Going for What Hurts: Roast Chicken with Hot-Sauce Butter

In late May, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Jonathan Franzen titled “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” I read it for the first time while on vacation a few weeks ago, and have been thinking about it ever since. I wanted to like the piece, but something was holding me back, and I wasn’t sure what. This week, I made roast chicken with hot-butter sauce and was finally able to articulate exactly what was bothering me about it…

Bon Appétit's version:

One of the titles for my friend’s as-yet unwritten memoir is Would It Kill You to Like My Link? I imagine the book cover—the author’s face smiling politely, her chin resting on her open palms—and I laugh, just as might any other warm-blooded, workaday Facebook user who has ever posted a link to the deafening silence of zero likes. But of course, that’s not the only reason I laugh. I laugh because it’s ridiculous, because most of us realize by now that the world doesn’t revolve around the status of our virtual walls, especially considering that more often than not, what we choose to put there—“Steve B. just checked in at Rite Aid.”—is hardly likable.

In Jonathan Franzen’s op-ed, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” Franzen cautions us against “the narcissistic tendencies of technology” in favor of good old-fashioned, all-consuming, three-dimensional love, and in so doing, takes particular aim at Facebook, where, he writes, “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.” And where he also believes the verb “to like” has been transformed “from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.”

And while part of me very much agrees that technology can act as a spoilsport to many of the things I hold dear—a deeper connection with other humans, patience, thoughtfulness, newspapers, magazines—and wants to knock on Franzen’s door (“Amelia Morris just checked in at Jonathan Franzen’s house”!) and shake his hand for calling us users and abusers out, the other part of me wants to shout, “Easy for you to say, Franzen!”

At the risk of exposing much of what I try to hide from the world, allow me to explain:

Of late, a seemingly harmless request from my employer sent me reeling down a dark path of job searches and career re-imaginings that included but weren’t limited to: massage therapy, how to acquire the necessary credentials to teach high school, and selling coins on the Internet. The request? They needed a photograph of me for their newly revamped website. I didn’t like the sound of it. I’ve basically avoided any kind of a real job with salary and benefits ever since I had one and quit it almost six years ago. And now, this job, which has been very good to me and fits my writerly life so well in so many ways, but which I’ve struggled with convincing myself doesn’t define me as a person, needed a photo of me in the workplace, ideally one that, upon looking at, represented my role in some way, shape or form.

Let’s first imagine Jonathan Franzen’s staff photo. I picture an image of a confident man, at home, sitting at his computer, typing. His computer sits on his desk, which faces a large window that allows light to stream in at all sorts of elegant angles. And if you look to the left of this window you can see, posted on his wall, a few letters and notes from some of his friends: Freedom was even better on the second read. –Salman; and Just send us whatever, whenever. –The New Yorker; and Look how far we’ve come! ;) –O., next to an Oprah Book Club Selection sticker.

As for my staff photo? I can tell you exactly what it looks like: an image of me trying to smile while silently repeating: This job doesn’t define you. This job doesn’t define you, against the backdrop of a wall of beautiful, Belgian linens.

See, it’s easier to tell yourself it’s just a part-time job to support your art when you aren’t having to pose for a photo that will be posted online in all of its bad lighting and fear-behind-the-eyes to indefinitely serve as proof that this is your day-to-day existence.

In the world of Facebook, however, that photo would have never made its way online. That photo is anathema to Facebook, because Facebook is our opportunity to present ourselves exactly as we’d like to be presented.

In his essay, “How to Make a Universe,” John Barth argues against the notion that an artist must fit into the bohemian hobo stereotype. He scoffs at the idea that great art can’t “come from a person who works decent hours for a decent wage and owns an automobile and supports a family.” He quotes a Thomas Mann story:

Do you want me to go about in a ragged velveteen jacket and a red waistcoat? Every artist is as bohemian as the deuce, inside! Let him at least wear proper clothes and behave outwardly like a respectable being.

And in this electronic age in which I’ve chosen to try to be, of all things, a novelist, I beg of you, Mr. Franzen: Don’t post that photo of me in the ragged velveteen jacket. Let me have some fun in this one space that I can control, huh? Let me trick the friends who haven’t seen me since high school and don’t know where I work. Let me amplify my small successes and occasional press. Let them think that the camera only captures me at my thinnest and prettiest. Not everything has to be so accurate, does it? Not everyone needs to know I watch Big Brother and play Can Knock Down late at night. In return, I promise to meditate in the morning and continue purchasing literary fiction at my local bookstore.

