It’s nice to see you flexing your fiction muscles; I’m glad you filled in a little bit of the backstory of Hemingway’s famous six word short story. I’m transitioning back out of fiction for this post, which is the third of three parts of my summer writing project. I apologize for the brevity; the beginning of the fall semester makes it hard to balance everything. But here it is:
Our grandparents’ home is not a pretentious place. The shopping centers that line downtown lack the brand names that are so common in the Bay Area. I didn’t see a single Whole Foods during my time there, and the Chinese buffet unashamedly offers pizza, Italian pasta, and all kinds of combinations of fried foods and cheeses that provoke outrage in health nuts. The high school still has the same brick façade and buildings that were there thirty years ago, and only recently got an electronic announcement board to replace the changeable letter board on the front lawn of the school.
The character of this part of Northern New Jersey is epitomized by a particular food item, obtainable at any of the large, ubiquitous grocery stores in the area. Shop Rite Fried Chicken is a staple of my grandparents’ diet, especially when it’s on sale for $4.99 for eight pieces of dark meat. It’s entirely ordinary, as far as fried chicken is concerned. They smell of lard and salt when warm, and possess a thick layer of batter that comes off in large pieces along with the meat. There is no sticker on the box indicating that the animal from which the meat came was fed corn or seed, or was cage- and antibiotic- free.
Often, Shop Rite Fried Chicken (occasionally accompanied by tofu) served as the protein during lunch or dinner. As we sat around the food prep counter top that was converted into a dining table, I was encouraged to take another piece of chicken, to finish this plate of vegetables. I always responded that the food tasted very good, and sometimes tried to protest that I was too full. More often than not, I found myself eating another piece as my grandmother explains how it was prepared. A little watermelon from this plate, a little squash from this bowl: food fell into my bowl at random, delivered there to sit atop some rice or noodles by my grandmother’s chopsticks.
Sometimes, our meal would be interrupted by a flat electronic chime, followed by a digital orchestra playing vaguely classical music. Phone calls from various friends and congregants consistently came during meal times. On busier evenings, Eine Kline Nachtmusik intermingled with the digital orchestra, indicating that my grandfather was wanted on his cell.
Our discussions during these meals are time consuming. We jump from church to school to future to past to food to literature to health. By the end, we pick at the food still left (because there is always leftover food, including the Shop Rite Fried Chicken) and continue talking. I don’t often have time for meals like this anymore. There’s usually class or work, or some other event to run off to, which relegates me to eating alone. It is something special to break bread with others and have enough time to sit and listen as the food draws thoughts out of our minds.
One day, as we ate the fried chicken that had become a signifier of our communion, a story came to my grandmother’s mind. With my grandfather helping to clarify and translate, she told it to me.
Once there was a man who had recently married a young woman. As they sat down to eat with his family, for the first time as a married couple, there were many dishes on the table, including a chicken. After the conventional salutations, the young woman picked up a meaty piece of chicken breast and offered it to her mother-in-law. Seeing this, the man commented, “Oh, my mother doesn’t eat that.” The young woman was confused, and asked her husband what he meant. He explained, “She likes to eat the bones.”