On Comfort: Chicken Soup, Chocolate Cake, and Ani
This week has been full of paradox: sunshine and non-stop rain, feeling stuck while also feeling propelled forward, feeling exhausted and also feeling energized, weather warm enough to not need a jacket and needing a jacket, enjoying my favorite feminist musician and being annoyed by the douchy white guy behind me. Instead of getting frustrated, I’ve been trying to accept the contradictions. Embrace all the things that are opposite but true at the same time.
I did double duty and frontloaded my week by making two things in one night. Who am I?!
The craving for something brothy and healthy struck again. M requested a chicken soup of some kind, so I pulled out an oldie but goodie: Immunity Soup from the January 2017 issue of Cooking Light. (I was actually looking for a spring vegetable chicken soup, but had to settle for this one this time around.) Indeed, another soup that purports to boost your immunity. It certainly can't hurt.
When the weather is 70 degrees one day, and cold enough to snow the next day, it feels like my body is constantly trying to find its bearings. Am I warm? Am I cold? Do I need to wear 4 layers and wool socks today or can I show off this cat print short-sleeve shirt I just got? Am I feverish or is it allergies? Am I achy from sickness or am I sore from yoga? It’s impossible to tell these days.
This soup starts out with your favorite soup base layers: a tablespoon or two of oil heated in a Dutch oven (or heavy-bottomed pot), then diced onion, sliced carrots and celery tossed in. I used olive oil, but you might use whatever you’ve got — vegetable oil, canola oil, whatever. The sizzle of the veggies as they hit that oil is so satisfying, along with that continual sizzle as they cook gently, getting soft and releasing their juices (*insert a sly Nigella look here*) into the pot.
As I chopped and diced and minced the veggies, I decided to turn on some of my favorite Ani DiFranco tunes. Ani has been a part of my life since I was 16 or 17. I don’t actually know how many times I’ve seen her live. Her music has been formative for me in so many ways — politically, emotionally, artistically, interpersonally, worldview-ally. Her music was friend to me through hard times, and was, at times, one of the few things to get me through whatever darkness I was in.
Next comes the pound of sliced mushrooms (I got pre-sliced ones this time around, though I usually don’t mind buying a pound or so of them in bulk and washing/drying/slicing them myself) and 10 entire cloves of garlic, minced. I may have thrown in an extra 2 or 3 cloves because however much garlic a recipe calls for, it usually isn’t enough for me.
Toss these into the pot, and let the mushrooms release their moisture. Savor that sharp smell of the garlic and let it fill your kitchen. I mean, you don’t really have a choice.
I sang along to every single Ani song that came into my kitchen that afternoon, though I haven’t listened to many of them for years. I haven’t forgotten the airiness of Both Hands or the clipped turns of Swan Dive and those lines about pulling out your tampon and splashing around in shark-infested waters. The ambitious moodiness of Gravel (“I stood out on the porch, thinking ‘Fight, fight, fight at all costs’/ Instead, I let you in, just like I’ve always done/ and I sat you down/ and offered you a beer” and “Maybe you can keep me from being happy/but you’re not going to stop me from having fun”). The raw anger and anguish of Dilate.
Next come the chickpeas, the broth, the thyme, and the bay leaves. Stir, and bring it all to a boil. Once it begins to boil, throw in two pounds of uncooked chicken breast, along with some salt and crushed red pepper flakes. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 35 minutes.
The very first time I saw Ani perform live, I burst into tears as soon as she stepped onto stage. The song she started that show with was “Shy.” I started crying and didn’t stop until 20 or 30 minutes later. The sobbing was uncontrollable; I didn’t know it was coming and when it came, it hit me like freight train.
That trend would continue every time I saw Ani, and it seemed that she always opened with a song that was particularly meaningful for me in the moment.
As I started making the frosting for Nigella’s Dark and Sumptuous Chocolate Cake, I could feel the sobs building in my chest as I sang along to Fire Door. I still knew every word and belted them out along with her as I combined water, espresso powder, cocoa, brown sugar, and butter in a saucepan, heated, and stirred.
These songs felt like a homecoming. They felt like being able to finally breathe big and full in a completely safe space.
And then something happened. It occurred to me, as I was mixing the dry ingredients for the cake and checking on the soup, that I was a different person listening to these songs. The songs that got me through my adolescence and early and mid-twenties were still gorgeous and clever and everything that I remembered them to be — but I understood each song differently. I was hearing each song through ears of wisdom? Experience? Through a body and mind and heart that had finally found dry land after weathering storm after storm in a shitty, disintegrating lifeboat? I related to each song completely differently. It’s like… looking back and realizing that when I was in my teens and twenties, I thought I knew what Ani was talking about. And now, in my early 30s, I see that I actually didn’t know shit back then, but I do now.
