Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chicken a la King (or: Towards a "Creative Temple" of Conscience)

A few days ago, I had the quixotic notion to veganize this 1960s dinner classic, and since I was A. cooking while snowed in on the day after his birthday, and B. had been reading, hearing, and thinking a lot about him (as one does this time of year), I briefly entertained the waggish notion of christening it "Chicken a la Martin Luther King, Jr." Cognizant that such an idea could be misinterpreted as trivializing or disrespectful, I dismissed it, but I would like to take a few minutes to think about Dr King's message of freedom and justice for all. (And yes, we'll get to the recipe; patience, as the saying goes, is a virtue.)

OMarch 3, 1968, barely a month before he was assassinated, King delivered a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on the subject of "Unfulfilled Dreams," which began with the proposition

“Whenever you set out to build a creative temple, whatever it may be, you must face the fact that there is a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil." 

This is a compelling notion; whether or not we believe in a religious interpretation of concepts like "good" and "evil," most of us can relate to the ongoing internal struggle between what we would do, and what we actually do. He went on to speak of the constant uphill battle to be compassionate, kind, and charitable when "something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate." He described this struggle as "a civil war...a schizophrenia" going on inside each and every one of us, but also addressed the importance of trying to be our best selves, of being able to honestly say that we are doing our utmost to be the people we wish to be, in spite of that "something" pulling on us to be just the opposite. 

Although he was most famous as a civil rights leader, King was also an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, and spoke out passionately against the war in Vietnam before what became known as the "peace movement" was getting much press. King's appreciation for the importance of what we now term intersectionality is striking, and he came in for a fair bit of abuse for stepping out of what many considered his "field." But despite harsh criticism - and growing pressure from civil rights allies as well as the US government - he continued to stress a recurring theme: the importance of being clear in one's conscience. Again and again, King encouraged  listeners to "get your hearts right" and work towards a place where the person in the mirror is someone we are not ashamed to acknowledge, although we inevitably fall short of perfection. 

It can often feel - especially in our increasingly polarized political climate - that we are actively encouraged  to feel hatred. Hatred for those who are different from us, who disagree with us, whose choices make us examine our own behavior in uncomfortable ways, or whose beliefs threaten our assumptions of how things "should" be. I often think that, for my generation's grandchildren, things like marriage equality and animal rights will be "issues" they look back on and say, "what the hell was that about?" in the way that I grew up viewing the civil rights movement: something so basic, so obvious, that the idea of disputing it is ludicrous. 

Yet all too often it's painfully apparent that we aren't anywhere close to that day yet: not in terms of civil rights, or women's rights, or LGBT rights, or so many other categories of human rights, let alone the rights of non-human animals. But I still insist on imagining such a time, and on hoping that someday the idea of eating animals will occupy a similar place in our collective social conscience to the one held by slavery, segregation, and all types of inequality and injustice. And that all thinking people will be aghast that living creatures were ever treated so cruelly in a putatively "civilized" society. 

And there are signs that, as a culture, we are beginning to think more carefully about what, how, and who we eat. It's worth noting in the context of this post that Dr King's own son, Dexter Scott King, has been a vegan and an animal rights activist since the 1980s, and Coretta Scott King was inspired to stop consuming animal products in the final decade of her life, as part of her enduring commitment to non-violence

As Mahatma Gandhi put it (in a quote beloved by vegans everywhere), "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated," and in his sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King invoked the "powerful non-violent revolution" that Gandhi had "labored for years and years" to bring about. Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a nation - in a world - where we could embrace such non-violence towards everyone? A world that could acknowledge the right of all creatures to live free from torture, exploitation, and objectification?

Unfortunately, our deeply anthropocentric world has yet to take that message on board about our fellow humans - much less our furry, feathered, finned, and scaly friends - so we have a long way to go for such a dream to be realized. But we have to keep dreaming it, and more than that, we have to do something to bring it about. All we can do is our best, all we can do is try, but we have an obligation to do at least that much, and to hope a time comes when we can "Get somebody to be able to say about [us]: 'He may not have reached the highest height, he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried...He tried to be a good man...He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place.'” 

And that, my friends, is why the "chicken" in my Chicken a la King is made of soybeans. So now let's cook some dinner, because building a more peaceful world takes fuel.

Chicken a la King for a peaceful world
~ 3 cups "no chicken" broth
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 1 tsp. tarragon
~ 1/2 tsp. each: salt, thyme, marjoram
~ Pinch nutmeg
~ A few grinds black pepper
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance
~ 2 cups chopped shallots
~ 1/2 cup finely diced celery
~ 2 cups chopped mushrooms
~ 1/4 cup flour
~ 1/4 tsp. turmeric
~ 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. dry sherry
~ 2 tsp. white truffle oil (optional, but swanky) 
~ 2.5 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 tsp. corn starch
~ 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
~ 1 tbsp. parsley

~ In a beaker, combine the soy curls, broth, bay leaves, salt, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, nutmeg, and black pepper.
~ Cover and bring to a boil in the microwave, or in a pot on the stove top.
~ Allow to sit, covered, for at least an hour (the longer the better), until the liquid is mostly absorbed.
~ Drain the soy curls and set aside, reserving the marinade.
~ Combine the marinade with 2 cups of the soy milk, and heat to nearly boiling. Set aside.
~ In a large, deep skillet, melt the margarine over medium-high heat; saute the shallots, celery, and mushrooms for 5-7 minutes, until softened.
~ Stir in the flour and the turmeric, and cook for about 1 minute.
~ Add the 1/4 cup sherry and the white truffle oil (if using), and cook another minute.
~ Begin adding the marinade/soy milk mixture about a cup at a time, stirring constantly with each addition to prevent lumps.
~ In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 1/2 cup soy milk and the corn starch, then add to the sauce. Mix thoroughly and cook another 5 minutes, until slightly thickened (we're looking for a gravy-like texture).
~ Add the drained soy curls and cook another 5 minutes or so, until hot.
~ Stir in the remaining 2 tbsp. sherry, the lemon juice, and the parsley.
~ Serve hot over rice, noodles, or (my strong recommendation) biscuits


  1. Your post is lovely. I'm also excited to see the Chicken a la King recipe--I never cared for the dish as a child, but my mother made it often, so I bet she's missing it now that she's gone vegan. I'll pass it on!

  2. Aw, thanks. <3 My mother used to make it pretty often as well, but she always put peas in it, which I hated as a kid. I don't mind them now, but didn't have any and decided to just skip them. It is so cool that your mom has gone vegan; you must be thrilled!

  3. Very well said. I've had conversations about which aspects of our society, which norms, will seem absurd to future generations. I agree that gay rights/marriage rights will the primary one. I love that more people are seeing King's legacy as one of all encompassing civility.

  4. I am thrilled! It has been a strange (but great) transition from learning how to cook from my mother to now telling her how to use flax meal in baking, etc. Similar to your mother's peas, there was always a jar of pimentos added to my mother's Chicken a la King that I didn't enjoy; I was glad to see no trace of them here.