And as for the like button, in today’s world where most people’s first response is: No, or Double-Dip Recession, or You Need to Think about Having Kids Before Your Eggs Get Too Old, a little support and kindness goes a long way. It’s nice to post a link on your wall to something that’s moved you, or perhaps to something you’ve written, and the next day, see those little digital thumbs-up with a few of your friends’ names by it. Oh, you think to yourself. He or she likes that? And suddenly, you feel a bit better knowing you have connected with someone, albeit for a moment and on a superficial level, but it’s something, isn’t it? A friend liking another person’s link about the beauty and mystery of cephalopods can hardly be deemed an “assertion of consumer choice.” Can it, Mr. Franzen? I mean, honestly, would it kill you to like that link?
But let’s steer this ship in another direction for a few moments and talk about chicken and hot sauce—which, by the way, falls right in line with going for what hurts as I’m hard pressed to think of a physical action that better encompasses this notion than the halving and seeding of ten habanero chili peppers by hand.

Even wearing gloves, I couldn’t avoid the stinging heat of these tiny but potent peppers. My eyes watered and my throat itched, causing me to walk away from them in a coughing fit on more than one occasion. Once I got them puréed in the blender, I thought I was in the clear, but my gloved-habanero-ey hand must have touched a few things in the kitchen before I rinsed it off because a few minutes later, after I had scraped the mixture into a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and set it on the kitchen table to ferment for 12 hours, my index finger started to burn. It wasn’t unbearable by any means—not anything close to the time I seeded two jalapenos sans gloves—but just a subtle, painful message from the ten habaneros that they were not going quietly into the night.

I finished this step at 4pm and wasn’t about to set my alarm for 4am to move it from the counter to the refrigerator, so to be accurate, this mixture fermented for more like 15 hours. And to be even more accurate, our dinner plans changed, and we didn’t move on to the next step for a few more days. In other words, this is a resilient little mixture that you don’t have to rush.

So, when I finally got around to it, I went on to the next step: puréeing this mixture with the vinegar, remaining liqueur and salt. And again, I was reminded of who was in charge. I had the faintest of paper cuts on my finger, but those fermented habaneros managed to find it. And as my finger burned once more, I kept thinking: I can’t believe I’m going to ingest this.
However, after straining the mixture and simmering it and adding the butter, it really began to look and smell like something I wanted to eat, or at least, put on my food. It smelled shockingly spicy, yes, but it also smelled of oranges, vinegar, and butter. And as the chicken roasted away in the oven and the thermometer in our apartment rose to an uncomfortable 88 degrees, I knew there was nothing that was going to be more refreshing than this brightly colored blast of hot sauce, which by now was three days in the making.

And you know what? I was right. This sauce was one of the most flavorful items of food I’ve ever made from scratch. Matt—who is famous for having broken his four-year-long streak of vegetarianism with, of all things, hot wings, and who blames this moment of weakness on the unbeatable combination of Frank’s RedHot, butter, and chicken—concurs.
The sauce was hot, but, as suspected, the vinegar and butter rounded out the heat to perfection. Matt and I had put the sauce in one ramekin between us, but this turned out to be a big mistake as there was a constant, detour-less traffic jam at that poor lonely ramekin. We couldn’t get enough of it, taking the pieces of chicken and dunking them entirely into the Sunny D-colored jus. And what was even better? We have plenty left over for the rest of the week.
So, after all of this, what can we conclude here? For me, it’s this: my friends and I do (and will continue to) go for “what hurts.” We’ll continue to be inspired, to create, to put ourselves out there, to be rejected, and to do it all over again, because stopping isn’t really an option. We’re not paid, so we create what we want. We have fun doing it. And though we may not have a platform like, say, the The New York Times to express ourselves and share our ideas, we have created and found other ways to connect. We have our blogs, we have email, and yes, we have Facebook. The support and exchange of work from like-minded friends sustains our creative impulses and also serves as the reward to a job well done, story well told, and meal well cooked. So yeah, we like each others’ links. Perhaps that doesn't mean anything to some people, but for me, it's a move away from cynicism and towards embracing the struggle. And I would say there’s nothing cowardly about that.

But what do you think, readers? I’d love to hear from you.

Roast Chicken with Hot-Sauce Butter via Bon Appetit
Recipe by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Dan Kluger

3 ounces orange Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles (about 10)
1 orange bell pepper, halved, seeded, coarsely chopped
4 1x3" strips orange zest
4 tablespoons St-Germain liqueur, divided (I substituted Grand Marnier.)
2 tablespoons kosher salt, divided, plus more for seasoning
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 cup Champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, divided
1 3-pound chicken, cut into 4 pieces, backbone removed
Freshly ground black pepper

Wearing gloves, halve and seed chiles. Purée chiles, pepper, zest, 2 tablespoons liqueur, 1 tablespoon salt, and garlic in a blender. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let ferment at room temperature for 12 hours.