I guess that’s just part of being a human. Growing up. Maturing.
The Ani concert was the centerpiece of my week. Everything revolved around it. I braced myself for the tears and the swells of emotion.
I was excited, for sure. But this time around, the sobs stayed put wherever they were hiding out. Ani opened with Names and Dates and Times, a song that I actually don't know all the words to (*gasp*). She played Napoleon and Shameless and Anticipate and To The Teeth and Hypnotized and My I.Q. and Not a Pretty Girl. She played a lot of newer stuff that I didn’t know.
The crowd was also different from any other Ani show I’ve been to. The Ani shows I’ve been to have been attended by mostly women and women-identified people. Dudes in the audience have been few and far between. In between songs, people shout things at her, like, “We love you, Ani!” The audience usually sings along so loudly that she has to stop at least once and tell everyone to stop so she can hear herself play.
At this show, some things were the same. Audience members kept yelling “We love you, Ani!” People recited My I.Q. along with her so loudly that she had to stop in the middle and say, “Oh, honey, you have to let me do this one.”
But a lot of things were different. Someone yelled, “I love you, Annie!” (Ani responded, “It’s Ah-ni, but thank you, I feel the love anyway.”) Men were everywhere. A drunk-off-his-ass douchebag know-it-all guy sat behind us and talked loudly over Gracie and Rachel, the opening act, and then continued his tone-deaf, useless commentary during Ani’s performance. When Ani sang, “I’m gonna take all my friends/ and I'm gonna move to Canada/ and we’re gonna die of old age,” he shouted, “Yeah! Let’s go!” (I stopped myself from turning around and saying, “You’re not invited, bro.”) Some people got up to leave immediately after Ani finished the main set, not realizing there’s a thing called an encore because you should and will never get enough of being in the same room with her.
After the show, I stopped by the merch table to buy a t-shirt. When I made my way through the crowd, made eye contact with the merch table person and bought my shirt, I had apparently “cut” in front of a group of (white) women. After we left, M told me about all the passive aggressive shade they had thrown in my direction while I was buying my shirt.
One woman had said, “WELL. You know what happens when you ASSUME…”
Yes. I do know what happens. I get to buy my Ani t-shirt before you.
(Also: like, please. There are no lines at merch tables. You see your opening, you get in there and buy your shirt before they sell out of your size. It’s not hard. How many times in my 32 years have I waited politely for everyone to go before me, and when I finally get to the front, the t-shirt I want is sold out of my size. Sorry, not sorry. Get yours. I'm gettin' mine. Like Ani says in 32 Flavors, "I'm not between you and your ambition." What a metaphor/analogy this shit is in so many ways.)
After the soup simmers, covered, for about 30-35 minutes, you place the chicken on a cutting board, shred it, and dump it back into the pot. You take a bunch of kale, rip it into smaller pieces and stir it into the soup. You let it all simmer for another 5 minutes or so. It’s done when that kale is wilted just a little bit.
Now, this cake. Nigella’s instructions tell you to make the frosting first because it needs time to cool. She says that the time it takes to make the cake, bake it, and let it cool, is the perfect amount of time to let the frosting cool. I’ll be honest — I had my doubts. When I couldn’t wait any longer to finish the cake, I took a look at the frosting and shook my head. “Nigella, I don’t know about this. This frosting seems a little stiff.” But I gave it a stir and poured it over the cake.
It was perfect.
On Nigella’s instruction, I joyously decorated with chopped pistachios. No edible rose petals or edible flowers even, but just the pistachios were perfect.
(Baking notes: Nigella's recipe is vegan -- she uses coconut butter and coconut oil. I, however, love regular butter too much to go vegan, so I used regular unsalted butter and canola oil for this recipe, and it turned out just as dreamy.)
This week seems to have been all about comfort — the food and music of it. Chicken soup, chocolate cake, Ani. They all came as I remembered them, but with twists. Chicken soup with mushrooms, chickpeas, and chili pepper flakes. Chocolate cake with espresso and salty, savory pistachios on top. Ani with the same good songs (as well as new ones), a wiser me, and a weirder crowd.
It’s good to go home. To bring your older, wiser self there. To love the same things, and to love how they’ve changed. To love the same things, and love them differently.
Ani sings in Good, Bad, Ugly, "Strangers are exciting/ Their mystery never ends/ But there's nothing like looking at your own history/ in the faces of your friends." It feels a little bit like that, but...different.
I'll end this week's Friday Bites with some vintage Ani. Happy eating, happy cooking, happy being, y'all.