too nutted up about what to teach.” I had never heard this expression before, but I understood immediately and I love it! I feel I am, at any given time, always nutted up about something. So it was decided that we would mitigate any and all nutting up by making it not a cooking lesson, but a cooking-together session. We would make something neither Cheryl nor I had ever made. My choice was chicken potpie. Cheryl got busy doing research, and then, after grilling me on what vegetables my children eat (peas? maybe; carrots? definite no; corn? definite yes…), and declaring various recipe-related preferences of her own, she proceeded to alter the chicken potpie recipe of a well-known food person (I think it was Ina Garten) beyond recognition.

This is how the chicken potpie began, but I can’t really give an account of how it continued.

The reason that I cannot give an account of our cooking session is that I could not take any notes. The reason that I could not take any notes is that I got way too distracted by all the exciting and interesting people in the kitchen during the chicken potpie session, which turned into a chicken potpie party! Cheryl thought that our cooking session would be a good time to catch up with a couple of friends she and I have in common, but who had never met one another. So she invited our friend Bess and our friend Erin to come over to my house during the cooking session to meet and have a visit. Although Cheryl is actually the youngest of her three siblings, for some reason she really brings out the little sister in me (in fact she is one of three people on the planet who I secretly wish could somehow genetically and magically be my big sister), so when she proposed this cooking-session combo visit combo introduction of friends, I said, “sure!” I was not at all thinking of how nutted up I would indeed become with all the company. In addition to Bess and Erin, Cheryl’s husband Andrew was there for part of the time, and my husband Hiroyuki was also home for a little while, too. So it was a full house and I was trying to be a good hostess and also trying to catch up with Bess and hear all about how her baby was doing and catch up with Erin and hear about how her boys were doing and also make sure people could find places to sit and had enough water in their tea cups, etc. And also I was trying to learn how to make the chicken potpie and anxiously noticing my No More Not Cooking notebook, which was sending SOS messages about the open page, which was blank as blank can be on the topic of chicken potpie.

Did we do it? Yes, crust and all, and it was completely delicious, but I can’t make an accounting of how the deliciousness came to be. It was hectic and I kept looking for my pen until I gave up and realized the cooking session, as a documentable event with a documentable chicken potpie, was lost.

Not long after, I did reconstruct the chicken potpie using the recipe Cheryl had worked up and left for me that day. It did not go well. Here I feel I should acknowledge the situation with me and following instructions. Certain instruction-oriented individuals might think my unwillingness (or is it my inability?) to follow instructions is nothing less than a character flaw. As if failing to follow instructions is like failing a lie detector test. Some people really have a high-handed attitude about instruction following.

I, however, think that following instructions is less of a moral issue and more of a trust issue. How can you be sure that the instructions are telling you the right thing to do? After all, some instructions-and now I’m talking specifically about chicken potpie instructions-seem unlikely and given to excess. Why, you might well ask, would I second-guess the instructions on my own after having made a successful chicken potpie with Cheryl? Because Cheryl was there of course! Although I know that Cheryl is a willing instruction follower when it comes to cooking, I also feel confident that Cheryl would never, ever allow a recipe to push her around. No way. And that is why she so completely altered the recipe before proceeding to follow it. You see? So how could I know, without Cheryl there to protect me, that the recipe hadn’t gone rogue and become totally unreasonable when it demanded, for example, that I melt 12 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. 12 tablespoons of butter! That’s a stick and a half. Was the recipe serious? Had it honestly asked that of Cheryl? After all, compared to Cheryl I’m a total pushover.

Following instructions meant I had to rout around in the refrigerator for an extra half a stick of butter, and all I could come up with was the unmeasurable, gnarly, sawed off end of a butter stick stuck on a plate in exile on top of a collection of condiments everybody in the house has been working around for months.  And, technically, even though I made an honest attempt to follow instructions, it could be charged that I didn’t really comply, because who knows how much butter was actually stuck on the plate, in terms, for example, of tablespoons?

Of course it is much easier to abandon yourself to the recipe and follow instructions when someone you trust is with you, making introductions, so to speak. “Evan, this is the chicken potpie.

It has a lot of butter in it.” “Chicken potpie, this is Evan. She is a little nervous around cooking but she’s working on it.” This is the backbone of No More Not Cooking, the reason I decided to ask friends-friends who would never tolerate a recipe known to be no-good or sketchy-to show me how to cook; this way I skirt my trust issues and allow myself to be vulnerable to recipes….

So, instructions in hand, over the course of the fall I became preoccupied with the chicken potpie process. I think this was because I was determined to come up with something edible. But, in spite of the recipe having been carefully constructed in accord with the vegetables my children will eat, my children would not eat it. My husband didn’t say much. I have no idea what I was doing wrong, just as I have no idea what we did on the chicken potpie day that was right. The wrongness persisted over the course of about four chicken potpies. Here I do think I have to admit that I was doing some fairly broad editorializing on the recipe. I remembered that Cheryl had said, when we were trying to figure out which vegetables my boys would eat in the chicken potpie, that you could put in anything. This is encouraging, recipe-wise. You know, it’s kind of a selling point of the chicken potpie. It’s also challenging, giving one enough rope upon which to gag. And obviously, in the wrong hands, the “anything” philosophy is a waste of good leftovers. What did I put in the chicken potpie? Who knows.

Our dogs became very fond of chicken potpie, and then finally I had a breakthrough: Thanksgiving. The remains of the enormous, disgusting turkey I’d roasted (Thanksgiving is always another story, see more below) were taking up a lot of real estate in the refrigerator and I set my sights on one last modification: turkey potpie. Gobble gobble. It was a hit! At long last I’d managed to fix a potpie to be reckoned with, and since there were leftovers, to be reckoned with again later, at lunch the next day.

What was at the root of this happy turn of events?

I think it might have something to do with the magic of Thanksgiving. For me, Thanksgiving is a happy time and for many years I have attempted to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Some of my dishes are good, if you can believe it, and some of them are not that good, but Thanksgiving dinner is always excellent because everything is cooked with love, love, love. Even if you don’t really want to eat a certain dish (the disgusting turkey is an example of this), you bear the food no ill will because it was made with happiness and love. So my thought is that Thanksgiving dinner makes for harmonious leftovers, and harmonious leftovers make good “anything” for good potpie.

Unfortunately on the potpie front, Thanksgiving only comes once a year. But after this drawn out potpie experience with its unlikely but happy ending, I think in my family we can institute a tack-on holiday. Actually, it would be more like a period of observance. It would be Potpie Time, the period between Thanksgiving Day and when the turkey is just about to go bad. During this time we would contemplate the essence of leftovers and concentrate on tolerating older food. We could call other people, like Cheryl, to see how their leftovers are going. Potpie Time would culminate in a ritual concocting of the turkey potpie, then dribble on a little through the potpie leftovers themselves, and probably end, with the very last little wedge, with a ritual bit of potpie treat for the dogs. I guess it would be a holiday without super-clear boundaries. But isn’t that what the crust is for?

Evan Harris writes, and sometimes cooks, in East Hampton.