Cooking For Your Cat: Country Captain

RFT staff writer Aimee Levitt and her cat, Bess, continue their culinary adventure.

Like many people who are obsessed with both food and news, I am a regular reader of the New York Times' Dining & Wine section. At first I was just a passive consumer of food lore, but gradually over the past year, I have begun attempting some of the recipes on my own.

The latest was Country Captain. I did not intend to share it with Bess. It just seemed like a good way to occupy a wintry Saturday night. It required the stove and oven to be on for several hours. My apartment was warm.

(The Times claimed it was "an elegant dinner of no great complication", but "complication" is a term upon which the Times and I frequently disagree. Or, rather, I disagree. I doubt they really care.)

Country Captain, for those who are neither from the coastal South nor read the Times food section religiously, is pan-fried chicken baked in a sauce of stewed tomatoes mixed with onions, garlic, green pepper and curry and topped with various things like mango, coconut, slivered almonds and bacon. Its origins are unclear -- though I am willing to bet they lie somewhere in West Africa, along with most of Southern cooking with the possible exception of biscuits -- but it is quite beloved in Charleston and Savannah and points in between.

I was in Charleston and Savannah over Christmas. I did not see Country Captain anywhere. But perhaps it was because I was surrounded by so many other good things, like biscuits, and therefore distracted. It says something about a trip when one of the worst meals you ate was at Chik-fil-A.

Bess did not accompany us on this trip. She is, however, somewhat familiar with Southern cuisine, having spent some of her formative years on the east Florida coast, where she became widely known as the most beautiful and charming cat in our apartment complex and had some good times chasing lizards.

But I digress. Country Captain looked pretty tasty. I was also charmed that it was said to be a favorite dish of FDR while he was recuperating from polio in Warm Springs, Georgia. Not that he ever had to cook it for himself. But still.

So I chopped and stirred and dredged and simmered, and it all made me a little philosophical. Why do we cook? What's the point of going through all the trouble to produce Country Captain when Sweetie Pie's is right up the street? Is it so we can master a battery of skills? Is it so we can show off and say stuff like, Oh yeah, I know how to make a flaky pie crust, and then become the object of awe and admiration? Is it part of this deep-seated need to nourish others?

I think the real reasons I was making Country Captain, though, were: because it was really cold outside, because I was bored, because cooking is fun, because eating is fun, and because I am usually too broke to eat a good meal out. I was sort of hoping it would be deeper and more complex than that, but alas, no.

Anyway, the Country Captain, when it was done, was quite satisfying. It's a little strange, though, eating such an elaborate meal by yourself. (By which I mean, a meal that requires a knife and fork.) When I was full, I left the plate sitting on the table and went off to check my e-mail and download some pictures.

A little while later, I heard the lick lick lick sound that indicates that Bess is eating -- not only eating, but enjoying what she is eating. The sound seemed to come from a little nearer than her bowl. I looked up and, sure enough, there was Bess happy nibbling away at the remains of the Country Captain.

She really liked it. It pains me to admit it, but she seemed much more enthusiastic about it than any of the foods I cooked for her particularly.

When she caught me staring, she started and then looked up and pretended she didn't know there was a plate of food next to her. But I am stealthy. When she thought I wasn't looking, I captured some photographic evidence that she was supplementing her Purina.

Now I have a vision of sharing elaborate dinners with Bess at the kitchen table, me in a chair, her on the tabletop. Together will will eat our food and have sophisticated and lively conversations about literature and the arts and the major issues of the day. (We shall forget for a moment that Bess preferred to sleep through President Obama's inauguration and has not seen any of this year's Oscar nominees. Then again, perhaps for Bess, the inauguration meant that there would no longer be a cat in the White House and was, therefore, a source of anxiety.)

Or maybe we will enjoy a silent but companionable meal, bonding in some elemental way over the meat and rice and spices. I'm not sure if eating Country Captain gave either of us a sense of what it's like to arrive in Charleston on the night train from New York and feel the air of the South for the first time. (When I got there, it was by car, heading north from Hilton Head, and by then, we'd been breathing Southern air for several days.)

But it was nice to know that we were tasting the same thing -- the rice part anyway -- and had, in some way, overcome our eternal language barrier and understood each other perfectly. I wasn't trying to say anything in particular with Country Captain besides, This sounds good so let's try something new, but maybe, as my cooking improves, I'll be able to come up with my own things to say.

And maybe that's why we cook.

Home Cooking: 5 (possibly 6), Purina: 6, Starbucks: 0
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