By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South
In my family, there was really no difference between religion and fried chicken. The two elements went hand in hand. When you attended religious events, you ate fried chicken. Any other dish bordered on paganism.
We did not meet, for example, at covered Baptist suppers to eat chickpeas. To my knowledge no kale has ever crossed the threshold of the room of my childhood. And it would have been more acceptable to smoke Marlboro Reds in the sanctuary than to eat anything containing tofu.
So it was fried chicken. All the. We had drumsticks that were about the size of Danny DeVito and breasts of white meat that required the strength of three men to lift. There were short thighs so wide you’d have sworn someone’s husband was missing his left leg.
The frying was done in the church kitchen by women with names like Jeannie, Delores, Carla May, Delpha, Martha Ann, Voncille, Wanda Lou and Eleanor Sue. They were working on a GE stove that was Harvest Gold and featured electric eyes that never sat level.
These women used old iron skillets, heirloom potholders, and wooden spoons that had seen so much action they didn’t even look like spoons anymore but gnarled pieces of hickory.
The formica counters in the kitchen were adorned with a fine dusting of King Arthur flour. There were industrial-size jars of Crisco on every surface, slipping and sliding in puddles of polyunsaturated fat.
If you walked into this kitchen during a frying frenzy, you would encounter a cumulus of hot air so stifling with vegetable shortening clogging your arteries, you could inhale once and suffer a fatal cardiac event.
Meanwhile, you and your cousin would be in the common room dining area, setting up folding steel chairs. They were dangerous chairs for you to handle, chairs with a peculiar folding mechanism capable of slicing off the fingers of little boys who mishandled them.
You would then place these chairs around folding tables. These tables were even more deadly than the chairs. I know a man who once unfolded a church table incorrectly and there wasn’t enough left to bury him.
When the food was ready, we all gathered and listened to an endless deacon bless the food. He prayed so long that the food got cold and many of our old people had to sit down.
The person who prays always ended with: “And all the people of God said…?
Your cousin, Ed Lee, once answered that question by shouting, “A WOMAN! Whereupon he was immediately dragged out of the room by his earlobe and never seen again.
Looking back, it’s amazing to remember all the times we ate chicken in a common room. We ate this particular fare before and after weddings. Before and after the funeral. After baby baptisms. We ate chicken before the Saturday night prayer meeting. Fourth of July. Decoration day.
We ate this meal before evening services every fall, when the air was crisp and the dark sky was dotted with stars, just before the preacher delivered his annual sermon on how to survive college football season. when your team sucks.
So I will forever love the patron bird of my people. Chicken Leghorn, sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins, fried in four inches of fundamentalism until lightly crispy and golden.
I ate this meal after being baptized at Camp Creek when I was 8 years old. My family also ate this meal after being renamed at 11, 13, 15, 19, and 21.
We ate this food at my father’s funeral, when I could barely swallow from grief. We ate this food the next day, when little old ladies delivered wax paper-lined shoeboxes containing drumsticks to our porch.
I ate this food after my wedding. I ate this food after graduating from community college as an adult. I ate this food when I had my first book published. I ate it when my team won the World Series.
I ate this food last night when my wife made it, just for fun. And when she asked me to say the blessing, I did my best to honor the tradition of my people who, despite their flaws, made me who I am, simply by being who they were.
This is why I ended my prayer with these words: “And all the people of God said…?