Primates of Park Avenue / Roast Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

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This week’s recipe: Roast Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

You may not know it from my lengthy disquisitions on Say Yes to the Dress, but to quote the President, I’m, like, a smart person. I just finished an 800-page biography of Josef Stalin. Some of my favorite books are about North Korean defectors; young women living in the South Bronx at the height of the crack boom; parenting children with conditions including deafness, dwarfism, autism, and schizophrenia; and the meth epidemic in rural Iowa. I find depressing books to be their own form of escapism—I read them and think, Well, my life’s not so bad! But I’m only human, and sometimes I like to read actual escapist books.

Which brings me to Primates of Park Avenue. You may remember it from the explosive “wife bonus” op-ed the book’s author, Wednesday Martin, published in the New York Times, alleging that masters of the universe on the Upper East Side pay their wives an annual stipend based on how well they’ve performed their domestic (and, by implication, sexual) duties that year. This was, if you’re feeling charitable, an exaggeration, and if you’re not, a fabrication, but it got the book a lot of publicity. We were discussing it around the office—I work in the development department of a hospital, and we theorized that some of our donors might be mentioned in the book—and so decided to order it for “research” purposes. It’s been sitting on my coworker’s desk for a year and a half, and when she moved desks last week and put all of her books out for anyone to take, I decided that I was going to spend my lazy Sunday at home curled up with Wednesday Martin and her tribe of bitchy Upper East Side moms.

The conceit of the book is that Martin, who has an undergraduate degree in anthropology, observes the rituals and behavior of Upper East Side moms as would an anthropologist embedded in a foreign culture or a primatologist studying a group of chimps. It’s pretty thin as framing devices go, but she clearly needed some way to make herself stand out from the pack, whether that’s differentiating herself from other Upper East Side private school moms or her publisher differentiating her book from the dozens of other novels and tell-alls that have been written about Upper East Side private school moms. I read the whole thing in a day so I’m not going to act like I’m above it, but it ultimately made me kind of angry, for spoiler-y reasons I will further explain below. But first, the superficial problems:

-The author’s name is Wednesday, which is just stupid. We don’t get to pick our own names so I wouldn’t blame her for that one, except that her name is actually Wendy. Why she changed it, I cannot say. Maybe she is a big fan of the Addams family. But it’s still stupid.

-For someone joining a tribe whose members’ lives ostensibly revolve around their children, Martin writes remarkably little about actual mothering (she has a full-time nanny). Her husband and sons are barely there, to the point that you never learn their names. The fact that she has two stepdaughters—a fact about which she wrote an entire previous book—is literally never mentioned.

-The ridiculous, coy non-name-dropping name-dropping (we get it, your kids go to the 92nd Street Y preschool; the lady who marched into Hermes demanding a Birkin bag was Jessica Seinfeld; etc.)

Despite this, were it not for its last 40 pages, Primates of Park Avenue would have been fluffy, enjoyable, occasionally funny but mostly forgettable trash. But in the last chapter, Martin gets unexpectedly pregnant and then loses the baby at six months. As she processes her grief at this awful heartbreak, other mothers come forward to support her and share their own stories of loss. She realizes that even being the “perfect” Upper East mom, living in the greatest state of comfort and ecological release of all time, doesn’t protect you from nature. It’s a very sad story, and it’s also infuriatingly manipulative. She’s spent a whole book telling us that Upper East Side women are cliquey, competitive, petty social climbers, and then blammo, tragedy strikes and suddenly it’s all rah-rah sisterhood, the power of female friendships! The bar for friendship here—being nice to someone after they’ve faced a terrible loss—is pretty low. But I resented the use of the loss of a baby, one of the saddest and most difficult things a woman can go through, as a device to add gravitas to a book that devotes literally an entire chapter to the author’s quest to obtain a Birkin bag. And what sort of moral is that: the best way to fit in with Upper East Side mothers is to have a miscarriage?

