I came across a brief synopsis of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert some months ago and was immediately drawn by the description. I may be one of the few people left who has not read Eat, Pray, Love but as someone who is always game for a good work of period fiction, The Signature of All Things seemed nothing short of glorious.
The Signature of All Things follows Alma Whittaker, the fiercely intelligent daughter of Henry Whittaker, an Englishman born to little means who makes a fortune in the botanical trade and becomes the richest man in Philadelphia. Alma inherits the same gift for botany as her father, spending countless hours during her childhood studying the plants on the family estate and learning to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. Alma lives an idyllic life at White Acre until the abrupt arrival and adoption of the startlingly beautiful Prudence and, later, the quirky and whimsical Retta Snow, who forges an unlikely friendship with the Whittaker sisters.
We then fast forward 26 years to 1848 (this book is an epic tome, spanning more than eighty years). In that time, Alma establishes herself as an expert on mosses, publishing two books and beginning work on her third, when Ambrose Pike appears on the scene. This naturalist and painter who makes “the most exquisite renditions of orchids [Alma has] ever seen” turns the ordered world Alma inhabits into chaos with his ideas of the divine. When their short-lived marriage ends in heartbreak, Alma embarks on a path to recovery that takes her on the journey of a lifetime from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam and into the throes of the industrial era.
The Signature of All Things is a literary masterpiece, rich in description and expansive in breadth. While the second half of the book appears somewhat less plausible, we find ourselves captivated all the same by the poetic narrative and a cast of fascinating characters. And we find ourselves rooting for Alma as she makes a name for herself in a world so obviously dominated by men.
It is easy to see that even though Alma is the central figure in this book, she often takes a backseat to other characters, from her sister Prudence — who we are told is as beautiful as Alma is plain — to the men in her field for no reason other than that she is a woman. But Alma makes up in intellect what she lacks in appearance and these simple chicken sandwiches are no different. This chicken spread is nothing if not plain but the taste is a study in flavors. And, like the slow growing mosses Alma so carefully studies, the longer the mixture cooks on the stovetop, the more gloriously complex it becomes.
BUTTERY CHICKEN SANDWICHES
- 3/4 lb boneless chicken legs and thighs
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 4 tablespoons light mayonnaise
Place chicken in a medium saucepan and add enough water to cover the chicken. Cook on stovetop over medium heat until one cup of stock remains. Separate stock from chicken and shred chicken.
Melt butter in a separate saucepan over low heat. Add 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour; stir until smooth. Add salt and pepper.
Add stock; let mixture thicken.
Add shredded chicken to stock mixture and cook for about 45 minutes on low heat. Remove from heat; let cool.
Add 4 tablespoons mayonnaise. Add more to taste.
Serve on bread.
Note: This is a recipe I learned from my mom. She rarely cooks by the book and often adds more or less of a particular ingredient based on taste preference. This recipe offers general guidelines but I would suggest experimenting with quantities and cook times to cater it to taste and desired consistency. After all, this is a book about the glories of botanical science and what better recipe to illustrate this than one that is based on experimentation?