Chicken & Prunes by WK 09/09/2013

By Sarah Souli

The supermarket lights were fluorescent, but this is always the case. The milk was unrefrigerated, stacked in blue boxes. Too many potatoes. The dried fruit came in tiny packages, 3.50 euros for a handful of plastic wrapped prunes. Bienvenue en France.
Four days earlier, my uncle had killed himself. He left his breakfast – a still steaming bowl of coffee, a piece of buttered toast- and hung himself in the garage. My aunt found him there. She hadn’t eaten yet and wouldn’t for days.
It took me two subways, one plane, one train and a forty minute car ride to get to my aunt’s house in Brittany. My boyfriend at the time took me as far as the plane. On his way back to our home he texted me: “Guess who I just met on the C train? Norman Finkelstein, and we shook hands!” I turned off my phone.
I could only stay for three days. It was my first death, and my first time cooking for my family. There was nothing to eat in the house that wasn’t pre-packaged. My aunt is not known for her cooking, and my uncle was not known for his palette. Couscous in a can, saussison sec, cheese still cold from the refrigerator- this was most often their dinner.

My mother has five siblings. They were all staying at my aunt’s house, in some capacity or another, along with their children. Cousins’ girlfriend’s parents from Germany were there. A great-aunt with inflated knees. There were eighteen of us in all, including vegetarians. “I’ll make dinner,” I said, because I would cook at home and make rich pasta when my boyfriend was sad, or poached salmon when a friend needed comforting. I’m good at grief cooking.
A cousin walked with me to the supermarket. It was February, the fruits and vegetables looked pitiful. I suppose no one kills himself when it’s strawberry season. Chicken and potatoes, fennel and parsley, six bottles of wine. I set up my station in the kitchen: shallots were sliced and fried in butter, chicken thighs were seared in the pan. Glugs of wine, prunes. Potatoes, roasted with their skins still on (two of my aunts would express confusion over this). As I chopped and cooked, I could hear my family in the dining room. People started drinking and laughing, sharing stories: even in death, an emotion can’t be sustained forever. The oven wasn’t very powerful, and I had to stay in the kitchen for longer than I wanted to.
We ate. The chicken was warm and buttery, sweet from the prunes and wine. The potatoes were polished off, with lots of grainy mustard. A raw fennel salad went untouched for the first half of the meal, because the French are scared of raw vegetables, but they were eventually convinced to eat most of it.
After the meal, only a few of us remained. I brought out an industrial apple tart I had bought at the Super U; it was studiously ignored. Instead, my mother emptied her wine glass and began to fill it with whiskey. She did this three times. My cousin opened beer after beer. My aunt went into the basement and found a terrible bottle of vinegar-y white wine. We stayed up until 3am, picking at the salads and bread that remained. We laughed, cried, screamed, like everyone else before us. Not the first, not the last.
I had never made this recipe until the funeral, and improvised along the way, but it is inspired from many things. My Tunisian father is the cook at home, and he always throws in dried fruit with stewed or seared meat; it lends a richer, more satisfying taste. People should eat sweet, warm things when they are grieving. And as everyone knows, the only things you need to make good food are shallots, butter and wine. This is a meal for mourning. This is a meal to fill a hole.*
2 shallots, thinly sliced (or one small onion)
2-3 tbsp salted butter
1 bay leaf
Herbes de provence
3 garlic cloves, diced
1/3 cup dried prunes, chopped
2/3 cup red wine
4 bone-in chicken thighs, with skin
Salt and pepper
3 tbsp cream
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In an oven-proof pan over medium heat, melt 2 tbsp of butter. Meanwhile, pat chicken dry and sprinkle both sides liberally with salt, pepper and herbes de provence. When the pan is nice and hot, add the chicken pieces, skin side down. Add the bay leaf to the pan. Sear for about 6-7 minutes, until the skin is golden brown. Flip and cook the other side for 3-4 minutes. Place the pan in the oven and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until the juices run clear- this will depend on your oven.
Remove chicken from the pan, set aside, and place pan back over medium heat. Keep all the drippings in the pan, that’s the good stuff! If necessary, add the remaining tbsp of butter. Add the shallots and saute until golden. Add garlic and cook for about a minute, until fragrant. Pour in the wine, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the wine is reduced by 1/4. Whisk in the cream. Taste and adjust for seasoning- I found it needed a bit more salt and pepper. Add the chicken back in the pan, and baste with the sauce for several minutes until the chicken is warmed through. Garnish with plenty of chopped parsley. Serve immediately.
* This recipe is for four people who aren’t in mourning, but can easily be doubled or tripled or quadrupled. It still tastes best when served with whiskey.


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