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The Recipe That Taught Me to Embrace Holiday Chaos Involves Upside-Down Poultry

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

By Aimee Agresti

I’m not the kind of person who shares recipes. Because I’m not the kind of person who’s great at things like cooking. In fact, I managed to evade all culinary responsibility for 41 Christmases until my streak ended a few years ago. That’s when I stumbled upon the perfect holiday main course: The (Inadvertently) Upside-Down Chicken.

Sure, there are legitimate upside-down chicken recipes out there by people who know what they’re talking about — people who roast their birds this way on purpose, to ensure juiciness and crispy skin. But mine — born of confusion, and ineptitude and pairing well with mid-to-post-pandemic normality, and, of course, wine — has the better origin story.

When my parents recently downsized to an apartment, I began hosting Christmas dinner at our place with my husband and our two boys. My sister, Karen, and I delighted in this torch-passing, devising the menu together, dividing the dishes. We briefly considered a turkey but quickly dialed down our ambition and decided to just roast the biggest chicken we could find and whip up a whole mess of appetizers and side dishes in case our main course was inedible.

Technically neither of us had ever made a roast chicken, but how hard could it be? I found a recipe that seemed easy enough, with herbs echoing the lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” — parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. But actually, hold the rosemary because you’ve never met anyone who hates rosemary more than my mother.

What Mom did love was not having to cook. But she still harbored concerns that extended beyond seasonings. “May I suggest buying the chicken early?” she gently admonished me on the phone weeks in advance. “You don’t want to go to the supermarket on Christmas morning and there’s no chicken.” Did she think I was still that girl who made her drive me to the local library for books on how to build an erupting volcano the night before my erupting volcano was due? Well, she was right. I am the world’s most boring adrenaline junkie, who will cut every deadline alarmingly close for the sheer thrill of it. So this was useful advice.

I gathered my ingredients a full four days early and on Christmas Eve morning remained smugly confident as I searched my cabinets for the roasting pan I was sure I had registered for and received when Brian and I wed a dozen years earlier.

When I finally found it — being used as a storage bin for a margarita glass so large it doubled as a vase and a ceramic serving bowl of Chewbacca’s head — it turned out not to be a roasting pan at all, but rather a lasagna pan. Why did I have this instead of a roasting pan? How much lasagna did I expect to be making in my married life? I had only made it once (pre-pan/pre-marriage) and it was such a fiasco I had to phone a friend midway through for guidance on whether the egg (???) the recipe called for was an absolute necessity because it turned out I didn’t have any eggs at that particular time.

To my untrained eye, this lasagna pan looked like a solid stand-in for a roaster. Though it didn’t have a roasting rack, which was something I allegedly needed.

A quick online search yielded a bendy silicone laurel wreath-shaped gadget that my chicken could comfortably lounge upon while roasting. There was one left at a store across the street from my sister’s apartment. I called Karen, who promised to bring it along with all the other stuff she was transporting later that day.

“Karen’s getting this Julius-Caesar-crown-looking-thing to make the chicken on, to put it on? In the oven?” I reported to Brian, trying to sound like I had this in the bag.

“There’ll be plenty of food,” he said, sipping his coffee, scrolling headlines. “It’ll be great.” Since this had seemed like a breeze, I had instructed him simply to eat, drink, and be merry.

“She’s dropping it off with the sides she made,” I went on, crossing “roasting pan” off my lengthy checklist. “Maybe I need more appetizers, just in case? And the booze, she’s definitely bringing the booze. Which is all that matters.”

“The boos?!” My seven-year-old perked up, excited enough to disrupt an episode of Bubble Guppies. “If Auntie K is bringing the ‘boos’ doesn’t that make it Halloween?”

“Honey, if I’m cooking it’s always Halloween.” He stared at me, concerned. “Kidding, still Christmas.”

Though it did feel a bit like Halloween when it came time to marinate the chicken. Just over eight pounds, the bird happened to be the exact weight of my youngest son at birth, which seemed an adorable coincidence at first. But as I rinsed it off and patted it dry, I felt an unsettling maternal pull. I was supposed to be stuffing it with lemons and giving it the Scarborough Fair treatment overnight but part of me wanted to dress it in a onesie, put it to bed and become a vegetarian. Was the universe telling me to order pizza?

I am the world’s most boring adrenaline junkie, who will cut every deadline alarmingly close for the sheer thrill of it. So this was useful advice.

As everyone arrived the next day, I was just finishing slathering the marinated chicken with butter and feeling pretty self-congratulatory. We all gathered in the kitchen, Karen filled everyone’s glasses with Prosecco, and we toasted.

“Oh, my god, it looks like an actual chicken!” she marveled, as we peeked in the oven.

“I know — look how cute it is!”

Hours later, when it was time to take it out, we set it down on the counter and immediately high-fived each other.

“It’s a test of a real chef to be able to make a roast chicken,” Karen said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “We’re geniuses!”

Then came the laughter, unlike any we had ever heard: high-pitched, cascading torrents of giggles. Mom — champagne flute in hand — appeared behind us, peering over our shoulders at our work. Karen and I exchanged looks that said: Is Mom drunk for the first time ever? How much Prosecco has she had?

“It’s upside-down!” Mom, uproarious, managed to say, pointing at our chicken. “You cooked it upside-down! That’s its back!”

Karen and I studied it, baffled, as I struggled to piece together this mystery: “Then, what did I do with all that butter?”

“You gave it A BACK MASSAGE!” Mom hooted, and we did too. And now Brian and my dad and the boys huddled around to heckle our upside-down chicken and after a quick debate with Karen (“I don’t want to poison anyone, should we cook it some more?” “It’s the right internal temperature, see?” “Yes, but do you think it’s ok to consume?”) we all voted on whether to shove it back in the oven right-side-up. The ayes had it; we flipped it and closed the oven door.

When I finally pulled it out, let it rest, and then carved it in the ragged way of a horror movie, we gathered around the table at last and discovered… it actually tasted good. And by good I mean everyone ate it (except my boys who had macaroni and cheese because they won’t eat anything that has ever had a face) and we finished the whole thing. No one even got food poisoning.

Days later when I recounted this to friends, casting myself as a beguiling epicurean rebel, no fewer than three of them informed me that I had not actually invented this trick. But that’s alright, it was still a triumph. This is now how I do it every Christmas: I may not know much about cooking, but I do have a feeling this is how traditions are born.

And after not being together last holiday, I suspect this topsy-turvy dish will seem even more delicious this year, no matter how it actually turns out.

Behold: The (Inadvertently) Upside-Down Chicken


Your favorite roast chicken recipe

Lasagna pan

Bendy laurel-wreath roasting rack


  1. Follow your recipe, except put all the seasoning and butter and whatever else your recipe calls for on the chicken’s back.

  2. Cook upside-down for as much of the suggested cooking time as you’re comfortable with. When you feel like it, flip it over. (Wear an apron.) Cook for the rest of the recommended time and the internal temperature your recipe instructs.

  3. Let it rest. It will be tired after what you’ve put it through.

  4. Serve with many reliable side dishes, just in case.


Aimee Agresti is the author of five novels: The Summer Set, Campaign Widows, and The Gilded Wings TrilogyIlluminate, Infatuate, and Initiate.

Agresti is also a journalist and former staff writer for Us Weekly, where she penned the magazine’s coffee-table book Inside Hollywood and made frequent appearances on Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including People, Premiere, the Washington Post, and the New York Observer. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her family.

For more, visit aimeeagresti.com and follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.