One Classy Bird
No one ever talks about it, but the Cornish game hen is the sophisticated sister-in-law of the chicken. She’s dainty. She is reserved for special occasions. The Cornish game hen isn’t your run of the mill Tuesday dinner. She’s not chicken for God’s sake. You definitely won’t catch her roasting in the oven with a beer can shoved up her ass and lathered with barbeque sauce. That is for damn sure.
No. The Cornish game is drizzled (not lathered, you maniac) with first pressed olive oil. Herbes des Provence gently touch her skin. The slickness of the oil makes her look like she’s been basking on the Mediterranean coast. No one ever talks about it, but the Cornish game hen is the sophisticated sister-in-law of the chicken. She’s dainty. She is reserved for special occasions. As she roasts in a white wine glaze, sprinkled with salt to add a crispness to her golden glow, one can only think, “Now, that’s one classy broad.”
I don’t remember when I enjoyed my first Cornish game hen. Still, this classy-bird has always held a special place in my fat-girl heart. The same held true for my mother. I distinctly remember her preparing game hens for a holiday (I don’t know which, probably Easter). It was the first time I could remember her preparing them and as she dressed the delicate, little birds she recalled her wedding: the social event of June 1976 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
The summer of 1976 was a special year for the wedding couple. The Summer Olympics were being held in their very own backyard. There were times when we’d drive into the city during our annual summer visits to the chorus of “Look, over there! Girls, that’s the Olympic Stadium!” I can’t tell you how many times Montreal’s Olympic stadium has been pointed out to me. It makes me wonder if all the corruption and cost of that writhing marvel has forced the city to obsess, in a prideful way, about the retractable ceiling and odd shape of this building and how it defines the already spectacular skyline of Montreal. How this expensive stadium is now one of the many that doesn’t get used for sports because Montrealers care only of hockey. Regardless, how you can see it from my surrogate grandmother’s house is a very important selling point to her balcony. How my grandfather took my sister and me to lunch there and how one of my mom’s best friends from high school was one of the runners with the Olympic torch only cements the importance of this summer in 1976 and to add to that, my parents got married in June of that year. It was a very big deal.
Their wedding was what you would expect an immigrant Italian wedding to look like in the ‘70s. It was lavish, expensive, and packed with people. Cousins going back so far that blood relation could come into question. Paisanos were on the guest list. Neighbors, family who were flown in from Italy and probably Venezuela (I could digress on the migration patterns of Italians after World War II, but I’ll spare you the history lesson). The guest list had supposedly been whittled down to the “essentials.” My guess is that when 800 people are present at your wedding there are probably some nonessentials present.
Almost forty years later, my father claims this list was cut down. I would love to see a draft of the original guest list, the one with the guests who didn’t make the cut. My mother claimed it was my father’s side of the family who let the guest list get out of control. I would believe her only because I remember making my own wedding guest list, and list for my engagement party, and my son’s baptism, and let’s not forget the controversy over the rehearsal dinner for my wedding--all of which were very lengthy and the source of contention.
Growing up, my parents’ wedding was always fondly remembered. During Sunday lunches someone would mention something, and it would lead back to a memory of that wedding in June of 1976. When seeing family members during summer visits, I would be reminded of the social event of 1976.
Forget the Olympics: Lucy and Phil were getting married.
“You know, I was at your parents wedding,” a cousin would say. “They ran out
food; there were so many people.”
I should stop here and explain the horror of running out of food. This is the number one fear of any Italian. This is a culture that thrives off of food. We live to eat as Italians. That’s just how it is. In fact, the distinction between eating to live and living to eat is one of the few issues where my husband and I struggle to agree. I always over prepare when we have guests, or on a Wednesday evening. One doesn’t run out of food in an Italian home and especially not at an Italian wedding. I’m pretty sure that’s why talk of my parents wedding is always on the edge of our family’s brain.
The day we ran out of food.
This memory recall is precisely what happened on that, we’ll go ahead and say it was Easter Sunday, when my mother prepared the Cornish Game hens.
