I’m taking a nonfiction writing workshop at StoryStudioChicago, and this is one of the in-class assignments from last night. We were to describe a moment involving food
The signal my teeth sent to my brain conflicted with the signal transmitted by both eyeballs. The hands set the fork down to recalibrate.
My roommates look at me but continued eating.
The eyes surveyed again. The skin was still on, not uncommon for such a dish or restaurant. There was bone, evident by stabbing and being thankful for metal forks instead of plastic. Not exactly an upscale joint. Traditional to be sure. The din of chatter was in a language I didn’t understand, but I had become accustomed to this by now. I had gradually learned that chatter is chatter in a crowded restaurant, regardless of language, and that you can learn a fair amount by watching lip movements, mouth curves, raised eye brows, blinking eyes and hand gestures. There is truth in that phrase, “actions speak louder than words,” but what they don’t say is that, together, they are a forceful combination. I was getting good at guessing at one based on the other
Back to the plate.
Bone. Skin. White and dark meat. The eyes relayed the information again, and moved to the serving dish for further verification. Yes, the rest of the chicken was on the plate. My roommates remained content with the other dishes.
Signal received. Fork back into chicken. Lift.
Again the signal from my teeth conflicted with the visual confirmation.
“Wait,” I said.
My roommates looked at me.
“It’s cold.” I set the fork down, lifted a finger and touched another part of the chicken.
One roommate blinked. “Of course.”
“Oh,” I said.
Her hands darted to her face as a gasp of surprise escaped her lips. “We never ordered this with you before!”
I smiled and shook my head. “I take it it’s supposed to be cold though?”
She nodded. He stuck his fork in a piece from the serving plate, and took a bite.
I sat back and let out a sigh.
I wasn’t crazy. The chicken was actually cold. Fully cooked, yet cold.
I nibbled at the other dishes as they explained to me that it was a fully cooked chicken. In some Chinese cultures, it was common to cook the chicken, bone and all, like you would a turkey on Thanksgiving, then put it in the freezer before moving it later to the fridge to defrost and enjoy. Perfectly normal. Fully cooked. Nothing to worry about.
The piece stayed on my plate. The sensory mix up and confusion more mixed up and confused. The words “cold” and “chicken” did not match any previous concept of those tow worlds. Cold chicken came in chunks in a can. You drained the juice in the sink, sloped the chicken chunks into a bowl or container of some sort, poured in mayo, maybe some mustard, added some seasonings like parsley and whatever you saw fit, mixed it and slathered it on bread or Wheat Thins. Cold chicken came in slices you piled high on a bagel slathered in mayo, mustard and bursting with all the fixings.
Cold chicken didn’t have bones. Cold chicken didn’t look like cooked turkey. Cooked, warm, fresh from the oven chicken looked like cooked turkey. Pale skin. Delicious skin. White meat, Dark meat. Steam heading for the ceiling, disappearing into numerous nostrils before passing the forehead. Chicken with bone had spent quality time with the chemicals of oil in the fryer, in a basket coated with remnants of a previous batch of its brethren.
The chicken with bone on my plate was cold. Heartless. Yet it looked like I expected cooked chicken to look. The hands protested, snatched up the fork and tried again. Teeth and now tongue promptly rejected. The chicken with bone went back on the plate, a scowl creasing my face as my brow furrowed in disgust at the failure for all parts to agree. It did not like disagreement. It did not like dissent. Clearly hands and teeth objected but there was a solution. There was always a solution. One side had to give. One side always gave.
He reached over, stabbed my piece and put it onto his plate. He gave half to her and ate the other.
“No harm, no foul,” he said. “You tried it, like everything else we put in front of you.”
I smiled. “Chicken feet.”
We all laughed.