APRIL 2008 – NO. 23
Cajun Our Way
In Memorium: Popeyes founder Al Copeland
The consumption of a good piece of Popeyes fried chicken requires a certain degree of caution. And like a fine wine sniffed and rolled, there are rules: the lips should delicately trace the layers of skin as the batter is cautiously crunched. Move too fast, and the thick aroma of the Cajun mix is lost. Move too slow and the spices begin to overwhelm your airways — your nose leaking like a bored glue-sniffer's after giving paprika a go.
Even when things go badly, when your nostrils pulse like a furious bull's and the grease begins to glob thick and messy in your beard, a certain, inalienable truth remains: until the Popeyes empire is reduced to rubble, the Colonel will NEVER be king.
In the outer reaches — tucked in the same vague haze that holds my fears of clown wallpaper and the night of the dead mouse — there's a flickering shadow, the memory of my first visit to Popeyes. This was long before the bullet-proof glass, the hour-long commutes, the taunts of vegan crazies, the acid reflux, and all the other things that have at one time or another stood between me and my bowl of red beans and rice. Yes, this was back in the salad days — or perhaps better said, the age of my untested arteries.
It was a time of plastic red chairs, thick-batter nuggets (not those crappy chicken strips), the hearty slush of Cherry Coke, and the sweetest sweet-and-sour sauce I've ever tasted. On that first fateful trip at the age of eight, I remember my father quieting my cries with promises that we would almost certainly return soon. Good to his word, he made a ritual of it, whisking the whole family back to that little 20'x20' box time and time again. For awhile, we lived a warm dream slathered in BBQ dipping sauce. Then came that fateful day when the store, the sole Popeyes in my town, hung the sign that nearly marked our doom: Closed.
So it was that Chicken Night — a near weekly ritual at this point — fell on dark days. It seemed KFC had finally won out, that my family would have to make a concession. I had all but cozied up to the Colonel when my dad made a solemn decree: "I'll drive as far as I have to, as long as there's red beans and rice at the end of the road."
In that case, an hour trip was all it took; we found the same butter-rich biscuits in a town further down the road. What turned out to be important about his declaration was not the relatively small effort involved in that first journey (or the hundreds that followed), but the understanding that, no matter what obstacles the gods put in front of us, we'd always find a way to eat under that red awning.
And we did. What would follow were vacations spent traversing the back alleys of unknown cities, desperate searches through local yellow pages, nervous walks though seedy parts of town — all in preparation for that one ecstatic moment when the greatest Cajun chicken ever would enter our bodies and do battle with the most indestructible digestive tracks in the history of Hiatal hernia.
Later, when I went to college, I took up the search on my own. Alone for the first time in urban D.C., I'd hike 30 long city blocks in search of a store. This was when I began to weather the taunts of health-conscious classmates (later it would be a series of supposedly open-minded co-workers). I knew they meant well. They just couldn't understand: certain pleasures are worth it, no matter what the piper's price.
Throughout college, I indoctrinated girlfriends with the ways of the Mighty 'Eye, wrote pirate-voiced punk songs in the restaurant's honor, and seriously pitched a term paper on the virtues of fried (as opposed to roasted) chicken. On perhaps the greatest birthday of my life, a legion of my impoverished college friends surprised me in my dorm room with five overflowing boxes from Popeyes. Drunk on cheap rum and Cherry Coke, I toasted them each with the slight forward shake of a crispy drumstick.
Later, when I moved to New York — a fledgling, knob-kneed intern — I took the train to the wrong side of Prospect Park. Completely out of my element, I waded through a sea of hostile faces in search of a burnt-out building. I found a small room and a cash register barely visible through a thick pane of bullet-proof glass. As I approached it, a cashier with a patch over one eye stuttered angrily, demanding that I make up my mind. As I meekly voiced my order, she leveled an accusatory "What?!" I started to get a little scared. My mind said enough was enough — time to high-tail it. But my lips repeated the words: "I want a three-piece dinner: dark, spicy, with red beans and rice, and a medium cherry coke."
In retrospect, I should have seen the clouds rolling in: last summer, a friend and I took a long weekend, packed a lot of beers and a few bags, and headed to upstate New York for a small folk festival. On the way up the turnpike, we stopped at a truck-stop Popeyes. A few hours later, just about the time we pulled up to a remote farm in the outer Catskills, the almighty grease gods unleashed the full brunt of their Cajun fury. It was the first time I'd ever had food poisoning — an experience I won't soon forget. Those first few wretched hours extended into sleepless days, and before I knew it the weekend was over, and all I'd seen was the inside of a none-to-comfy Porta Potty.
On the way home, I swore off Popeyes … for exactly three weeks.
It's been a bad year. I quit a job, lost a woman I loved, and developed a chronic stomach ailment that has yet to be resolved. A few weeks ago, I was told that grease of any kind would exacerbate the latter condition indefinitely. As if I needed another bad omen, Popeyes founder Al Copeland died on March 23rd while seeking treatment for a salivary gland tumor. For the first time in my life, I'm officially off the (sweet and sour) sauce. With Al goes my ability to enjoy his chicken, for now at least.
I guess I knew this day would come — even before the umpteenth health craze stole all my batter buddies. Fair enough, friend. Lesson learned. It's time to quit my lazy ways and get into shape. I've never exercised before, but this time I've got a goal. So cue "Eye of the Tiger"; it's time for a good-ole training montage. Quit drinking, run every day, eat carrots out of a rabbit's ass — I'll do whatever it takes, as long as there's red beans and rice at the end of the road.
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