Monday, February 8, 2010

thoughts gathered while ruminating on an old chicken shack

I am in the process of reading John T Edge's treatise Fried Chicken: An American Story. It is a riveting portrait of an American obsession, which is the submerging of various chicken parts into vats of roiling oils of various denomination. It is a simple story that Edge manages to muck up with his philosophical ramblings on race relations. Must we? Black people make the best fried chicken. That's not racism, that's just the truth. Most white people are straight out dumb when it comes to fried chicken. They demand the breast. The breast has been elevated to a far higher position than it deserves to be. It lacks flavor and is wont to dry out. Give me a thigh or a back any day of the week and I will go happily and sit out under yonder tree and gnaw on that bone. Which tree? The one out yonder on the lawn of the courthouse.

But Fried Chicken is not just an American story; it's not just a black and white story; it's not a tale of slavery; nor a tale of the proud southern white heritage that did no wrong other than to respect the opinion of a constitutionality which afforded states with rights. No, friends, it is a universal story. Evidence the latest issue of The Economist, in an article about the present state of fragile peace in Tibet their man in Lhasa points to a newly built restaurant on the very site where a year before Tibetan rioters destroyed the building. The new establishment is a fried chicken stand called Dico's. Some of the best fried chicken I have ever had was enjoyed in the lands of the yellow peoples. The people who know not our God. Once when roughing it in a Malaysian backwater I was sustained by the sighting of a giant glowing Colonel Sanders. He stood towering above the distant tree line, seeming to know that I was a kindred soul, a fellow southerner far flung from home and hearth, who would find succor in a three piece combo meal: a leg, a wing, a thigh, some kind of biscuit thing, a crappy side of instant mashed potatoes with a brown stain that was to represent gravy. And fell upon it I did with a beastly vigor before traveling on back into the sweltering night of jabbering Majumbos and clattering hansom cabs.

But forgive me. I digress. Scholarship is a wonderful thing, Innit? Reading Edge's Fried Chicken put me in the mind to ponder the fierce regionalism that often accompanies particular foodstuffs. In North Carolina to this day people feud about which type of BBQ should represent the state. I land on the vinegar side of the debate and I will patronize Stamey's until the day they pull the cold hard hushpuppy from my dead fist. It is interesting to note that no other state's style is even bothered a mention. Memphis BBQ, bugger off. Texas BBQ, no thank you. But once again, BBQ is hardly an American monopoly. There is many a late night after the bars have called for the last round that I will load the missus into a cab and make a beeline for the avenues where you can generally stand on any corner and throw a rock and hit a Korean BBQ joint. I am much enamored by this country's supping traditions. Fill me up with firewater and I will throw just about anything on the grill. Tripe, chicken hearts, horse flesh, turkey beaks, pig ears, it's all there for the plunder. Next time I intend on eating a goat.
The Koreans know a thing or two about pickles, too. I do believe that my grandfather would have loved cabbage kimchee. He was a great eater of spicy things. He especially loved the spicy peppers that my grandmother pickled every spring and summer. They came from his garden. Every year until the day he died my grandfather planted a garden. It got smaller over the years, but in my earliest memories it consumed his entire backyard, an acre or so that rolled down a lush green hill to a brambling wood that bordered the property. In the autumn and winter it lay fallow. In the spring he planted rigorously and by summer there were rows of tomato plants, runner beans, squashes, and watermelons. He worked in it in the hours between coming home from his job at the Pfizer plant and sunset. It seemed like in the high summer it was still light out at nine in the evening. It would have cooled off by then and we would sit in the dusk at the picnic table and drink sun tea and when I was young I would chase fireflies and catch them in a jar and make a lantern. It just seemed natural to me that in the summer we picked tomatoes and corn and beans and chili peppers from the garden and what we didn't eat or give away my grandmother and great aunt pickled or canned.

Chow-chow is a decidedly southern recipe of mixed pickled vegetables sometimes spicy, sometimes not, but it has echoes of the orient in its origin evidenced in the name which seems to mimic how a besotted redneck might suppose the Chinese tongue or such to sound. My grandfather liked it spiced with jalapenos and he ate it out of the jar with a spoon. Every family has a different chow-chow recipe. Ours had okra, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and white corn. My grandparents have passed away now. The house was sold last year. The garden is gone, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of these days we came across a box of my grandmother's canned chow-chow stored somewhere in my dad's attic. I have these type of food memories sometimes late at night when I am sitting alone in the dark eating sweet sixteen powdered donuts toying with the idea of abandoning gluttony.

