Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Chicken Rules

In talking to some girlfriends the other day, I realized that many of us grew up with a caste system for food rations at the dinner table. In the days before boneless, skinless tenders packaged for our convenience, people cooked whole chickens, and your position in the family determined the piece of chicken you got. The biggest and best pieces went to the adults first, and then the other pieces were doled out according to your size and/or age. A kid didn't have a shot at a breast. My friend Jane says she feels like she spent half her life working her way up to the pulley bone and into a seat at the adult table. I know what she means. Dad and mom always got the chicken breasts at our house. I remember getting a thigh. I was the firstborn, so I was pretty lucky. I don't really like dark meat, but at least I got a decent sized piece of meat. My brothers usually ate the legs. Good thing we didn't have any more kids under our roof, 'cause the next sibling would have gotten stuck sucking the scraps off a measley wing. Our kids are so spoiled these days. In this made to order world they have their choice of chicken parts. They have no idea what it's like to wistfully watch the platter get plucked clean as it works its way toward you. They've never lived in a world without nuggets or tenders.

My generation also grew up on the tail end of the sexist tradition called "the men get to eat first". Whenever there was a big family meal and everyone was called to the table, grandma always gave the men permission to fill their plates first. The children followed, and the women went last, eating whatever was left and sitting in the least desirable seats. When I got big enough to realize the unfairness of this rule, I was appalled, mostly because I could see myself at the end of the line in a few years. Phyllis Schlafley and Gloria Steinem were pounding the streets, trying to muster up enough votes for the Equal Rights Amendment while women all over the Midwest were slaving over a hot stove on holidays only to find themselves relegated to a card table in the living room with cold green bean casserole. I was outraged. This tradition quietly died out in my family as I reached adulthood, but it continued in my husband's family into the first year of our marriage. I didn't want to rock the boat with my new in-laws, so I kept my mouth shut...until that fateful Thanksgiving when my sister-in-law had had enough. When my mother-in-law announced that the men could go first, Sissy blew her lid. She went off on a rant that would have made the suffragettes proud. The other women chimed in, Mama J. caved, and Sissy and I headed to the head of the line. That first dip of cole slaw was liberating! We also sat down at the dining room table, taking our pick of seats. Glory, glory halleleuah! We were empowered!

Today we don't even think about. Everybody jumps in line in no particular order. We sit wherever we want, and there are plenty of chicken breasts to go around. We didn't get the ERA signed, but we did win a few other battles that are just as important to your pride as equal pay. We get to eat at the big table.

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