Susan has been my friend for close to five decades. We met when we were 12 years old. She is familiar with the entire cast of characters that have had bit parts or starring roles in my life, just as I am with hers. She knows where all the bodies are buried. Susan remembers that I get the blues every October, because that is the month my father died. She knows when to dispense advice and when to listen, when to confront and when to comfort. We bear witness to each other’s lives.
I have made my daughters into friends, too. My own mother came from a generation of women who preached, “I am not your friend. I am your mother.” She used this line so often, and it was so hurtful, that I was determined never to say it to any child of mine. My version goes: “I am your mother and your friend. And I have veto power.” (Well, that last sentence no longer applies now that they are of age.) This verbal shift has made for a much richer life. As my daughters have blossomed into women, I am overwhelmingly grateful that I can add them and my daughter-in-law to the very-special-friend category. And, for the record, my sons and son-in-law have a place there, too.
Friendship. It is a hallowed institution where we go to express vulnerability and fear, rage and despair. And let’s not forget joy and happiness, ecstasy and sweet contentment. Friendship provides a safety net for broken hearts and a balm for bruised egos. It comes equipped with its very own coaching staff and fan club. Great friendship offers a quiet space, too, a place simply to be.
To loosely paraphrase Blanche Dubois, Tennessee Williams’ doomed southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always relied upon the kindness of friends.” Friends have been my lifeline on the stormy seas. When I despaired, when my heart was broken and I was adrift, my friends reached out to me and pulled me up with their strong arms and fierce hearts, forbidding me to drown. You know who you are, dear ones!
Fast forward to my Bloomington kitchen where I sit with Sam and Ruth. We are three new friends, born in different decades, united in our love of cooking and baking, and in the connection we have made with each other. Domestic goddesses and unapologetic about our joy of being in the kitchen, we surround ourselves with flour and butter, ripening fruits and savory vegetables, pungent spices and leafy herbs. All manner of deliciousness awaits! We work our craft and share the bounty with the people we love.
It starts out innocently enough. We talk of cherries. Dried cherries. Montmorency versus Bing. How the crop fared in Michigan this year, how last year’s yield was plumper. We share a few recipes as we praise the fruit’s versatility and marvel at its appearance in everything from muffins and granola to exotic chicken entrées. We disparage dried cranberries and crown our dear cherries as the heir apparent. And before you know it, recipes segue into talk of restaurants and vacations, a bit of local gossip, yoga poses, former husbands, children, and grandchildren.
To have a friend is also to be a friend. It is a privilege. And it can also be rocky sometimes. But when we discover our capacity for caring and compassion and love, for giving as well as receiving, we are our best selves.
“Only connect,” wrote E. M. Forster. I can think of no higher purpose in life.
Pass the cherries!
I prepare this in a paella pan — it’s one stop from oven to table and makes a lovely presentation. Be liberal and creative with the spices; the measurements below are guidelines.
8 chicken thighs
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted olives
1 1/2 cups dried apricots, figs, or prunes (or a combination of all three)
1 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup pecans, chopped
Place four chicken thighs in each of two 1-gallon refrigerator bags with seals. Mix the spices in a small bowl. Pour wine and olive oil into a 2-cup measuring cup with a spout. Add spices to cup and stir to incorporate. Place equal amounts of olives and dried fruit in each of the refrigerator bags. Pour equal amounts of marinade into each bag. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Using a slotted spoon, spoon out olives and fruits and spread in a single layer onto a baking dish (or paella pan). Place chicken on top of fruit mixture. Discard marinade. Sprinkle the brown sugar and pecans over the chicken. Roast for about an hour, checking after about 30 minutes. If the exposed fruit begins to char, tuck it under the chicken and continue to roast.
Serve with crusty bread and couscous or rice.