Skip to main content

Betsy Block


The Spare Wife

Coming in July 2008 from Algonquin Books:
The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World

If you'd like to receive (infrequent and very short) e-mails when I have pieces in real publications, and when my book comes out this summer, sign up here.

I've been a fan of Alex Witchel's for 20 years, or ever since one of her articles in the New York Times' Dining section had me laughing out loud on a flight south, which was especially impressive because when I wasn't laughing, I was clutching the armrest and wondering if the end was near on what turned out to be a very bumpy trip.

That was the first time I ever realized that food writing could be so smart and funny; not to mention, blessedly distracting when you think you might die. Sadly, because I have the memory of a 90-year-old woman, I can't recall what the article was about, but I can say that I've never forgotten the exhilaration I felt while reading it, and that I've kept an eye out for Alex Witchel's byline ever since. True, I probably missed out on some of her work when I stopped reading the paper for that one decade when I was raising young kids. I never stopped loving her writing, though. So naturally I was excited when I learned that Alex Witchel has just published her second novel,  The Spare Wife.

But when the book arrived the other day, there was a problem.

On the one hand, I'd been anxiously awaiting its arrival ever since I found out about it a month ago; on the other, I was surrounded by the detritus of my life, all of which needed my immediate attention: two baskets of unfolded (and wrinkled) laundry; crumbs, dishes and pajamas left over from the morning rush; food that needed to be prepped for the neighbors we were having over for dinner that night. The grayness of the day wasn't helping anything; nor was the snow. (Enough with the stinking snow already.) I didn't know it yet, but my afternoon would also include last-minute invitations for two middle school boys to sleep over after the school dance, which also meant more mouths to feed (and clean up after) before our guests arrived. Last, but certainly not least, the unopened New Yorker silently mocked me from the table where it had landed the day before.

I looked around at all of it and thought, Eh, forget cleaning and intellectual correctness. I need a break. I gleefully pulled The Spare Wife out of its box, made a cup of hot tea (using the New Yorker as a coaster), and plunked myself down in our oversized living room chair. For the first time in far too long, I could feel myself start to relax. With characters named Ponce and Shawsie and Red featured in fabulous dinner parties, torrid affairs, and glamorous New York apartments, I knew it would be the perfect midwinter escape. I was right. By Sunday afternoon, even with cleaning and hosting and all the other usual weekend busyness, I'd managed to devour all four years of Witchel's work. (That's what kids' TV is for, right?) It was a delicious binge, only without any regret afterwards. It was just what I needed.

And somehow, as it almost always does, everything got done anyway: boys ate, danced and slept (a little); friends left our house with stomachs that were fuller than when they came; and the house was acceptably, if not impeccably, in order. Best of all, the sun was streaming in through the window and I could actually hear birds chirping. Really, I thought as I swept the kitchen floor on  Sunday evening without even a hint of midlife bitterness, spring might be here sooner than I'd thought.

The Spare Wife

This is the chicken we served our neighbors on the night of my great literary escape. Even after taking time to start reading The Spare Wife, I was still able to tidy up the house and get the bird in the oven in time for everything to come off smoothly. Mostly that's because the prep for this dish takes about five minutes in the morning – prep that kind of traumatized Maya, it's true ("What are you doing, Mommy? Daddy, why is Mom putting pudding on the chicken?"), but that resulted in an incredibly delicious meal nonetheless. With time for a much-needed break thrown in as a bonus.

Roast Chicken with Egyptian Flavors

Adapted from Jewish Living magazine's premier issue

Serves 4

1 3-4 pound whole chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 lemon
2 medium onions, sliced

1. Dry the chicken inside and out. Gently loosen the skin over the breast and thighs, being careful not to tear it.
2. Combine 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with the cardamom, cinnamon and pepper ins a small dish and spread it evenly in the cavity and under the skin of the breast and thigh. Spread a very thin layer over the outside of the chicken, then sprinkle it with salt. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. (This is where I shocked Maya.)
3. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Pat the chicken dry. Wash and dry the lemon, roll it between your palm and your work surface, then prick it a few times with a fork. Place the lemon in the cavity of the chicken. Spread the onion slices in the bottom of a medium roasting pan. Place the chicken, breast side up, on top of the onions and rub it with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil.
4. Roast until an instant-read thermometer, placed in the thickest past of the thigh, reads 160 degrees (45 minutes to an hour), basting occasionally. Let rest for 10 minutes.

One of the best parts about having whole roast chicken for dinner is the stock we make afterwards. But, I thought, this batch will be weird, what with the cinnamon and cardamom. I made it anyway, then decided to use it as the base for winter squash soup. I topped the soup with store-bought duck confit. It was pretty darn good.