Deep Fried Southern Guilt
The sun was going down and shinning its last bit of light on the green grass that was covered in dew from this afternoon’s rain. August was still a rainy month and it made the air unpleasantly warm and humid. My clothes and hair was sticking to my damp skin and the air felt stuffy with so much moisture lingering. All moved into my new home for the school year; my roommate and I stood outside of our new house waiting for her black and white collie to follow us along as she was a puppy and easily distracted. We walked along the black asphalt creating a mirage of water to the end of the street where Cristen’s grandmother lived. She would be feeding us dinner every night and checking on us throughout the school year as was arranged by our families. Crossing the black river of pavement separating the two properties my roommate, Cristen began to giggle.
“I hope you don’t mind some hearty southern cooking, it’s all my grandmother knows how to fix,” she said with southern twang and her searing sweet smile. Her eyes were illuminated with her endless stock of kindness but expressing she was tired in the manner in which they were drooping, weighed down and in need of rest after arranging our living quarters.
“I don’t mind. I can eat just about anything right now. That move took it out of me,” I said. I was exhausted from carrying box after box of books and clothing for this school years use. Growing up with my mother’s Mexican cooking, I really could eat almost anything. From beef tongue to cow tripe, I had fooled my palate to think almost everything tasted like chicken.
“ Just follow my lead, eat only what I eat,” whispered Cristen in a now concerned and quiet tone as we walked up the driveway passing her grandmothers 1984 pearl white Lincoln.
We were almost to the door and I hadn’t noticed it was open. Only a screen door with its wire protection was blocking me from dinner. My stomach was clenching and it felt like I had a belt cinching it. I was so ravenously hungry that as soon as Cristen opened the screen door, I stepped right in and did not wait with her at the entrance for her and the dog to come through. I could not smell food, but cigarette smoke. Then when my nose breathed in deeper taking in more scents; I detected frying bacon. My mouth salivated at the crispy and salty blissful memory of eating bacon sandwiches at home all the time. Although the smell of the cancer causing substance was strong and holding steady, I was too hungry to care much and refuse any food offered to me tonight. I turned my attention to my roommate’s grandmother, June as she greeted me.
“Hi Nancy, come in and have a seat at the counter,” she said. “Glad you girls came over, it’s nice to have some company to cook for. How was the move?”
“Thank you for having us. The move was not bad, just really muggy outside. Makes it feel like your swimming and not just walking,” I said. I peered at the stove in front of the counter to try and guess at what was for dinner. Steam was rising from one pot and there was some steak frying in a dark brown cast iron skillet next to it. She turned the steak with the toothy tongs and sparks of grease sparked out like a fourth of July kid’s sparkler.
“I hope you girls are hungry. I’m making country fried steak, rice and black-eyed peas seasoned with bacon!” she said with her back still turned to the counter and her attention on finishing this promising meal. I glanced at the pictures on the stainless steel refrigerator and saw a younger Cristen in wigs and costumes that she must have played with when she suddenly came in to the kitchen with her dog trailing behind.
“Hey grandma, dinner smells good,” she said. “Do you want to check out some of the garage sale treasures grandma has found, Nancy?”
“Yes of course. I keep hearing you mention the famous collection and I want to brows. Let’s take a look,” I said.
For the first time I was looking with my eyes and not my stomach. As I peeled my sweaty thighs from the plastic covered seat to follow Cristen; I looked all around, up and down and made a full circle turn as I shuffled my bare feet to follow her throughout the house. The walls were made of dark wood boards and had almost every inch covered with pictures of the family. Her couch was tan and protected by a plastic clear cover set in front of the ancient boxed television with rabbit antennas. All around on every shelf, cabinet and table, there was spread out; grandma’s finds from her garage sale adventures. She had stacks of newspaper in between her treasures and I was worried that this was going to become another episode Hoarders. I walked up to the dinner table and looked at all the crystal bowls that were shining and reflecting a kaleidoscope of lights. They were each labeled with a ripped tan piece of masking take.
“Grandma has everything spread out now but it was all boxed up and put away. She took everything out because she is going to sell everything on eBay. My father and her are working on taking photos and loading them,” said Cristen offering an explanation to settle my worried look.
My forehead was still dripping sweat and stomach now making loud groaning noises broke our silence.
“Oh that’s cool, a good way to make extra money,” I said and smiled. I was hoping my smile was convincing enough. The wide-eyed look and mouth gaped open must have been seen by Cristen or else she wouldn’t have offered an explanation to clarify this unique spread.
“Dinner is ready!” grandma shouted.
We looked at each other and without words exchanged, a nod passed between us that reaffirmed our previous pact. I will only eat what she eats. We walked back down the hall and found our seats at the counter. There were “Happy Birthday” paper plates placed before us and Fourth of July napkins folded next our plates. The silverware sitting on top of the red, white, and blue stripped napkins did not match each other and were from different sets that had been mixed and matched throughout the years. This was a truly unique set up. Before I said a word, a slab of fried beef was forked onto my plate by grandma.
“Help yourself to some beans and rice too. I also made something extra special for you to try. I hope you do try it even if Cristen tells you not too,” she said. Our game was up; she knew Cristen had warned me. Feeling guilty now for possibly insulting the woman who promised to take care of me all year, I took my chances and did not refuse her offer.
“Sure I will, I am always up for something new,” I smiled and laughed nervously.
“Good, have a bite of this fried chicken I fixed,” said grandma and forked a little piece from her plate to put on mine next to my steak.
How bad could it be if her plate was filled with it and some rice and beans I thought? I picked up my fork and knife and began to cut into the middle of this little cube of chicken surrounded by a thin layer of fried skin. It was brown and crispy on the outside and white and juicy looking on the inside. It looked like chicken, how bad could this be? I forked one of the pieces and put it in my mouth before my nose could change my mind. As I bit down, tasted the greasy fried skin and savored the juice of the meat for just a moment I detected a minor unfamiliarity. It looked like chicken and tasted a little bit like chicken. But it was chewier and much greasier. I chewed and chewed and with my tongue pushed the ground up food to the back of my throat and swallowed.
“That’s not bad but it has a unique flavor,” I said.
Cristen’s gaze had not broken and her eyes looked horrified. Her nostrils flared up and her lips pursed together as if she had just eaten a lemon. I cocked my head and raised one eyebrow to clearly state that I did not think that was all too bad.
“What? It’s not that bad,” I said reassuring. But Grandma June’s grin grew wider and she tipped her cigarette into the purple ceramic ashtray placed next to her paper plate.
“You just ate gator tail my dear!” said grandma. Her body began to rumble with laughter and her head tipped back. “A little welcome to the family tradition.”
“Well it wasn’t that bad,” I said defeated but now welcomed to the Felder family. I experienced a Florida tradition and delicacy only found in the south. Now my only worry was not gaining weight from eating such hearty fried foods.