When I was a skinny kid growing up on a farm in Northern California, the ballgames on the radio kept me company, whether I was hoeing weeds or flinging a rubber ball against the sliding, wood shanty door.
A baseball broadcast hews to a rhythm — long, languid, dreamy patches, punctuated by frissons of excitement when the batter sends one on a deep arc, maybe, just maybe this time, headed for the stands. The announcers become faithful companions. When there’s a game on the radio, you’re never alone.
It was a major event in our house for us to drive the hour-and-a-half out to San Francisco a few times each summer to see a Giants game in person at the ill-conceived, wind-strafed concrete hulk on the bay called Candlestick Park. It was a dump. But it was our dump, and I loved it.
In those days, ballpark fare was atrocious. Limp, boiled hot dogs on soggy buns. Flaccid, lukewarm fries. My mother could not abide. And so before each game, Norma Roig packed elaborate picnic lunches to properly sustain us while watching the game. Tortilla Española, stuffed zucchini, rice torta and this simple, silly dish that, of course, my little brothers and I adored: We named it Baseball Chicken.
As the years have gone along, I always crave those flavors when the ballplayers finally — finally! — start to make their way to Arizona or Florida for spring training and to limber up for Opening Day. But this year, with the ballparks gone quiet — just one of the many life-altering consequences of the coronavirus pandemic — I find myself drawn to the kitchen for different reasons. Not to recapture the tastes of my youth, as in years past. But this year to fill a cavernous void, for baseball has always been the background music of my life. And this is the year that it hasn’t joined me while I putter in the garden or chop onions.
I found myself one recent afternoon overcome by nostalgia, mopey about the absence of ballgames and thinking about that Baseball Chicken.
Baseball Chicken is oven-fried chicken. It starts with a whole chicken. Not a bunch of chicken parts, neatly corralled in plastic wrap at the grocery store. No, this is a recipe that requires tools: kitchen shears that can crunch through the ribs along the backbone and a chef’s knife that can precisely split the breastbone — cartilage and all — and separate leg from thigh. (You can take a shortcut, though, and buy the chicken already cut up.)
Once I laid out the pieces, I ran into a problem I should have thought about before I’d even begun, and should have remembered. The recipe asks for me to jostle the chicken in a paper bag. But in this era of environmental awareness, I bring my own reusable canvas bags to the grocery store. I spent 15 minutes rummaging around the basement for a paper bag that I must have gotten one time when I forgot to bring my own totes.
Back on track, I popped outside to my kitchen garden to snip some rosemary. Once I had the rosemary, I assembled the rest of the ingredients in a bowl: cornmeal and garlic powder, some salt, pepper and paprika, and then the most 1970s ingredient of all: biscuit mix. I dipped the chicken pieces in melted butter, tossed them in the paper bag of dry ingredients and spices, then slipped them into the oven.
An hour later, I pulled the chicken from the oven. Crispy skin on the outside, with a dusky, flavorful coating; succulently moist on the inside. I was transported back to my childhood. As I did in those days, when no one was looking, I was just a little naughty. I ran my finger over the roasting rack, liberating the caramelized drippings and the toasty residue of the biscuit mix and spices, then licking my fingers.
I swam in the scents of rosemary and memory.
It smelled like baseball.