No—the best way to fit in with Upper East Side mothers is to be an Upper East Side mother, which Martin, for all her pretensions to ethnography, undoubtedly is. The apartment on Park Avenue with a dedicated handbag closet; the kids at the Y; the designer clothes; the classes at Physique 57; the house in the Hamptons; the Birkin bag—what, exactly, distinguishes Martin from the moms she’s lampooning? (It’s the same reason I couldn’t get into the show Odd Mom Out, even though lots of people have recommended it to me; the gist seems to be, “I’m not anything like those skinny, rich, blonde, Upper East Side moms; I’m a skinny, rich, brunette, Upper East Side mom.” Talk about the narcissism of minor differences.) Because make no mistake; up until the last chapter, when everyone suddenly discovers empathy, every person Martin encounters is a walking stereotype. Martin claims that every woman who lives in a certain zip code acts a certain way, when it’s closer to the truth to say that no one in that zip code acts that way. No one meets a new neighbor for the first time and then trills, “We’ll see you in Palm Beach! Oh, you don’t go to Palm Beach? Aspen, then!” Seriously, who the fuck talks like that outside of overdone fiction?

If Martin hadn’t insisted on making her point no matter how much it strained credibility, there could be an interesting book in here somewhere. The caricature of a rich man’s wife is a dumb blond gold-digger with inflatable breasts who is half her husband’s age. That’s not accurate now, if it ever was. Sure, ugly divorces followed by much younger second wives are not unheard of in high society. But as I’ve learned over the last few years fundraising for a hospital that is a prominent high-society cause, most of today’s socialites were yesterday’s MBA, JD, and Ph.D. candidates. Many of them worked in high-powered finance or corporate jobs before they had kids, and they’re not any dumber or less ambitious just because they’re no longer working. Instead, they pour their drive into raising their children, perfecting their bodies, and volunteering or charity. Your children inevitably age, you inevitably age, and your ability to have a meaningful philanthropic impact is entirely dependent on your husband’s earning potential—what does it mean to live such a contingent existence?

Martin isn’t interested in probing that deep, instead using her miscarriage to wring pathos out of a story in which she is otherwise a mostly unsympathetic protagonist and all of the other characters are vicious, one-dimensional nightmares. She acts as though forces beyond her control turned her into a stereotypical Upper East Side mom, but I know from personal experience that she had more agency than she lets on. I grew up in Martin’s milieu, or at least adjacent to it. Like her children, I went to the Y for preschool, which definitely had its ridiculous moments—as a (nominally) Jewish school, they would do family Shabbat services on Friday afternoons every once in a while, and one of the mothers asked if they could please move Shabbat to Tuesdays because the current schedule made it difficult to get out to the Hamptons for the weekend. I went to what Martin would call a “top-tier” private school, where bar mitzvahs that cost more than the average wedding were common and yes, our after-prom was in those ubiquitous Hamptons. Martin even calls out the building I grew up in as being home to “titans of industry and their socialite wives” (as anyone who has ever seen my mother pad around the Upper West Side in her New York Stem Cell Foundation t-shirt and leggings with holes in them can attest, that description is absolutely accurate!) Yet somehow, my parents—or my mother in particular—never answered the siren song of plastic surgery, $30,000 handbags, vacations in Aspen, or catered, booze-soaked “girls’ nights” to relax from the stress of being a non-working mother with full-time help. Despite raising their children amidst all this privilege, my parents managed to maintain their values and their identity. Point being, I know Martin wants friends, for herself and her children, but she made a choice to live this insane lifestyle. She acts as though the choices available are to “go native” or be a social pariah, but there’s a third option called “having a life that doesn’t revolve around your children.” My parents were friendly with some of our classmates’ parents, but their real friends were people from work, people from the synagogue, people they had known since college. Maybe the skinny class moms with their designer clothes and blowouts thought my mother was dumpy and weird, but her sense of self-worth didn’t revolve around their acceptance, and ultimately, my parents didn’t need to wait for tragedy to hit them to feel like they were surrounded by an actual community.