For holidays, my mother would always sit down and prepare a menu, in the same way a head chef might for his restaurant. She would linger over the details of what she would serve, making sure to choose ingredients that were both traditional and seasonal. You wouldn't catch my mother serving some hearty winter vegetable at Easter. That is the mistake of an amateur. She would scribble in her chicken scrawl the dishes she would make and once it was decided, the shopping would begin.
The year she prepared the game hens I was still in college. She had successfully survived a surgery resulting in the removal of a kidney. She was healthy and happy. It seemed the announcement of that word “remission” was nearly guaranteed. She had purchased the game hens and began by marinating them in lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and garlic. She was a lover of simplicity.
She stood in the kitchen hovering over the game hens; her apron a little too large and stained. The oil gleamed off of the game hens.
“Aren’t they adorable?”
“I guess.” How is one supposed to reply to a question about raw poultry?
“They look like little babies.” She proceeded to grab one and hold it like a
newborn. It was propped up in the palm of one hand as she used her other to keep the hen upright. She held it in her overworked-mom hands and cradled it. She smiled. I imagined she pictured a cute, little baby chick (or baby?) in her hands. A headless baby chick. I stood back.
“Ma, that’s weird.”
“Why? Look how cute they are?”
Fresh garlic slid off of the hen she was holding and into the pan. She continued to cradle it knowing I was disturbed. Then suddenly she burst out laughing. Then I did, and I grabbed my camera and photographed her cradling the Cornish game hen. We laughed until we weren’t laughing about the game hens and the moment lingered in the air.
A few years later, it came time to celebrate Thanksgiving away from my family for the first time. I was so nervous. There is something terrifying about joining a new-to-you family and participating in their holiday rituals. I was convinced this weekend would determine my future with my then boyfriend.
It was late Thanksgiving morning, and there was such a calm at my boyfriend’s parent’s house. The TV was on and sports announcers analyzed statistics and attempted to predict the outcomes of the games that would eventually begin. I was reading on the couch next to Justin as he watched TV. No one was in the kitchen. This quiet was not happening at my parents’ house 900 miles away.
My mother was likely standing in her flip-flops, leaned over the kitchen counter staring at her scribbled list wondering, “Did I remember to buy an eggplant?” She’d be yelling from the kitchen, “Girls, is your bathroom clean?” The sounds of my sisters scrambling to tidy and clean was the response she was expecting. “Is someone going to set the table?” The sizzle of her sautéing, the hum of the vacuum, the growl of the lawnmower, because why not mow the lawn on Thanksgiving? A lovely cacophony.
I remember being confused and worried about the peace, the near silence of Justin’s house on Thanksgiving Day. Shouldn’t there be preparations going on? Turkey is a labor intensive bird. She needs basting and attention. She’s quite needy.
“Babe, why isn’t anyone cooking?” I remember asking.
“Oh, we do Cornish game hens. Everybody gets their own bird.”
I knew right then we’d be okay. The weekend wouldn’t be ruined. The drive to North Carolina would not end in heartache and tears. This family, who would soon become my family, understood the Cornish game hen. My father-in-law prepared his birds dressing them simply, lightly salting them and stuffing them gently with wild rice. The birds, baked until crisp and brown, were placed on the table, a clear symbol of simplicity, tradition, family—love. As we gathered round to begin the Thanksgiving meal, as I was welcomed and provided my very own bird in typical Fiedler fashion, I was unable to contain my joy, and the words stumbled out of my mouth, “So, my parents had Cornish game hen at their wedding.”
 Paisano: A friend from the same town in Italy as yourself. I’ve seen a bunch of different explanations for this word, but this is how my family uses it.
About the author:
Gloria Panzera's work has appeared in The Inquisitive Eater, One Forty Fiction, and has an upcoming essay in Crack the Spine. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of Rum Punch Press, an online literary magazine. She currently teaches creative writing and English in Charlotte, North Carolina where she lives with her husband and son.