Sometimes trying new things starts with doing something familiar. This is a post about fried chicken.
But first, a walk down memory lane. Do y’all remember these?
This, my friends, is the precursor to the cell phone. We called it a “bag phone.” By we, I mean my mom and stepfather. My parents were small business owners for most of their lives, and one of their businesses was a heating/cooling and sheet metal fabrication service. We lived in a remote area of Montana just over the borders of Canada and North Dakota. To say our winters were cold would be quite the understatement, which meant my stepfather was on call 24/7 in the winter. The invention of the bag phone was a literal life-saver for my family.
My stepfather never turned down a service call, particularly if that call came from an elderly person or single mother or rural family who desperately needed heat during a blizzard when the temps were 30 degrees below zero. (For those of you reading this, I am absolutely not exaggerating. The first time my wife ever visited my hometown, she couldn’t believe her eyes as the temperature dropped to -27.) Needless to say, we worried every one of those nights that he might not return home. People we knew often lost control on black ice, or hit a deer and became stranded in a snow bank, or their car simply broke down in the freezing temps and they had to hope someone would drive by. When bag phones were introduced, we breathed a little easier that my father would come home each night in one piece, and if he did find himself in trouble on the road, he could get in touch with us.
The other advantage of a bag phone was spontaneity. We take for granted now how easy it is to text or call someone on the fly and suggest a change in dinner plans. In 1995, it was almost magical.
That brings me to fried chicken. Every few months or so my stepfather would call us on the way home from fixing a furnace to say he was picking up a family pack of broasted chicken from the Reserve Bar in Reserve, Montana. (As of the 2010 census, Reserve had a population of 23 and yet it still has a bar. Way to go, Montana!)
What’s broasted chicken, you might ask? Fuck if I know. I had to Wikipedia it, which told me that it’s basically a more complicated way of frying chicken.
My mom would hurriedly put away the meat she’d been thawing or the leftovers she was going to re-heat while I would gather paper plates and napkins. On those nights I was even allowed to drink a Pepsi with dinner. Mom would settle back into her chair at the kitchen counter, turn on her favorite nightly game show, maybe pull out the TV guide crossword puzzle, and finally relax. I was so giddy with anticipation I could barely sit still in the stool.
When my father walked through the door (usually an hour or so later), I would jump up and greet him, then grab the bag right out of his hand. The chicken was always still warm, despite the cold and the 15-mile drive. It was crispy, too, and salty and greasy. I devoured every one of the drumsticks in the batch. Most nights during dinnertime no one talked as the TV blared in front of us. On fried chicken nights, everything between us seemed electric. Jerry told jokes that made my mother laugh so deeply and freely she’d lose her breath and wipe away tears. I’d gossip about how Chad tried to trip Ms. Pederson in class, and how the new toy Josh showed off at school turned out to be stolen. Even as a surly teen, I kept those nights sacred. I packed away my anger and enjoyed my family.
Now, as I think back on those nights, the memory comes to me through a hazy filter–the kind that is warm and blurred just on the edges. I don’t have very many good memories of childhood. My childhood was one of sexual abuse, betrayal, emotional abuse, eating disorders, and so on. That I still have this one piece to remember fondly is almost a miracle on its own.
Maybe my desire to preserve this memory is why I waited so long to try Chicken-N-Mo. As of this month, I’ve lived in Spokane for eight years, and yet I had never eaten at this Spokane staple. On Friday night, I decided it was time to do this one new thing.
My wife and I scrapped our planned meal for the night, and set our sights instead on grabbing some chicken to go and heading over to Community Pint (another new thing) for an accompanying beer.
Chicken-N-Mo is a small establishment tucked away between punk music venues on Sprague Avenue, an unlikely place for a soul food restaurant. Inside were two teens working behind the counter, a boy and a girl. They looked alike, and I was struck by the familiar feeling of working in a family business. As we waited for our turn to order, an older gentleman hobbled out front to greet regulars and swap stories with friends. I was reminded of home, of being an eight-year-old girl fidgeting in her seat, of the way frying oil, spices, and flour co-mingle in the air.
Our order didn’t take long (two dark-piece meals), and I almost regretted not staying to eat. The restaurant was quaint in the best way, filled with sports memorabilia from local high school and college teams, replicas of paintings by Ruth Russell Williams, and photos of famous African American activists and artists. This all added to my own nostalgia.
We picked up our order and brought it to the beer bar, where it was my friend’s first night of serving (another new thing). Everyone in the joint was jealous after we opened the styrofoam containers to reveal golden, glistening, homemade fried chicken. I ordered mine with a side of jo-jos and coleslaw. I also picked up a cup of their homemade barbecue sauce, which was without a doubt the best sauce I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
While the sides were delicious in their own right, the chicken was divine. The crust was crispy and flavorful, while the meat was juicy and tender. I even got my very own drumstick. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to remember the past while looking to the future.
I will be the first to admit that this new thing didn’t ask me to stretch my comfort zone, but it did get me out of the house, it did afford me an opportunity to support a local business, and I enjoyed myself. Sometimes smiling can feel like a revolutionary act in the face of mental illness. And I sure did smile.