“Which pair would you like to start with, the brown heels or the flats?” Auntie Harriet’s voice hummed in my mind. Before I sat down to write this column I was lost in memories and recalling an afternoon I had spent with her years before.
It was during the middle of the summer following the February when the final curtain came down on the Imperial Dynasty restaurant. Auntie spent her newly found freedom cleaning out her closets and dispersing gifts amongst us, her numerous nieces and nephews. Included was her shoe collection, and I happened to be the only niece in the vicinity who wore the same size shoes as she. So on an exceptionally scorching afternoon I sat in her piano room, without the air conditioning on (Auntie was fine with the temperature) surrounded by dozens of pairs of shoes she wanted to give to me.
Auntie had arranged the shoes in their boxes, first by color and then by style. We began our examination of each pair and many of them had stories. The black peau de soie heels she wore only once when she attended a wedding. A pair of blue and green pumps matched a suit she wanted to give to me whenever she came across it. I picked up a pair of gold sandals that were studded with colorful rhinestones and learned that Auntie Mary bought them for her during a trip to Hong Kong, though Auntie Harriet never had anywhere to wear them.
At the end of the afternoon, my hair was slicked back with perspiration and my shirt was soaked and stuck to my body. My head still spinning with shoe stories, I pulled out of Auntie’s driveway with forty-three pairs of shoes in my car. All these years later, I still have them, and treasure each pair.
I had been ruminating over “Auntie Harriet Times” all day because the day before Steve and I had visited her. It was apparent that the light within her had dimmed considerably and her mind was the frailest I’d experienced it being. There was no flicker of recognition when I said my name, nor when I repeated to her that I was her younger brother’s daughter. I was saddened of course, but this was not entirely unexpected. She is, after all, 98 years old, and her mind began to slowly slip away shortly after her 90th birthday.
One of my great joys in life over many years was sharing books and reading experiences with Auntie Harriet. Before we ended our visit, I recollected a line from a book that I had read many times during my girlhood, and likely discussed with Auntie. Like the character Beth in that book, “Little Women,” I hoped whenever the time comes, “the tide will go out easily.” None of us gets out of here alive, but there is surely a wide array of ways to embark leaving, some far kinder than others. I wish ease for everyone I love.
Coincidently earlier in the week I had been thinking about Auntie Harriet and some of the amusing antics all of us shared with her. While grocery shopping I mistakenly grabbed a half-gallon of buttermilk instead of whipping cream. Later at home, I stood in front of the refrigerator, buttermilk carton in hand, and wondered what in world I was going to do with all of it. Instantly, my mind traveled back to the Imperial Dynasty.
Each year when Chinese New Year arrived, we closed the restaurant for a week. Usually there were several tubs of sour cream that would expire during the closure. Some of it ended in our home, and because this was long before there was the Internet, Mom and I scoured through numerous recipe books in search of recipes that used sour cream. One of our favorites was a sour cream cake, the recipe for which is included in one of my early columns.
Auntie Harriet had a different approach to the abundance of sour cream. Many of you may recall the “unusual” dips and spreads she liked to invent and share with our restaurant patrons, and the sour cream glut gave her plenty of creative opportunities. True to her typical dips and spreads, she had mixed the sour cream with cream cheese and fermented tofu; there was also a sour cream and left over pork chop and ham pate. She often brought her creations to our house so we could try them and the results could live in our refrigerator. There was one failed concoction I still can taste, Auntie Harriet’s creamy walnut vinaigrette. She had some chopped walnuts that were a little off and figured using a good red wine vinegar and some seasonings would disguise the taste. She added a little sour cream and turned it into a creamy salad dressing with one layer of flavor that could only be called rancid.
I stuck to my modus operandi in my search for recipes with buttermilk as an ingredient, only this time I had the Internet. I tried a couple of chicken recipes. Both were mighty tasty but the one I’m sharing with you this week we especially enjoyed. I found a New York Times recipe that marinates the chicken in buttermilk laced with herbs and anchovies, a mixture that’s reminiscent of Green Goddess salad dressing.
The original recipe calls for a whole chicken, but I used chicken thighs, added a bit more garlic and, because I had some parsley hanging around the fridge, I threw it into the mix. The anchovies are optional, but they add a layer of umami to the dish. Before roasting the chicken, I highly recommend lining the baking pan with foil.
The chicken is savory and juicy with crispy skin and served with a lovely green sauce. I roasted purple fingerlings and carrots on another baking sheet on the oven rack below the chicken. Next time I make this, I’ll make more of the marinade because the sauce is delicious and with a little sour cream stirred into it, it would make a delightful salad dressing.
There’s still a cup or so of buttermilk left in the carton. I’m not sure yet what I’ll make with it. Perhaps I’ll follow Auntie’s lead and riff on a dip or spread. I’m not sure yet, but what I am sure of is that whether it’s in the kitchen or the piano room, at home or abroad, whether it’s black peau de soie heels, blue and green pumps or jeweled sandals, no one will fill Auntie Harriet’s shoes. Ever.