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Does the house meal make the home?

cameron cavings

In January 2017, Tamar Adler, contributor to Vogue and author of An Everlasting Meal, wrote an online essay for Bon Appetit magazine called “Everyone Should Have a House Meal.” This article has since become a foundational and irreplaceable part of how I understand and value home cooking. 

But what is a house meal? Adler lays out the essentials: “A house meal must be adaptable as a chameleon, made of basic ingredients, fast, culinarily undemanding, and seem neither a sin nor a charity to consume.” 

We return to the house meal again and again, night after night. When the whole family is plagued by the flu, or it gets dark at 4 p.m., or there is hardly time enough to eat, much less prepare a full supper, the house meal is the only dinner that will suffice. Perhaps entirely subconsciously, this meal is decided upon, prepared and consumed more than any other because it fills and satisfies more than just hungry bellies. 

I can easily identify my family’s house meal: the dish my sisters and I affectionately deemed “chicken goo” when we were little. The essential ingredient is in the title, but of course there are also carrots and celery.  Onions and garlic, maybe chopped parsley or thyme and plenty of salt and freshly-cracked black pepper. There must be a broth or a gravy, something saucy to offset my parents’ most minor of sins: occasionally leaving the chicken in the oven for a few moments too long. The chicken is roasted with potatoes, ladled with egg noodles, poured over leftover Chinese-takeout rice or scooped up with a crusty hunk of that temporarily-forgotten loaf of bread.  

Without a doubt, my family ate some variation of these essential components more than once a week, no matter the season or reason. And when I’m home, nothing makes me happier than the first night we have chicken pot pie or noodle soup. Sometimes, you just need to make (and eat) some chicken goo. 

But college is a strange period of rootlessness that interrupts all sorts of routines and favorites. One of my favorite Tweets reads, “College is weird bc home doesn’t feel like home and college doesn’t feel like home so you’re basically like homeless ya know?” 

When I returned home for the first time, during winter break of my first-year, I absolutely experienced that unsettling feeling of foreignness and distance in my own house. My younger sisters were closer and had a dozen inside jokes that I hadn’t experienced; my parents had sold the trusty Toyota Sienna minivan I had driven for all of high school; friends I had known since fifth grade were oddly unrecognizable. 

But if this is no longer my home, is home now at Duke? If I can no longer claim “chicken goo,” then what is my new house meal? 

Even with senior year already settled uncomfortably but unshakably on my shoulders, there are plenty of times when I feel like this place cannot possibly be my home: when I spent my Friday night watching The Great British Baking Show but everyone in Vondy is talking about which parties they attended and what boys they kissed; when yet another wave of business-casual suits and dresses parades past and I know it’s consulting recruitment; when I see classmates not just passing but outright excelling on a level far beyond me. I have spent years wondering if I could claim this place as my home, and some days it feels like I’m the only one doubting. Maybe I simply do not have a Duke house meal.   

But as Adler writes, the best part of the house meal is its versatility. 

There is no golden standard for Wright Family Chicken Goo. For variety, it might be done with sweet potatoes or parsnips or sautéed kale from our local farmshare. There’s no recipe, and it’s never made the same way twice, and sure, there are some iterations of chicken goo that I like more than others. Part of what makes chicken goo so surprisingly delightful is how it’s different from meal to meal, and chef to chef.   

Maybe it’s not that I don’t have a Duke house meal. Maybe (and I’ll admit I like this possibility better) it’s not a single dish but a combination of every experience, class and meal I have had here. It’s the endearing awkwardness of Marketplace dinners and picnic lunches in the Gardens. It’s a hot dog at Wallace Wade, a falafel wrap from Gussy’s during P-Checks, an LDOC snow cone on the Chapel quad. It’s equal parts Cookout milkshake and Chick-fil-A nuggets (briefly leaving politics far, far to the side). It’s absolutely anything from Div Café or The Loop.   

I still feel out of place sometimes, both in my childhood and college homes. I still wonder if I’m doing “the Duke thing” right, talking to the right people, taking the right classes. But having studied and laughed and cried and loved and eaten in this place for the last three years, I do know that like any family’s house meal, there is not one way to make your four years at Duke.  Chicken goo changes every time, and is all the better for it.

Gretchen Wright is a Trinity senior who is very much hoping her mother is not offended by calling her cooking "goo." Her column, “cameron cravings,” runs on alternate Thursdays.


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