Key Ingredient: Radical Empathy

I have this friend -- let's call her Martha, as in Martha Stewart -- who I've known forever. And when I go to her house, it always looks like it's ready to be shot for a fancy design magazine: immaculate kitchen counters, lovely candle burning, bookshelves styled just so, and an honest-to-goodness glass dome with homemade cookies inside just sitting on her kitchen island. When she hosts us for dinner, she offers an individually mixed cocktail, followed by an interesting salad, followed by a thoughtfully planned and wonderfully executed meal, somehow healthy and indulgent at the same time, and she does it with grace. She's the kind of person who can whip up a meal from scratch while managing a few kids underfoot and still holding up her end of the conversation, who will send you home with some sort of artfully tied favor that you didn't even know you wanted but you love at first sight. When you leave her house, you feel spoiled, nourished, taken care of. 

I have this other friend -- let's call her Kristen, as in Kristen Wiig -- who I've known for a few years. And when I go to her house, the kitchen is charming and tiny, with 1930s cabinets and a whole wall covered with kids' artwork and happy photos. When she hosts us for dinner (or, more likely, an afternoon of football-watching), there's a mishmash of beer in the fridge and a Bloody Mary bar where you help yourself. She offers a veggie tray she bought at the grocery store and you pile take-out pizza onto paper plates before you settle into comfortable couches in the family room. She's the kind of person who has you in stitches half the afternoon, who will bring you a second beer while showing you her favorite SNL skit on YouTube and offering to loan you a necklace for that work thing you have next week, who will send you home with a foil-wrapped plate of leftover pizza for lunch tomorrow. When you leave her house, you feel lighter, relaxed, taken care of.

I was thinking about both these friends last Sunday as I stood in the kitchen (after church, after the soccer game), pounding chicken breasts thin. See, I was making Martha's chicken for Kirsten's family, who was coming over for Sunday supper. The recipe is one that Martha made for me at her house for one of our annual college girlfriend weekends, and, true to form, she whipped it up while the rest of us were standing around the kitchen, drinking wine and being generally unhelpful. It's the kind of dish that seems fancy but really isn't hard to make, and all of us immediately loved it and wanted the recipe, which Martha subsequently printed out on adorable card stock and mailed to each of us.

In the introduction to the book Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (Go read it. Immediately. Unless you're easily offended by the f-word.), writer Steve Almond says this about Strayed's wide appeal as Dear Sugar, the advice columnist name she'd been hiding behind for some time:

I happen to believe that America is dying of loneliness, that we, as a people, have bought into the false dream of convenience, and turned away from a deep engagement with our internal lives — those fountains of inconvenient feeling — and toward the frantic enticements of what our friends in the Greed Business call the Free Market.

We're hurtling through time and space and information faster and faster, seeking that network connection. But at the same time we're falling away from our families and our neighbors and ourselves. We ego-surf and update our status and brush up on which celebrities are ruining themselves, and how. But the cure won't stick.

The cure, Almond goes on to say, is Strayed's "radical empathy," the feeling that she gives to those who write in with their difficult situations that, with time or patience or a bit of perspective, things are going to be OK. And, having read the book a few times myself and lent it to several people, I think the way Strayed does it is by opening up her own stories and imperfections to the advice seeker. Instead of maintaining a professional distance from the situation, she shares the messy past of her own life. She says, I went through something like that too, and here's how I got through it. She says, I see you, and you're normal, and you can do this. She writes to these people as though she's talking to them across her kitchen table. She makes them feel taken care of.

So Almond is right, I think, that this kind of connection and radical empathy is the cure to the loneliness that's lurking beneath the fast-paced lives we're living. And it's the reason that, given the choice between spending the evening having a meal with Martha or Kristen, I would happily choose either. It's not about the food, really, or the cleanliness of the kitchen or whether or not the dessert is homemade. It's about spending time with the people who love you best, who welcome you into their homes, and who send you back out into the world again feeling cared for. Nourished. Understood. It's about offering people radical empathy along with whatever you're having for dinner, whether it's take-out pizza or hand-pounded chicken.

To serve eight, I doubled the recipe, swapped Parmesan for Asiago, and served the chicken over a big platter of fettuccine, with the sage sauce on the side.

Chicken with Asiago, Prosciutto, and Sage

  • 4 small skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pounded to 1/4-inch thickness
  • all-purpose flour
  • 6 T butter, divided
  • 1/2 c. finely grated Asiago cheese
  • 8 thin slices prosciutto, folded over crosswise
  • 2/3 c. dry white wine
  • 2 t. minced fresh sage
  • 4 whole sage leaves for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Coat both sides with flour, shaking off excess. Melt 4 T. butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken breasts and sauté until brown, turning once, about 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper; reserve skillet. Sprinkle 2 T. cheese over each chicken breast. Top each with 2 prosciutto slices. Bake until chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, add wine, minced sage, and 2 T. butter to skillet. Stir, scraping up browned bits, and boil until sauce is reduced to 1/3 cup, about 4 minutes.

Transfer chicken to platter. Top each with sage leave, drizzle pan sauce over, and serve.