“What’s for Dinner, Mom?”
Sweat dripped from my bangs, like little streams of salt water dripping from a pier after high tide. I took a second batch of acrid chicken nuggets out of the still smoking grease in the deep fryer on the countertop. My quest to fry the perfect batch of chicken nuggets had failed, not once, but twice, and I was terrified of ruining the third and final mound of mostly frozen chicken covering the sizable platter.
Adjacent to the kitchen, my twins, Nick and Ian, watched television in the living room and looked forward to a hearty mess of hot chicken nuggets, the likes of which McDonalds only dreamed of making. Nick moseyed into the kitchen just as I was scooping the last of another shriveled memory of a nugget, scrunched up his face, and declared, “Mom, you did it again! You made rocks. Impressive,” He pointed at the mound of black round things in the trash and patted my shoulder. “Keep trying, Mommy, you’ll get there.” Nick blew me a kiss and I cringed. I had just enough chicken left for one more bunch of nuggets. I simply could not turn them into briquets like the others.
I despised chicken in any form, but because I loved my boys, and for no other reason, I cooked it.
A six-year-old never forgets a chicken flogging. All I did was pick up a baby chicken to admire it, and boom! Mama bird attacked. Feet and feathers tangled in my hair as I ran screaming to the house, “Help me, I’m being feather-headed!”
I was traumatized. Feathers, oh dear lord, the feathers. The feathers muffled what I heard of the screaming chicken; it sounded soft to me. I could hear myself screaming though, when the feathers weren’t touching my face. Air came from a million different directions at once from inside the wings of the bird. I was being beaten for picking up a stupid baby chicken. I ran until the bird came loose.
Mom and Grandma laughed hard from the porch. I shook off the memory.
“When’s dinner, Mom?” asked my other son, Ian. He glanced at the trash can, then saw the pile of thawing chicken chunks, patted me on the shoulder, and went back to watching TV.
I knew this was my last chance to make the nuggets right. I trembled. The pressure and great responsibility of the situation made me bite my nails. The boys loved chicken nuggets just about more than anything and I had promised a mountain of them. Clouds of white billowed up from the bowl as I dredged the hacked-up bird through flour, buttermilk, then flour again. I waited half an eternity before moving on to the deep fryer, the machine that separated the amateur from the professional. I was no pro.
The clock was ticking. The boys’ stomachs were growling; they wanted dinner. They wanted hot, tender, juicy, perfectly spiced, golden brown chicken nuggets. I glanced at the still-smoldering black chunks in the trash can, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and whispered, “Mom, if you can hear me in heaven, please send me your know-how to cook these damned chicken nuggets for your precious grandkids. They’ll kill me if they have to eat Fruit Loops one more night this week for dinner.”
Face to face with the deep fryer and a plate full of protein on the counter, I threw the tiniest piece of breaded chicken in the pot to test the temperature of the oil. The oil fizzed and bubbled; it was ready to receive the nuggets. I decided to wipe the excess flour off of the countertop and then put all of the dirty dishes away before the great fry-off continued. Cooking in a pristine kitchen had to be good luck.
No more excuses. I squared my shoulders, planted my feet, and took up the wire net spoon like a weapon. Madam Mom was about to defeat the deep fryer. Blackened, burnt nuggets would not feed my children, but the knowledge that I had the power to make them right gave me hope. I chose hope and put the Fruit Loops away. I glared at the deep fryer and the deep fryer sizzled back. It was game on.
As if I were concentrating on a really hard test question, I lowered six raw, but breaded, nuggets into the bubbling, boiling oil. Immediately, they sank to the bottom of the fryer in a hissing swarm of golden effervescence. The timer had proven useless with the last two batches, resulting in the charred remains of chickens past. This time, I would rely on the old-fashioned method of watching them very carefully. It wasn’t long before the first batch came out, golden and crisp; another batch went in. My trepidation about cooking with the deep fryer was disappearing. A batch came out, another went in; my confidence grew with each batch until I did a happy dance around the kitchen. Dinner was done, the nuggets were perfect, the boys would be happy.
“Guys, nuggets! Come on!”
The guys came to the kitchen, happily spying their individual plates piled high with gold, not the burnt chicken nuggets that were still smoking in the trash can.
“These look great, Mom,” pronounced number one son.
“Do we have any sweet and sour sauce, Mom?” asked number two son.
“We have ketchup, mayo, and mustard,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Dang. Can I have Fruit Loops?”
“Yeah, me too.”