My last year in high school, I developed a lunchtime ritual: I would exit the campus, thread my way through the college campus just to our southeast, and pop out on King Street, where Woolworth's lunch counter awaited. Typically, I'd order a couple of chicken wings to go, and chow down on the way back to class.

Things have changed in the forty years since: the high school has relocated to across the Cooper River, the college that once had 400 students now has 10,000, and Woolworth's is long gone. But I never lost my enthusiasm for fried chicken; like seemingly every other kid in the South, I ate a lot of it, by itself on the daily walk, and with all the trimmings at the occasional sit-down meal.

So I didn't feel a knotting in my Fruit of the Looms when I saw this:

Sign at NBC Cafeteria

Well, maybe a little. Turkey with greens? That's a job for bacon, and everyone knows it.

Despite the valiant efforts of Colonel Sanders, fried chicken, at least in the parts of the world where NBC is likely to have offices, apparently is thought of strictly as a soul-food staple; white folks who dig it must be doing the slummer the slum. All I can say is, I never took it that way, and neither does Little Miss Attila:

I know that soul food is a variation of Southern food, and I'd leave it to ethnoculinarists to figure out what might set it aside specifically from general Southern fare (I made up the word "ethnoculinarists"; do you like it?). I don't think this cuisine can be broken out completely any more than most American black dialects can be isolated from Southern speech patterns.

And, as with most of the best foodstuffs (Indian, Mexican, Italian, rural French), soul food was originally developed as a way of eating economically, but in a way that satisfied the palate and kept the stomach feeling full.

Nobody says so today, because it doesn't fit The Narrative, but in the South, if you were poor and white, you weren't any better off than someone who was poor and black, except on Election Day. And even then, the pickings tended to be slim. The idea that there was some massive segregation-enforced gulf between white and black is almost entirely fictional, largely a creation of the days after segregation, when certain individuals discovered that they could make an easier living from race-baiting than from seeking out honest work.

In the middle 1960s, the local Top 40 station gave away lots of records as prizes. You did not report to the station itself, in an historic building downtown; you went to the record store that sponsored the promotion. Was this the old, established music store that carried full lines of everything imaginable? Nope. It was a two-store operation that covered two neighborhoods: the largely-black area north of downtown, and the shopping strip just west of the Navy Yard. The records they stocked were primarily R&B and jazz. If a white kid had had any residual fear of black folks, it would have vanished about thirty seconds after he showed up to claim his freebie. (First record I claimed in this manner: Stevie Wonder's immortal "Uptight." You can't tell me there isn't a message attached.)

And there's always this:

Well, when day is done, work is through
I hurry home like most men do
I hit the table like a hungry pup
Cause my favorite dish is coming up

A truly universal desire, as expressed by the Marylanders, an R&B group from Baltimore, who in 1953 recorded the only song I know devoted to fried chicken. As a product of 1953 myself, I am happy to endorse this sentiment.

Sort of footnote: There exists a Maryland Fried Chicken chain. (I've actually tried it.) It originated, of course, in Florida.

The Vent

  7 February 2010

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 Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill