The other night I ordered chicken in a restaurant. It was a weekend night. It was chicken with a stuffing of morels, sherry and sautéed seasonal vidalias. It was served on a bed of wild rice, flavored with sherry and mixed with citrus-tinged sultanas. It came with a side order of haricots verts.
It is not as if it was fried. It was not as if I had asked for lima beans.
My friend Arthur had ordered a veal chop. My friend Babcock was having the rib eye. My friend Tinsley was having the filet.
Arthur said, “If you’re short on cash, I can always lend you a few bucks.”
I said, “Thank you, Arthur, but I think I’m in the mood for chicken.”
Arthur said, “I will not put up with you acting superior to me and my veal chop. They do awful things on those chicken farms too. You’ve seen them, stacked seven crates high on those trucks traveling down the interstate.”
I said, “Please, Arthur.”
Arthur said, “I understand they even give them shots. Steroids. To puff up their thighs.”
I said, “Arthur, I will try to be nice to the chicken. I will try not to chew very hard.”
Tinsley put down his wine glass and said, “I hope you know that I am not going to sit here and let you start one of those dietary things.”
I said, “Tinsley, this is not a statement. This is an order of chicken. I’ll ask them to add extra fat.”
Tinsley said, “You know, a piece of chicken can have just as many calories as a pork chop. I read it in Men’s Health. When we’re doing a lot of upper body work, our bodies actually require grease. It’s a muscular lubricant. Otherwise, your cartilage goes all to grit.”
I said, “I’m having the chicken. I liked the sound of the mushrooms.”
Babcock said, “I hope you know this is the ’90s. I hope you know that, in the ’90s, nobody orders chicken on a Friday night. My god, if we’d known you wanted chicken, we could have gone some place where there’s a salad bar with a sneeze guard.”
I said, “Babcock, it isn’t just chicken. It’s chicken with wild rice. For chrissake, there are citrus-tinged sultanas involved.”
Babcock shifted the angle of his salad fork on the white linen. “My god,” he said, “you might as well be having a milkshake and fries in the car.”
A waiter stopped by the table with basket full of brown, brick-size chunks of foccacia. “Excuse me,” he said. “Are you the gentleman who ordered the chicken?”
I said, “Yes, I’m having the chickenthe chicken with morels and wild rice and pale, exquisitely rare mushrooms and tiny green beans snatched untimely from their mother’s wombs. I am having the chicken that costs $27.95.”
The waiter held out a menu. “The kitchen just wanted me to check,” he said. “They wanted me to remind you that we do have a pasta dish.”
I said,“I am having the goddamned chicken. It has nothing to do with religion. It has nothing to do with my waist size. It has nothing to do with the injustice of eating barely suckled baby beef.”
My martini glass rattled against the service plate, and the flames in the votive candles began to flicker. I said, “I am paying for my own dinner. I will leave my own tip. I will eat chicken this night, even if it is served with cream of mushroom soup and a canful of onion rings. I will eat chicken, even if it comes with a Pocahontas Happy Meal.”
The waiter whisked the menu away. “All righty-dighty by me,” he said, as he flicked a foccacia crumb off the tablecloth. “I’m sure everyone will be waiting to see what happens when the wine list comes around.”
I had not known until that moment the shame of being a man who would dare to order chicken in a restaurant where votive candles glimmered on the table and an Anita O’Day CD wafted gently through the air. I could not, in fact, remember the last time I had seen anyone eat chicken by candlelight. I vaguely remembered an evening in a corner table. There were ferns involved. It was 1987. As I recall it, somebody ordered a glass of chablis.
I swear I am not making this moment up. I swear that, for a while, I lived in a world in which there was no steak on the menu. There were no pork chops. There were no veal chops. There was no lamb. There was a chicken breast, and it was covered in cheese sauce. People ate it and were glad. They ate it with Pepperidge Farm rolls and thought they were being elegant. They ate it without remorse, without regret, without explanation. They finished their dinners, looked lovingly into one another’s eyes, and then went home and had sex.
They did not mind eating chicken because it reminded them of their mothers. It reminded them of casseroles and good deeds done for the dead. It reminded them of Saturday-night leftover suppers and Sunday dinners with canned asparagus served on the side. They looked at the fake chain-restaurant grill marks on their chicken breasts and were reminded of barbecues and the Fourth of July and picnics. As they slathered schoolbus-yellow mustard all over their chicken breasts, they teared up and remembered their dads.
They ate chicken in public because it made them think of home. At home they were eating bowls of cereal and peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwiches. In restaurants they ordered chicken and ate it. With full mouths and glad hearts, they mumbled,“You know, my mom used to make something like this.”
They ate chicken proudly, in the same way they ate ground beef and macaroni and tunafish casserole. They ate without compunction; they ate without class. They ate chicken in public because they were peoplemostly menwho had grown up without wives and without families. They did not know that, a mere handful of years later, they would have taken cooking classes and learned how to deglaze pans. They did not know that, in grocery stores, waiting for them nightly, they would find one-person packages of de-boned, pre-skinned, ready-for-cooking chicken breasts.
They did not know that, one night, they would have a friend like Arthur, who would look over his half glasses and say, “Honestly. Chicken and morels and citrus sultanas. Why not order something you can’t do at home?”
They did not know that, exhausted from the 1980s and already weary of the 1990s, they would yearn for a dinner table at which somebody was eating lasagna. They did not know that they would ever long for the company of strangers, happy people blotting their lips on paper napkins, gratefully washing down their plates of Velvet Chicken Cheese Dream with glasses full of white zinfandel, thinking that, somehow, dinner in a fern bar reminded them of dinner with their mothers, not realizing that dinner with their mothers had been a horrible thing.