On Hunger

By Keith Dixon

Essay

Among the long list of indignities one must suffer with the increase of age—hair loss, mystery aches, the inherent uncoolness of having your twenties in your rearview mirror—is the particularly troubling discovery that you just aren’t what you once were. You just aren’t—and nothing embodies this loss quite so explicitly as one’s inability to recover from that which would have been a mere blip on the day’s radar twenty years ago. The hangover that troubled your morning back in college now sends you reeling back to bed for an entire afternoon; the sports injury that caused you to limp off the field for a rest now causes you to limp into the Emergency Room for a quick CAT scan. You aren’t what you once were.

It happens with illnesses, too—the flu that once required you to wear an extra layer before going out to the bars to do shots and eat pizza now lays you on your back, where you remain—hacking and coughing and scheming on how you’re going to get that guy that gave this to you—for days and sometimes even weeks.

This man is me: the man on his back with the flu for weeks. Or rather, this was me, for fourteen days all through mid- and late-October. It was bad at first; and then it got worse, until it resembled a sort of Keystone Kops equivalent of a sickness. And I didn’t even recover on my own—the flu that put me on my back became more and more intense, developing into bronchitis and requiring antibiotics to bring me back from the edge.

It was on that first night of antibiotic-assisted recovery, as my wife approached to ask, “What should we have for dinner?”—it was here, as I gave her my blankest look (the furrowed brow, the hurt eyes), that I recognized, for the first time, the essential thing one must have over and above any specialized ingredients or basic kitchen talent if one is to cook well: hunger.

I didn’t have it.

A side effect of the antibiotic: no appetite whatsoever. And you just can’t fake that. Like sexual interest, like musical ear, like an ability to juggle, you just can’t fake hunger. That night, in a sort of existential panic (I’m always hungry), I roasted a chicken, whipped up a vinaigrette, cooked some rice pilaf—and though I fashioned each with the same ingredients and the same process I always use, they just weren’t up to par. I tasted the result days later when my appetite slightly returned, and my suspicion was confirmed: something was missing.

Most writers I know are terribly hungry people—not for food but for success, for fame, for literary eminence. I’m that way, too—guilty of possessing a root desire for the glittering prizes of skill, recognition, sales. I have, however, devoted criminally few hours to wondering just what one does after one achieves these goals, though I’m guessing what one does is panic in the same way I did when my wife asked me what was for dinner. In this way, the success that naturally comes with sticking with something for a lifetime could also be viewed as one of those afflictions of increased age. I know many, many people who have crossed the figurative professional finish line of retirement—their talent and position assured, finances all worked out—only to fall apart. When you no longer have your attention raised to the horizon, after all, what’s to nourish the talent and, more importantly, the desire to put it to use?

My experience in the kitchen suggests that hunger is a good thing in that way—it’s a rare sort of affliction that keeps you directed toward the higher ideal of a satiety that will never quite come.

To the home cook, the retiree, and the aspiring writer alike, then, I offer the same advice: stay hungry.

Blue Hill Farm Chicken

I learned this trick of basting the chicken with a combination of vinegar, salt and water—which leaves the skin wonderfully crisp—from family friends Mark and Carol Thompson.

1 3 lb chicken, preferably organic free-range

¼ cup white wine vinegar

¼ cup salt

¼ cup water

1. Level a rack in the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

2. Tie the chicken’s drumsticks together with kitchen twine. Combine the vinegar, salt and water in a small skillet over low heat, stirring until the salt has mostly dissolved, then paint all surfaces of the chicken with the vinegar-salt mixture. Lay the chicken breast-side down on a roasting rack in a roasting pan or a large ovenproof skillet (if you don’t have a roasting rack just substitute a couple of raw celery stalks and discard the celery when finished), then slide into the oven.

3. Roast the chicken for exactly 20 minutes, then pull the pan out of the oven. Using two large wads of paper towels, flip the chicken breast-side up, paint all surfaces again with the vinegar-salt mixture, and slide back into the oven.

4. Roast 40 minutes more, opening the oven door twice more during that time to quickly paint the chicken with the vinegar-salt mixture. When the chicken has finished roasting, remove from the oven, allow to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes, then serve.

Yield: 2 large servings, with some left over for lunch the next day.

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

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