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Soul Food

When I was a child, my Nana would take me along to the Old Reg’lar Baptist meetings at her church. Full of good-hearted people, we had a much higher preacher-to-sinner ratio than your average church. The Old Reg’lar Baptist meetings generally went through three or four different preachers during the same service, and the sermons often lasted several hours.

To a kid, they seemed interminable, as infinite as salvation itself, though not nearly so sweet. Most Sunday mornings, I would busy myself in ways other than spiritual. First, I would rearrange the contents of my Nana’s patent-leather purse, eating all the interred peppermints and circus peanuts. Then, I’d lean back in exaggerated repose and vigorously wave one of the church’s paper fans, overly enthusiastic in my attempt to be mistaken for a Southern belle. The fans were the old-fashioned, paddle-type that had a vibrant Biblical scene on one side with the name of a funeral home underneath it. The message seemed to be, “Just because Lazarus was revived after four days, it doesn’t mean you’ll be. Buy your coffin early.”

I would interrupt my fanning five or six times to make trips to the drinking fountain. All these activities never took up more than fifteen minutes. Once I’d gone through my routine, I’d stretch out on one of the wooden pews for a nice, long nap. My casual attitude provoked a story that still circulates in my family. Upon being asked how I liked church, I purportedly answered in a peevish tone of voice, “It’s fine for the most part, but the preachers keep waking me up when they holler ‘Amen!’”

At any rate, for both somnolent sinners and attentive saints, a certain earthly reward was attached to the church meetings, and that was the church supper. All the good ladies of that church knew how to cook, and they did not waste their talents doling out dainty portions of haute cuisine. No, these soft-bellied, gentle souls served up homey foods, comfort foods, soul food, every Sunday creating a sumptuous spread that covered three fold-out tables. Immediately following services, a line of people gathered in front of those tables, and the prayer that was given before supper was always the shortest one.

Even the everlastingest preacher couldn’t ignore the tables laden with home-cooked food. There were mashed potatoes piled in high, snowy peaks, sitting side-by-side with thick pools of gravy; there were mounds of dandelion and turnip greens picked fresh from the nearby woods. There were tureens of red beans in savory sauce; there were round cakes of golden-grained corn bread and white corn pone. On occasion, there was turkey with stuffing or dumplings bobbing in gravy. And there was fried chicken. Always and forever, there was fried chicken, a crowd pleaser that just about everybody piled on their plates.

And so it was, many years later as a graduate student, living far from the comforts of home, alone and hungry, and perhaps a bit homesick, that I got a hankering for fried chicken. Now, meat of any sort was not a regular part of my diet in those lean years. I was supported solely by the money garnered from my assistantship. As per the usual assistantship trade-off, in return for teaching freshmen classes, the university offered to pay my full tuition, along with a bit extra to cover living expenses--so long as said living expenses didn’t include luxury items, such as heat in my room or more than one meal a day.

I lived on the thin of things, always on the fringe of hunger. I existed on a diet that consisted chiefly of bananas and cereal moistened by water.

Upon occasion, I would see fit to reallocate my meager food budget. That is to say, I would sometimes spend my grocery money on admission to a local swing dance. After such occasions, I would, from necessity, scavenge samples at the local grocer’s for my next meal. Whatever food samples were being offered, I would take two, sly vulture that I was, and after circulating the store twice, my stomach would be full, or at least it would stop growling for a few hours. I certainly had nothing in my budget that would allow for eating out, not even at the most humble establishment.

Yet, there I was, this one particular day, hungry as could be; and nothing could divert my mind from fried chicken. I could not make fried chicken, my cuisine art was limited to microwave food and toast, and so, with little-exercised extravagance, I went into a local diner.

“How many pieces are in the adult portion of chicken?” I asked the waitress. “Five pieces,” she answered. “And in the small?” I asked. “Three,” she responded.

I did not need to finger the money in my pocket to know how much I had. The thing with being poor was that I always knew, down to the last cent, how much money I owned. I had enough for the large portion, unless they charged tax. I could never remember if restaurants charged tax, and then there was also the embarrassment of leaving a cheap, nearly non-existent tip.

“I’ll have the small portion,” I said in a tiny voice. Perhaps my eyes looked hungry. I might have also sighed.

When the waitress brought me the plate, it was heaped with fried chicken. It did not contain three pieces, or even five pieces, it brimmed with ten pieces of chicken, all coated in a crisp, peppered, golden skin and, as I found out by sampling, with tender white meat inside. Thin curls of steam rose from the chicken. I ate and ate and ate. I ate that hot, delicious chicken until I was full, and then – oh, unheard of luxury – I kept going and ate past being full. Even so, I couldn’t manage to eat all the chicken. I carefully wrapped the remaining pieces in paper napkins and discretely deposited them in my purse. They would be for tomorrow. When I got the bill, the total cost was listed as $3.99, the price for a child-sized portion.

I was too embarrassed to thank my waitress properly. I just smiled shyly when paying, hoping she’d understand. Some hunger can be satisfied with food, but there is also another, more intimate type of hunger which can only be appeased by kindness. I was filled that day with both food and compassion. I’ve never felt more full. And I’ve never been richer.

Melanie Ehler has paddled a gondola down Venice’s Grand Canal, fallen asleep during a root canal, and eaten at Burger King when they ran out of burgers. She’s danced the tango in Prague, the blues in St. Louis, and lindy hop everywhere from grocery aisles in Ohio to cocktail clubs in Oahu. Several years after obtaining her Master’s degree in English, Melanie decided to spend a year living in Seoul, South Korea, and from there, she will circumnavigate the globe. Follow her most recent adventures at: http://odysseusdrifts.blogspot.com/.

Reprinted from "Female Nomad and Friends" by Rita Golden Gelman. Copyright © 2010. Published by Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.


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