Saturday, May 9, 2009

Using the sociological perspective: Chicken

I like to think of about terms, especially ones that I am forced to memorize, in visuals. I paint a picture in my head and then I see that picture, usually surreal, when I need to recall the term. These visuals have also allowed me to be a more effective teacher. They are strange and funny which makes them memorable.

The most important term when studying or practicing the science of sociology is what we call the "sociological perspective." The actual definition varies from text to text but is essentially: Seeing the ordinary as the peculiar. All this means is that every little thing is amazing to a sociologist. Everything. The visual I have to remember the term is that of a small child wearing an over-sized pair of fake plastic green glasses... the kind you would win as a consolation prize at a carnival or something. When I use this visual I can tell my students to "put on their sociological perspective glasses" when I need them to puzzle through a social problem, or look into a current affair.

If you "put on those glasses" even the smallest blade of grass is fascinating, the air, the table, the chair, the wall, your hands, boots, a towel, a pen. Go to the dictionary and look up any word. Close your eyes right now and reach out in front of yourself and touch something. Whatever you find, whatever you see, smell, touch or taste has a history. It carries a story, and a relevance that makes it extraordinary and peculiar. I wear those glasses all the time. I do believe I was born wearing them. And I think it is odd (of course I do!) that using the sociological perspective has helped me enormously as a writer. I can make most things interesting. Test me. Post a comment here about the dullest thing you can think of, and I will find a way to turn it into a compelling yarn. I double dog dare you.

My great grandmother owned a house in the Fair Haven section of New Haven, Ct. The area is still lovely, I think... but I like broken things. It is an urban area, but most homes have a decent, by city standards, sized yards. The back yard of my great grandmothers house, I am told, was wonderful. She liked to garden and grew a plethora of flowers and vegetables. She also had a chicken coop. These chickens were not just for eggs. Many went into the soup pot, or the oven.

I never met Rosalina Mele Depaul, but I think I would have liked her. She raised eight children after her first child died. She lost one husband to a kick in the head by a horse, and another to a mysterious brain illness that made him fade in and out before he eventually faded away all together. She raised her children, owned a home, had a store for a bit, made her children's clothes, tended the gardens, and properly disciplined her grandchildren. Everyone respected her. I know I do. But after all of the stories of love and laughter, of courage and hard work, the thing I like the best is that Rosalina killed her own chickens.

She went to the coop and picked one up and twisted it's neck and that was that. No wondering, no hesitation, no nothing. Just one more thing to get done. Plod on. And I want say right now that I am developing another sociological term. This one can fall under cultural anthropology as well as ethnography: Immigrant Bad Ass. That is the best way I can describe what I know about her.

And from this story as well as her kitchen, we get a wonderful recipe: Chickenpotatoesandpeas.

Growing up the Sunday dinner was a feast in four parts. Salad, Pasta, Chickenpotatoesandpeas, finished off with goodies inside of a white box tied with string...pastries. Everyone was always full before chickenpotatoesandpeas, and eager to leave room for what was in the box, so it was set aside for later. As dinner in an Italian American household on Sunday is usually served anywhere between 12pm and 3pm, the chickenpotatoesandpeas was something to snack on later. And what a snack! The following recipe is super simple, budget friendly and the way it makes your house smell trumps apple pie. Trust me.


Chicken thighs (package of 8 or if thrifty get a bulk package and freeze half or if you are like me and just double everything use 16)
1 medium onion (2 if you double duhhhhh)
1 bag frozen peas (again 2)
6 potatoes or 8 depending on size or more if you are doubling the thing. Stop cutting them up when you run out of room in the pan. See below
Cooking spray (or olive oil or whatever... just no butter you crazy Frenchies)
Salt, pepper, paprika

That is it. No kidding. For the best meal ever. All in one pan, cheapy cheap cheap.


Preheat oven to 350

Spray roasting/casserole pan with cooking spray (Okay here is the deal, I use one of those Pyrex rectangular glass casseroles, like 13 X9... but it depends on if you are doubling the recipe or not. Think about what you would bake a tuna casserole in, or scalloped potatoes, or... you get it.)

Put chicken skin side up in the pan. Slice onion put around chicken. cut up potatoes in fours or sixes depending if it is a small or big potato. I don't peel mine, but I do wash them. My grandmother pealed hers... but I like things done FASTER. Keep cutting up potatoes and putting them in the pan until there isn't any room. Here is what I mean by no more room for all my OCD people out there. This is not a tidy dish, everything is going to cook down nicely, so some onions and potatoes can be on top of one another and strewn about, but the thing does have to cook, so use logical judgement here.

Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. spray whole thing with cooking spray. Get your hands in it and toss it about a bit BUT MAKE SURE THE CHICKEN STAYS PUT. Then sprinkle with paprika and put in your preheated oven. If you are good, you will finish the prep for the dish before the oven preheats.

Now leave it alone. Go away. Don't come back for an hour. After an hour, go toss the potatoes and onions around in oil that is now at the bottom of the pan. YUM. Your house will smell amazing by now. Go away again. Come back 45 minutes later. Check the chicken, is it starting to just melt away from the bone? If not, go away again and come back in 10 minute intervals until it does. As soon as that chicken looks like it is ready (easily parts its yummy self from the bone) pour the whole bag of frozen peas on top. Stir around a bit to try to coat them with the goodness at the bottom, but don't mess with it too much or you will screw up the beautiful, now fragile, chicken thighs. Put back in oven, let it go 10 more minutes and you are done.

Take it out and let everyone say Ahhhhhh. Now they get to eat what they have smelled all day. And this meal tastes exactly how it smells. And it was easy. And it was cheap. And you were able to do all sorts of chores while it was cooking.

I like to think that this particular dish was one my great grandmother thought about as she waked with a purpose from her back door to the chicken coop. Perhaps she just said it over and over in her head like a mantra as she brokethe chicken's neck and defeathered it. Chickenpotatoesandpeas, chickenpotatoesandpeas, chickenpotatoesandpeas.

Everything has a history. Everything is fascinating. Put those glasses on and make this meal.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your idea of the big green glasses, I feel that a lot of children always have glasses like that on, I know when I was little I found everything, collected everything, and everything was cool and different. Through this class I feel like it will be different to look at things in that way again but I'm very excited to try!