Purée chile mixture in a blender with vinegar, remaining 2 tablespoons liqueur, and remaining 1 tablespoon salt until smooth. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a small saucepan. Strain mixture, pressing on solids. Heat hot sauce over medium heat. Stir cornstarch and 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl until smooth. Whisk cornstarch mixture into hot sauce. Simmer, whisking constantly, until thickened, about 2 minutes. Whisk in 3 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt. Keep warm.

Preheat oven to 450°. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Cook chicken, skin side down, until golden, about 5 minutes. Turn chicken and cook 6 minutes. Remove breasts from pan and transfer to a plate. Place skillet in oven and roast legs for 12 minutes. Return breasts to skillet; roast legs until legs and breasts are cooked through, about 10 minutes longer. Serve with hot-sauce butter.


Matthew said...

I LOVE it. I also do kinda want to see the pic of you in the velveteen jacket... what can I say, I LOVE VELVETEEN!

Katie said...

Amelia, your post is really encouraging for me, unemployed, out of grad school for a year but yet to have a "real" job. Just joined a temp agency that looks promising, but still not likely to be doing anyhting resembling a "career" for a while. It's always a bit demoralizing when people ask what I do, as they first assume I'm in school still (I look young, and I guess I am), and then, when I tell them Im looking for work and live in Hollywood, I feel like they think I'm some sort of actress/dropout. Sometimes I just want to be like, I have a Master's degree in literature and the job market sucks and I have good reason to not be working, I swear!

It's tough sometimes but having a support network really helps, and just seeing that a few people are reading my blog and commenting, even though its just a few and i mostly know them, it still feels good to me. Thanks for a great post (which also managed to nicely encapsulate my ambiguity toward Facebook).

Jessica said...

Thanks so much for writing this Amelia. I feel like you were explaining MY situation. It's so tough when you work a job to pay the bills and then work so hard on your passions, knowing the recognition will either never come or come in really small ways. This makes me feel better, like I'm in really good company!
- Jess

tannaz sassooni said...

amelia! for one, your photo beats bon appetit's, hands down. for another, your writing gets more and more excellent. and for a third, i so appreciate your refusal to be cynical about facebook and the 'like'. yeah, fb can be kind of gross and annoying, but there is no reason to be grumpy about connecting with people, even in tiny ways.

oh, and also, i made some jamie oliver stuffed hot pepper recipe once a million years ago, and actually had to sleep with my hand in a bucket of icewater it burned so bad. talk about going for what hurts.

jeana sohn said...

AWWW it's so touching! thank you for this beautiful post. we'll keep trying to make our goals and supporting each other!

also, you are my ernest hemingway!

Brock said...

LOL re "Just send us whatever, whenever!" The chicken looks great, too.

Mary Anne said...

LOL on what Brock said!

I LIKE YOU, your writing, your life, AND your links!!!

Keep up the good work! And just remember my motto when the trials of life get you down, "It's not ghetto, it's bohemian."

Mark and Marsha said...

This post hit the Trifecta -- beautiful prose, delicious food and gorgeous pictures.

Run Fast Travel Slow said...

The lead photo is gorgeous -- and I enjoyed reading this post. Many of us see a distinction between what we do (the "day to day existence" as you put it) and what we love. But I figure that if we spend enough time doing what we love, that becomes our reality instead.

robbwitmer said...

A red waistcoat is very much a part of my day-to-day existence. The best part: it's not really a coat.

Amy said...

Thank you for this very well written, thoughtful piece.

Thank you for the chicken dish. My kitchen renovation should have my appliances delivered and in working order tomorrow and I'm looking for something kind of special to make. This is definitely going on the list of possibilities.

Thank you for not letting your job define you. Stay true to you, but earn enough to get the waistcoat you want.

Thank you for the article; I missed it last week.

And lastly, your place on the internet is here. Some crummy photo on a work website doesn't come close to telling your story.

Natalie (NJ in L.A.) said...

What a joy reading this Amelia. You had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions (especially the FourSqaure reference on Franzen's doorsteps). I'm totally with you about moving away from cynicism. Now I've got to make this delicious chicken.

Heather Taylor said...

this is a brillant commentary and I want to eat that chicken. and i greatly value you. so there. xoxo from sun valley.

Ms.Nožisková said...

well, i'm a luddite and am not on FB as it weirds me out (despite being a card carrying member of Gen Y) - likely because i have too many ex-boyfriends. but connecting and feeling supported is important, and however that works for you, so be it.

but the funny thing about real support and connection, as you've proved here, is that it normally does boil down to *vulnerability* - (and i guess sharing links and thus revealing your taste, views, preferences is being vulnerable on some level) but it's really when the carefully groomed and curated image gets a good dose of natural light, and all the dustmites come into view that a more intimate transaction can result. that the observer can breath a sigh of relief in knowing that you're human and say, "wow, i know you didn't want me to see that, but thanks for trusting me enough anyway..."

as for the whole threat of your work-role defining your identity, i think a bored insurance officer (aka franz kafka) summed it up best when he said, "everything i am is literature, i can never be carried away by my job, but it can completely disrupt me"

Anne Zimmerman said...

