I wasn’t there at that final, fateful meal in Jerusalem many years ago, but one day I’m certain archaeologists will confirm that it was, in fact, fried chicken that was served.
It’s not just that the right combination of flour, spices, and poultry combines for one of the most heavenly tastes on earth. Anyone who’s bitten into a crispy, flakey skin knows that when done right, a fried chicken breast or leg is both entree and desert. Such a combination has taken root in the south generations ago and is now the go-to main dish of Sunday dinners and Thursday suppers alike. It’s meant for tailgates and Christmases, breakfasts and picnics. It’s versatility is rivaled only by its availability to make it the centerpiece on both dining room tables and coats of arms.
We ate fried chicken the last meal I had with Ann. My grandfather’s girlfriend twenty years his junior, I’m now convinced her vivacity at 74 was due to her regular consumption of fried chicken. She’s the type who said, “I’ll just take a little bite of a leg” and then eats two legs, a wing, and a breast before asking who was ready for desert.
I didn’t know it was my last meal with her at the time. A freak fall at home put her into a coma and then a week later, she was gone. They had fried chicken after the wake and everyone said their goodbyes.
We Southerners are also tolerant of the various makers of fried chicken - both the mother who has her recipe and the fast food chain that has far less originality. This tolerance isn’t based solely on ease. Anyone who’s dares to heat up oil, bread a bird and wait and watch for that perfect shade of golden brown knows frying a chicken is anything but simple. I think we flock to fried chicken, even when handed to us in our cars out of a window, not because it’s easy.
It’s because fried chicken is about community.
Have you ever seen anyone fry a single piece of chicken? Or asked for just a solitary leg at a counter? Chicken comes in buckets and bags and bins, shoveled to you on a platter stacked a dozen or more pieces high. Some nine decades can separate those eating it in a sitting, as I saw recently when we gathered for lunch at my grandfather’s place again.
Across the table from me was my daughter, all of four years old. To my right was Granddaddy, who will be 97 next month. Aunt Judy was there, too, and so was a plate of fried chicken, carefully prepared by the fine folks at Food Giant, a local chain of grocery stores.
I like to imagine that our family wasn’t alone that day. I think other people gathered around tables, representing different generations, as they gnawed and talked, pulled and picked and caught up. Crunching and chewing, families and friends passed the platter and asked for seconds. Greasy fingertips wiped off, they then made their ways towards what I hope is becoming more of a tradition in all parts - the afternoon nap.
Fried chicken can populate our first suppers with people and our last suppers with them. We usually don’t see either coming, but when it hits us that it’s happened, we’ll look back and savor those conversations and memories, as sweet as the bread on the bird we ate, remembering that we weren’t alone.