From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Fried Chicken and Collard Greens

For every one of us that succeeds, it’s because there’s somebody there to show you the way out.

Oprah Winfrey

It was eight months since Momma had prepared fried chicken and collard greens. I distinctly remember standing beside her as she cracked some eggs, added Carnation milk, sprinkled her secret seasonings, beat the mixture and then carefully dipped a piece of chicken for a full coating. This precision seemed wasted as she dropped each piece in a brown grocery store bag filled with flour. Once all the pieces were in, the shakedown began until the entire chicken skin was covered in flour. I’ll never figure how each piece got so evenly coated, but when the shaking was over, the chicken was entirely white.

The finale was placing each piece in a skillet of hot grease. The crackle and sizzle meant we’d be “grubbing down” soon and always drew my four brothers.

“Do I smell chicken and collard greens?” one would ask warmly.

And they would be correct. Boiling next to the chicken was always a big pot of collard greens—handpicked from our garden and cleaned by the women in the house (including any kinfolk who might have dropped by).

The preparation was as much a part of dinner as the cooking. We would gather in a circle around a table—as if we were going to play cards—with greens spread atop. Then the real pickin’ began as we inspected one leaf at a time, examining it for worms or unfamiliars. We also picked over topics of discussion, usually ranging from boys to men. However, as “young ’uns” my three sisters and I dared not talk too much for fear of getting a “pop in the mouth” for being “fast.”

This ritual was known as Soul Food Sunday by some, but we just called it Dinner at Momma’s, until I renamed it The Last Supper when Momma died.

It was mid-November when she left us. My siblings and I, fully grown, were planning our usual visit home for Thanksgiving. I believe Momma timed her passing so we’d be together without an added trip home. We arrived during Thanksgiving just to become eight motherless children. There was nothing to be thankful for that year.

My oldest sister insisted we still have Thanksgiving dinner and so we womenfolk gathered in the kitchen while the men pretended to help but really watched football. It was just like all the other Thanksgivings—except Momma wasn’t there.

“You should fry the chicken and do the collard greens,” my youngest sister said. I was stunned and angry. “You watched Momma all the time, and you cook the most like her,” she finished.

Although intended as a compliment, I knew she was really saying, “Momma’s gone so you help us move on.” I refused.

“There will be no fried chicken or collard greens,” I stated.

My sisters glared at me, and my brothers seemed to gain bionic hearing, darting into the kitchen as if it were on fire. “What’s dinner without fried chicken and collard greens?” they all sang out in unison.

“It’s the same as dinner without Momma,” I shouted back—hitting a nerve in every one of their bodies.

The rest of Thanksgiving passed solemnly as we ate turkey, string beans, mashed potatoes and desserts. Nothing tasted quite right, and by the end of the meal, we agreed we’d never eat collard greens and chicken as good as Momma’s ever again; therefore, we’d never have them again. Sadly, we surrendered the two foods we remembered Momma for most.

Six months later the family gathered for a grand celebration of Momma’s first (and favored) grandchild’s graduation. After the graduation, my friend invited us to her family reunion cookout later in the day.

When we arrived, Mrs. Spark, the family matriarch, grabbed my sisters and I, leading us to the kitchen while jabbering about “needing more hands to work.” My brothers settled in front of the living room’s big screen television and ball game.

I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw card table setups. On each were vegetables—snap peas, green beans and yes, collard greens.

“Y’all know how to pick greens and all?” Mrs. Spark asked shortly.

“Yes, ma’am,” we stuttered uneasily.

She chuckled and said, “Well, pull up a chair. What you standin’ there for? Hmmph, young folk act like they ain’t never seen fresh greens and such.”

The other women started in chiding about the state of the world and how bagged greens were an abomination to how God intended us to cook.

We took our seats and began the familiar process of cleaning greens. My sisters jumped into the conversation and the laughter, but I was still dazed. Then, as if reading my mind, Mrs. Spark tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to join her at the stove.

“I’m gonna teach you my secret fried chicken recipe,” she whispered. “Now pay attention.”

I couldn’t believe as I watched Mrs. Spark mix eggs with Carnation milk, sprinkle her secret seasoning, beat the mixture, precisely dip each piece and drop it in a bag— filled with flour.

“There ain’t nothing to soothe the soul like fried chicken and collard greens,” she chuckled. “You try.”

With each piece I felt a weight lift from my hands, to my arms and all the way through my body. As I finished, I looked at my brothers howling about game scores, and my sisters laughing like schoolgirls with strangers around a table.

I suddenly realized the truth in Mrs. Spark’s words, and my heart felt lighter.

Our souls were healing from our loss. The balm was simple and well-loved: fried chicken and collard greens.

Thyonne Gordon

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