A final note: I somehow managed never to go to the Hamptons until after I had graduated from college, when I visited a friend’s house in Southampton. Her neighbor on one side was Calvin Klein; her neighbor on the other side was David Koch. I was lounging in her infinity pool, talking to her mother about how beautiful the house was, and her mother casually said, “Yeah, we really love Southampton because it’s not so fancy.” I was tempted to gulp up some of the pool water, just so I could do a spit take. I understood what she meant—that it wasn’t old money—but at the time I was working in publishing, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there were vases in her house that probably cost more than what I made in a year. It brought home to me an important truth that applies equally to my friend’s mother in the Hamptons, to Wednesday Martin on the Upper East Side, and to me with my private school upbringing: no matter how much money you make, no matter how much advantage you enjoy, no matter how much prestige you garner, no matter how high you climb, no one ever sees themselves as “fancy.” In the abstract, we may be aware that we are incredibly privileged and that our lifestyles are foreign to 99 percent of Americans. Nevertheless, we feel that there’s always someone else out there who is the real snob, who is the real elite, whose way of living is just so ridiculous and over the top. Because of this universal bias towards seeing ourselves as “normal,” I doubt that the mothers in Martin’s book would even recognize themselves in her depictions of them.

So anyway, here’s some chicken. I’m bummed that I couldn’t get a better picture because this was honestly one of the most gorgeous-looking dishes I’ve ever made–and tasty, to boot! I highly recommend you check out the original photography on the Feast and Fable blog to see how beautiful this chicken truly is. Colorful sides, crispy golden skin, lovely sage garnish, what else could you ask for? Being a kosher eater, I substituted the butter for Earth Balance margarine, but I don’t think the dish suffered at all. Make this next time you want to impress your guests!

Roast Chicken with Rainbow Carrots and Potatoes

From Feast and Fable

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 4-6 lb roasting chicken
  • 1 large bunch of fresh thyme (15-20 sprigs)
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • 1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, cubed (or margarine if you’re kosher)
  • 2 Tbsp. butter, melted (or margarine if you’re kosher)
  • Olive oil
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 lb. bag baby rainbow carrots or 6-8 medium carrots. Halved and cut into pieces.
  • 1 lb. red, purple or fingerling potatoes (or a medley of all three as shown), cut in half or quartered, if large
  • 1 onion, cut in quarters and peeled into petals
  • 1 bunch fresh sage leaves
  • Optional: Fleur de Sel

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Lightly oil a large baking dish. Place carrots, onion petals and potatoes in the dish. Season with salt, pepper and fresh or dried herbs to your liking. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat evenly.
  3. To prepare the chicken, first remove the giblets. Rinse the chicken inside and out in cool water and pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Liberally salt and pepper the inside of the chicken. Stuff the cavity with 15-20 sprigs of thyme and add the lemon, garlic and cubed butter.
  5. Brush the outside of the chicken with the melted butter and tie the legs together. (I did not have kitchen string on hand so I opted out of this step.)
  6. Salt and pepper the outside liberally. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables and tuck the wings underneath the body (just like how you cross your arms behind your head when sunning at the beach).
  7. Place in the lower third of the oven and roast for 1.5 hours. After 45 minutes, baste or brush the chicken with the pan’s drippings and continue roasting for another 30-45 minutes. I basted my chicken one more time and stirred the vegetables to get an equal roast.
  8. Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Once heated, drop one sage leaf into the oil using tongs and cook 5 seconds on each side. The leaf should sizzle in the oil and crisp up quickly, but not yellow. If yellow, your oil is too hot. Once your heat is right, crisp up the remaining sage leaves and place on a plate lined with paper towels to cool. Then sprinkle with Fleur de Sel or a nice, coarse finishing salt.
  9. The chicken is done when a thermometer reads between 160 – 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Once cooked, remove from the oven and let set for 20 minutes before slicing.
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