Earlier this week I sat once again in a hospital waiting room. Anticipating an hour or more, I brought with me Cleopatra, a new book by Stacy Schiff. As I read about lavish banquets and postwar processions, imagining dinners of peacocks and presentations of sacred bulls, I slowly lost focus of the 49 B.C. festivities, tuning in instead to the 21st century conversation across the room.
“A few years ago my cousin Alphonse helped with Christmas Dinner,” explained an old woman named Mavis. “I had a gumbo and a turkey ready, but he brought a huge pan covered in foil for my oven. Inside was two coons*, surrounded by corn, carrots, and onions. It sure looked pretty, but I couldn’t eat it.”
“Should we eat them nutria rats*?” asked Weezie.
“I told my husband to bring me one,” said Mavis. “He brought me two. Honey, when I saw them heads! But the meat was so pretty and white. I made chili with one and gravy with spoon bread with the other. I told my kids and grandkids that it was rabbit."
“I know what you mean,” said Weezie. “My mama tried to pass a cow tongue off as a roast at her table. She told me what it was and my throat got tight, and I just couldn’t swallow.”
Alma chimed in, “My husband is from Woodville, Mississippi. He made sure that every creature that walked across that country road ended up on my stove. We ate it all. I cooked alligator, possum, coon, rabbit, deer, frogs, you name it. But the one I couldn’t take was that wild hog. I couldn’t even bite it. Something about that musk smell.”
“That’s how I feel about chitlins,”* said one.
“Oooh I love chitlins!” said another.
“When my Tawny moved to Madisonville,” explained Mavis, “we’d catch those big frogs around dusk and cook ‘em for dinner. They do taste a little like chicken, but just because I know it’s a frog, it tastes different.”
“You ever tried that calamari?” asked Alma. “We was in California and I saw these cold, round hamburger-lookin’ things on a platter and tried one. It was some good. I ate three before I saw them legs out of the corner of my eye. They was just danglin’ out of my mouth, and I couldn’t move. I mean I couldn’t spit it out, I couldn’t swallow, no nothin’. The room started spinnin,’ and his legs was still hangin’ out of my mouth. And to think, just a second before, I thought it was good! My daughter finally pulled it out.”
“That’s nothin’,” said Weezie. “You ever seen them snails, with the garlic and the butter? It’s disgustin’!”
“When my granddaughter Tawny was pregnant,” said Mavis, "all she wanted was them clams from Popeye’s. She ate ‘em everyday, and she drove across town, because only one Popeye’s in New Orleans fixed clams. To me they taste like rubber bands. You just chew and chew until you swallow.”
“I saw a woman on TV who ate toilet paper,” said Alma. “But she only liked the two-ply.”
“Come on, Honey. We need another sample.”
And with that, she wheeled the old lady into the back, the rest of us silent and staring.
Dolores Pepper (a.k.a. Wendy Rodrigue)