It was a different world back then.
There were no unexpected bills catching her off guard, no illnesses lurking under rocks, no planes taking down the World Trade Center. In the 1980s, my mother and her second husband lived in a light-splashed apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; I was just across town and showed up on lazy Sunday mornings for shopping trips to Zabar’s, which resulted in brunches of whitefish salad, Nova Scotia salmon and warm pumpernickel bagels eaten around her high-gloss dining room table. Her friends popped by unannounced; Sanka was poured, sections of the newspaper were passed around, and all the ladies simultaneously ripped out the insides of their bagels, reducing their calories while retaining their chew. Seven hours later, after an en masse museum visit, we gathered at a favorite steakhouse where my mother, dressed to the nines in her weekend uniform of tight, dark jeans, high-heeled boots and a shoulder-padded, heavily spangled Alexis Carrington sweater, would order half a roast chicken, tear off the leg and eat it with her bare hands, like Henry the Eighth.
For my mother, that single leg — all protein, making it, in her estimation, the perfect diet food — was dinner, and she loved it. Eating it with gusto meant that she was happy and in a good place.
In those days, my mother, a former model and television singer, was a walking contradiction: Thin as a rail with a metabolism like a hummingbird and a visceral suspicion of food, she ate in public only if her self-esteem was on an upswing, and she seemed to eat for the sheer entertainment of the people around her who were stunned by the carnal vigor with which she gobbled even the most diminutive portions. If she was feeling sad or a bit self-loathsome, that confident persona would melt away like snow in the sun; she could barely lift her fork. Unless there was roast chicken involved.
Roast chicken was my mother’s comfort food; her go-to diet meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner; her security blanket; the only thing she ate during 3 a.m. binges while her husband slept; as acceptable for every situation as a Hermes scarf and a black shift. In restaurants in the ’80s, my mother ate prepubescent portions of chicken in every permutation: chicken scarpariello, chicken Parmigiana, chicken paprikash, fried chicken, Chinese lemon chicken, chicken Kiev, chicken Marbella, chicken Francaise and chicken under a brick. But roast chicken was her favorite and as cozy as an old friend; she picked at it at least three times a week in restaurants and out, often bringing it home from a now-defunct, rotisserie-lined takeaway shop called Williams Bar-B-Que. It was there one day after work that she had a fight with another shopper who tried to grab the last available roaster out of my mother’s hands, like it was gold. Words were exchanged; the woman called her something nasty. Shaken, my mother paid, stormed out and left her prize bird, reeking of paprika and chicken fat, sitting on the roof of her husband’s double-parked Volvo. They drove away, and the bird in its plastic take-out cocoon bounced off the sedan and into Broadway traffic, where it was hit by a taxi. She arrived home chickenless and howled with righteous indignation and incongruous fury. Her husband offered to buy her another chicken; she refused dinner that night. She was too upset.
“I’m never eating roast chicken again,” she swore dramatically, and for nearly six months, she didn’t. Her go-to favorite was off her dance card, leaving nothing else in its place.
Eventually, I invited her and her husband to my apartment for dinner and served them a bird rubbed with crushed fennel seed and sea salt and stuffed with a lemon; she picked at it coquettishly at first and then with zeal, gnawing on the wings and the legs and then the pope’s nose, and just like that, roast chicken was back in rotation. My mother had made up with her favorite dish.
Nearly 30 years later, my mother lives in the same apartment on the Upper West Side, but her world is a very different place; worries both simple and thorny hobble her every waking thought. Her second husband, many of her friends, and Williams Bar-B-Que are long gone; she gets her inexpensive takeout birds from a Korean deli near her apartment and pokes at them with a fork while standing at the fridge, never bothering with a plate. On the qualitative chicken scale, they rank very low: They’re salty and greasy and have that rubbery consistency from sitting under a heat lamp for eight hours. I’m faced with the conundrum that troubles many adult children of senior parents who are too thin: Would I rather she eat something not particularly good or nothing at all?
“I’ll find you a better bird,” I promise her.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says, sighing. “I can’t taste it anyway.”
She’s lost her taste for chicken — for everything, really, she tells me — but she has to have protein or she’ll “feel wobbly,” and a study published in the journal Nutrition concurs: Older adults need a protein-rich diet to maintain muscle mass and strength. For my mother, cheap roast chicken has become nothing more than easy high-protein fuel, devoid of the brief gustatory pleasure — however small — it used to give her back when her life had more color and joy.
I visited my mother in Manhattan not long ago. She looked beautiful as always, but narrow and nearly concave; I could tell she hadn’t been eating. I brought her home to Connecticut with me for a weekend where she would have nothing to think about beyond relaxing with us, playing with our dogs (whom she loves) and letting us take care of her. Avoiding the inevitable what-would-you-like-for-dinner argument — her answer is always, “Nothing; I’m not hungry” — I had already planned the meal, and when it was ready, I sliced a simple roast chicken, with sprigs of tarragon and garlic stuffed under the skin and gently massaged with fresh black pepper and a lightly smoked sea salt, arranged it on a platter along with its legs and wings, and set it in front of her. The dogs sat at her feet, hoping something would drop from the sky.
“Better than Williams,” she joked, grabbing a chicken leg. It was gone — down to the bone — before my partner and I sat down to join her.
“Could I have the other one?” she asked quietly.
Take it all, I thought.
Altman is the author of “Poor Man’s Feast” (Berkley Books, 2013) and the upcoming “Treyf” (Berkley Books, 2016). She writes the James Beard Award-winning blog PoorMansFeast.com.