Which brings me finally to what I had hoped to write about tonight: the ubiquitous donut shop. The donut shop is a fixture in cultures around the world. More often than not, serving customers twenty-four hours a day, the local donut shop is a bastion of marginal characters and working class joes most days of the week and especially in the odd fellow hours. In America, Sunday mornings before and after church meetings are a different matter. In Greensboro Krispy-Kreme reigned supreme for many years. I have fond memories of having a glass of milk and a glazed donut at the counter before my mother whisked me off to church on Sunday mornings. We saw the same faces every week in their sunday school clothes. They might not be going to our church but they were going to church somewhere. Delicious morsels of dough and lard and pasteurized cow juice churned in my belly as I listened to my Sunday school teacher promise eternal life after death. Not something that has ever sounded really attractive to me, even back then. During one lesson I raised my hand to ask if we would still be able to sleep once we were in heaven. I was beaten. Later the pastor took my mother aside and asked her to keep an eye on me.

The Krispy-Kreme donut shop on Battleground Avenue was also a donut factory. From the counter you could look through a huge glass window and watch the white frocked workers manning their stations as donut batter was squirted into a coursing river of hot oil, they bobbed along like little inner tubes as they cooked before being deposited onto a conveyor belt which ran the length of the window. The travelling donuts were sprayed with glaze or topped with chocolate frosting, checked for quality, double checked for purity of form, and then lovingly either transferred into cartons festooned with the Krispy-Kreme logo to be shipped to local grocers or brought immediately still piping hot and pillowy to the front display box where they were pounced upon by the general populace. The Krispy-Kreme purist never strayed from the traditional donut ring glazed with sugar. Most likely it was paired with a cup of coffee or a glass of milk. Over the years Krispy-Kreme expanded into specialty donuts. My mom loved the lemon filled. I did, too. But my truest passion was the Bavarian cream filled donut. Man, that was something good. And yet most of the time mom came home with the classic dozen glazed. It was the healthy thing to do.

Dunkin Donuts celebrates its 60th birthday today. I am not sure exactly when Dunkin came to Greensboro to challenge the local darling Krispy-Kreme, but I am sure that there was such an outlet on Battleground Road sometime before my mother sold the family manse on Robinhood Drive and moved us out into the swinging seventies County of Guilford. I don't see how they survived. Greensboro residents were fiercely loyal to Krispy-Kreme. But survive it did and over the years when I had occasion to pass the dunkin donut shop the parking lot was usually full. If you have such a mind you may remember the seminal Dunkin Donut commercial on television which portrayed a loyal donut baker making his way to work in the wee hours before dawn with the motto: "Time to make the donuts."

Many were won over by this humorous TV ad, but not I. I continued to frequent The staid Krispy -Kreme store that was not as flashy and modern looking as the Dunkin Donuts down the road a few miles. Dunkin Donuts had scads of different donuts. Krispy-Kreme maintained the selection that they had offered for years and by god that was the fucking right thing to do. I never caught on to the ritual of church, but to this day I cherish the ritual of having milk and donuts before actually going to the pain in the ass church.

When I finally did go into the Dunkin Donuts shop on Battleground I was with Bernie, we were wandering the streets in the middle of the night, and we were high as shit on acid. That was not atypical. I don't even know why we went in there. I couldn't even see straight. I didn't need a donut. I needed a shot of Thorazine. The counter lady had downs syndrome. Or we had a collective hallucination. I have never been sure which one it was. She freaked us out. We never ordered anything. We got up and ran from the building. A couple of cops were sitting in their car in the parking lot sipping coffee. They didn't even bother with us, recognizing that we were mere buffoons out larking about without parental supervision. I guess since we didn't have a car they figured the only damage we could do would be to ourselves.

I have since embraced Dunkin Donuts. Why? Because Krispy-Kreme betrayed us. Krispy-Kreme went on the road in the eighties and nineties. It became an overnight sensation. When a krispy-Kreme outlet opened on Rodeo Drive in LA the line to get in stretched around the block. At some point some executive decided that the old Krispy-Kreme original stores looked outmoded and old fashioned. Some fucking jackass signed the order to destroy the old stores and in their place rebuild crappy fast food style buildings with drive-thru windows so you could get your donuts without getting out of your car. The bastards!!!!! They tore down the donut factory and the viewing window and they turned Krispy-Kreme into a shitty plastic corporate entity. I recently read that they are on the verge of bankruptcy. That's fucking typical. The suits were in such a hurry to get to the top of the world that they forgot their past. Dicks.

Nowadays I am philosophical about the rise and fall of Krispy-Kreme. I drink Dunkin Donuts Dark Roast Coffee and on the rare occasion that I actually want a donut, I go to Happy Donut. It too is open all hours of the night. And the Chinese own it. They make a good donut. They're partially made of card board but at least they seem to be lead free. Skip the glass of milk.

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