I love so much about this. I too am into hiding, which was easy enough till my little book was published. Then I discovered that people have this urge to know about you: publicists want photos, people want tweets and blog entries and a forum for asking their burning esoteric questions. And all I did was write a biography of M.F.K. Fisher. Imagine how Franzen feels! My point is this -- I agree with your ambivalence but also agree with the notion of being stretched. I've been pushed a lot (artistically, emotionally) recently and while it's challenging to put yourself out there, there is almost always some good.
It's a crazy world we live in. I'd almost always rather stay home and cook, but...
P.S. Can't wait to read your novel someday.

The818 said...

My friend, you are so wise. Stopping is not an option, no matter how much it hurts.

Great post.

Paola said...

I LOVE THIS POST. You are inspiring. You are so real and so true. Never change. :)

Megan Taylor said...

Belgian linens? You = make my day.

Alex said...

I love your writing. I love your photos and your aesthetic. Bon Appetempt THE BOOK would make me and so many of your readers very very happy.

arpeggia said...

This post really hit the main issues I have with people who demonize online social media outlets. Of course they're not perfect, and we're all vain and pale and overweight from sitting inside and looking at pictures of ourselves all day. But social media also allows for a type of connection forming and friendship building amongst "strangers" that was impossible a few decades ago. I mean, without blogger I wouldn't get to read this blog of flawless awesomeness, and that would be a real shame. :)

Amelia Morris said...

@everyone: thanks so much for your support and thoughtful words.

@Anne Zimmerman - Thanks! and very good point... I hope someday you can read my novel. We'll see...

@Ms.Nožisková - I love that Kafka quote!

Clare Vivier said...

so great. I will repost and I hope everybody reads it. you're the best.

Talerfuchs said...

I really loved the orange liqueur sauce. Great recipte. By the way. I like your result better than the picture in the book.

Up Mama's Wall said...

This is so thoughtful and funny. Big "like"

I'm so glad a friend forwarded it me.

Also, yum.

Sunday Taylor said...

Amelia, another great post. First of all I can't believe that you made that sauce. Amazing, what a labor of love and it looked so delicious. Second, it is surprising to me that someone like Franzen can't understand the advantages of technology, even facebook, for getting one's work known. I just communicated with an 82- year-old author who just had her book published and was told by her advisors to get a twitter account, be on facebook, and start a blog. All of which she did! I will forward it to you, it's pretty incredible. I am so happy that you will continue to do what you do (via technology) and also that you wrote about it in such a powerful way. Congrats on another great piece of writing.

Alex said...

Your essay reminds me that too often I am swayed by an argument put forth by someone of 'stature.' I initially found Franzen's piece right on the mark, but you've forced me to reconsider the assertion that FB is a vacuous distraction for the "real world."

One last thing: Google "jonathan franzen like button" and see what comes up first. If that's not a triumph I don't know what is.

bigBANG studio said...

God almighty this is the best meditation on the Franzen op-ed, the Facebook age, and the possibility of humanity through the internet I've read in ages. Maybe ever.

Just stumbled over here from a link and have fallen head over heels. Smart lassie, sharp as a tack, knows her way around a Scotch bonnet. DAMN, sista.

Kimberley said...

There's so much to digest and I don't even know where to begin, except to say that this rules on so many levels. I love Jonathan Franzen a ton, including his points in that op-ed, and I love you for so effectively countering his protestations of the 'like' button here. (Major LOLs re: Oprah.) We need our little internet communities and the bizarre validation of the 'like' button, dang it. And while your reference to massage therapy may have been fleeting, it was actually my job for the better half of the last decade and I have lots of opinions about it, if you're ever of a mind. I'm also quite inspired by the insanity of that hot-sauce pepper. And 'going for what hurts' may become my new motto.

Rosie said...

I've never read you before, but I was just sent to your site from Lottie & Doof. You're kind of amazing. Thanks for writing. I'll be reading from now on.

Amelia Morris said...

@Rosie thank you!! just made my night so much sweeter.

Astrabox said...

it's so easy with the images.

allison said...

I have to sheepishly admit that I too, after 6 years of vegetarianism, broke my streak with giant, beautiful, hot wings. And it was glorious. Im beginning to think that this kind of indulgence is actually quite common. Why splurge on a well-crafted meal of meat at an expensive restaurant when you have (usually) plenty of other options in front of you on the menu that dont contain meat? No, its when you're at the bar, drinking beer with friends that someone orders the wings (or in my case, EVERYONE orders the wings) and you just cave. They smell SO GOOD. AND INDULGENT. And WHY NOT.

That's how.