In my family, there was no real difference between religion and fried chicken. The two items went hand in hand. When you attended church events, you ate fried chicken. Any other dish was borderline paganism.
We did not, for example, get together at the Baptist covered-dish suppers to eat chickpeas. To my knowledge no kale ever crossed the threshold of my childhood fellowship hall. And it would have been more acceptable to smoke Marlboro Reds in the sanctuary than it would have been to eat anything containing tofu.
So it was fried chicken. All the way. We had drumsticks that were roughly the size of Danny DeVito, and white-meat breasts that required the strength of three men to lift. There were short thighs so large that you would 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 worked at a GE stove that was Harvest Gold and featured electric eyes that never sat level.
These women used ancient iron skillets, heirloom pot holders, and wooden spoons that had seen so much action they didn’t even look like spoons anymore but gnarled pieces of hickory.
The galley’s formica countertops were adorned with a fine dusting of King Arthur flour. There were industrial-sized jars of Crisco on each surface, slipping and sliding in puddles of polyunsaturated fat.
If you stepped into this kitchen during a frying frenzy, you were met with a cumulus of hot air so sultry with artery-clogging vegetable shortening, you could inhale once and experience a fatal cardiac event.
Meantime, you and your cousin would be out in the fellowship hall dining area, setting up steel folding chairs. These were dangerous chairs you handled, chairs with a particular folding mechanism capable of slicing the fingers off little boys who operated them incorrectly.
You would then position these chairs around folding tables. These tables were even more deadly than the chairs. I know a man who once unfolded a church table wrongly and there wasn’t enough left of him to bury.
When the food was ready, we all gathered around and listened to a long winded deacon bless the food. He prayed so long that the food got cold and many of our elderly had to sit down.
The praying person would always close with, “And all God’s people said…?”
One time your cousin, Ed Lee, answered this question by shouting, “A WOMAN!” Whereupon he was immediately dragged out of the room by his earlobe and never seen again.
When I think back, it’s staggering to remember all the times we ate chicken in a fellowship hall. We ate this particular fare before and after weddings. Before and after funerals. After baby christenings. We ate chicken before Saturday night prayer meeting. Fourth of July. Decoration Day.
We ate this meal before night services every autumn, when the air was chilled and the dark sky was peppered 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. The leghorn chicken, sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins, batter fried in four inches of fundamentalism until slightly crunchy and golden brown.
I ate this meal after I was baptized in Camp Creek at the age of 8. My family also ate this meal after I was re-baptized at ages 11, 13, 15, 19, and 21.
We ate this food at my father’s funeral, when I could hardly swallow from grief. We ate this food the following day, when little old ladies delivered wax-paper-lined shoe boxes containing drumsticks to our front porch.
I ate this food after my wedding. I ate this food after I graduated 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 prepared it, just for the heck of it. And when she asked me to say the blessing I did my absolute best to honor the tradition of my people who, despite their faults, made me who I am, simply by being who they were.
Which is why I ended my prayer with the words, “And all God’s people said…?”