CF119 – The Help
I think the reason this movie touched me so much is because I can relate to it. It is set in 1963. I was born in 1970 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I grew up with friends who had black nannies. Char had a nanny (of course, I didn’t meet her till much, much later). As I grew up in the 70s and 80s, I can remember attending parties where all the guests were white, and all the help was black. It was just the way life was. I’m not saying that any of those maids were mistreated or were purposely made to feel inferior. In my recollection, many of the families genuinely loved and cared for those women who were so much a part of their daily lives. Yet, there was still a separation.
As I grew up, I began to learn what racism was. I honestly couldn’t understand it. I went to CCD. I went to Mass. I remembered the stories from the bible. You know, how Jesus said that unless we forgive our brother from our hearts, that the Father wouldn’t forgive us either. That’s scary. And that was one of the passages I recalled as a teenager when I came face-to-face with deep racism in my extended family. I don’t recall my parents ever making racist comments. But my grandparents… Yes. My aunts and uncles, yes. And I remember feeling so uncomfortable, so out-of-place when those kinds of things were said in my presence. It just didn’t seem right. And it made me feel like I didn’t fit in with my extended family.
But now, as an adult I can look back and see that what I thought was hatred at the time was really fear. One of my grandfathers was a sheriff’s deputy, and he served in the 1960s, at the height of racial tensions. He was on duty in downtown Baton Rouge, in protective gear, when the riots happened. As a deputy, he knew what went on in the prisons and the jails. He knew what went on in certain parts of town. His experiences had shaped him. Just like our experiences shape us. All my grandparents are now gone. I still don’t approve of the racism they exhibited when I was growing up. But I do now understand how they got that way. Those were difficult times. And tension was high.
And I think that’s what makes this movie so good. It makes it possible for us to leave our prejudices at the door, walk into the theater, and watch a very human story. A story that can help to put our personal experiences into perspective. Maybe make us re-think some of the conclusion we had previously drawn.
You know, Char and I left the movie the other night and we talked as we drove home. What really amazed us is that this was not “way back when.” Even though the movie was set in 1963, there was enough of the same things going on in 1973. Char and I both could recall similar situations, similar families. So, this movie hit home. And it told the story from the perspective of “the help.”
There is certainly more that I could say. Personal stories. But I don’t think that is necessary. What I will say is this: Go see the movie. It’s PG-13. I wouldn’t let my kids go see it. There’s thematic material in the movie that I just don’t want my kids to see. But it is a great story, a great film. And as we’ll see in a moment, there’s some good Southern cooking going on in that movie too! And We’ll talk about that in just a minute.
I can smell it now. And I could smell it then. Char and I were sitting in the theater watching The Help. It was a scene with Minney, and she was in the kitchen cooking. There it was. As soon as she stepped to the side, I could see what was on the stove. A black cast-iron skillet. And inside was chicken. Frying. Wow! The smell hit me and all of a sudden I was 7 years old again. Jumping up and down in the kitchen, begging my momma to hurry up. The chicken smelled so good! Funny how smells and memories are linked, huh? I love homemade fried chicken. Oh my goodness. And the chicken in Minney’s skillet looked oh so good!
You know, another thing they showed in the movie (though it really happens off-camera) is the killing of the chicken before bringing it inside to cook. And that reminded me so much about my time in the seminary in Mexico. If you remember, I left home when I was 18 and entered formation with Mother Teresa’s priests in Mexico. We lived among the poor. I might have been in Mexico for only a week or two when I saw my first chicken killed. I was with another seminarian and we were visiting families in the area. Mercedes was the mother of this particular family. And over the next two years, I would come to know them and love them as friends. But that day, Chicken Day, was the first time I had met Mercedes, Arturo and their children. It was quite a day.
I was fresh in Mexico. I was still getting used to the poverty, the dirt, the flies, and the stench. Everything was dirty. Dirt and dust was everywhere. I mean, I am from Louisiana. Water is everywhere, and so are plants, grass, trees. It’s hard to find dirt. There’s lots of mud though. But where I was in Mexico, there was no grass. It was hot, dry, and dusty. Flies were everywhere. I remember sitting there outside their house, which was really like a shack or a club house that you and I would build as kids. I sat there and kept shoeing flies off of me every time they landed. After a while, I realized that I was the only one shoeing them away. No one else seemed to noticed when flies landed on them. I, then, forced myself not to shoe them away. I didn’t want to offend. During the course of the conversation (very one-sided, mind you, since I could not speak a word of Spanish), Mercedes got up, grabbed one of the chickens (by the neck) that was running around the “yard,” swung it up over her head and wrung that chicken’s neck. Literally. I was stunned. But not as stunned as I was about to be. She then slapped it down on this board, pulled a butcher’s knife out of thin air and decapitated that chicken. And you know what? It hopped up and started running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Literally. It did. Blood spurting out of it’s headless neck. I was motionless. And speechless… in both English and Spanish. I couldn’t say a word. Now I was really stunned. Up until that point, I only knew that chicken came from a grocery store, and it came wrapped in plastic on a styrofoam platter. In my mind I had never associated the chicken I ate with that feathery thing that runs around in peoples’ yards and lays eggs. It blew my mind.
Once the chicken finally keeled over, Mercedes grabbed it and hung on the clothesline by its feet to let the blood drain out. I don’t know how long that chicken hung there. It could have been an eternity. I was transfixed by that lifeless, bloody thing hanging there. I hardly noticed anything else in creation. But I did happen to notice that nobody else seemed to even notice the decapitated chicken 5 feet away from me. They were used to it. I think I was in shock. It was just too much reality for one afternoon. I was disgusted and fascinated all at the same time.
After a while, Mercedes took the chicken down and started dunking it in a big metal tub of warm water. I was told later that she was softening up the feathers and the skin so that she could more easily pluck the chicken. And pluck that chicken she did. She ripped the feathers out while talking to us. Like is was no big deal. Like she didn’t even notice what she was doing to that bird. And, truthfully, she didn’t because it was second nature. Once the chicken was naked, well, I don’t really remember what happened next. I was too overwhelmed. She might have gone after it again with her knife. Or she might have cooked it whole. I wish I could remember that part. But I don’t. I think my brain started to shut down. Must have been the shock.
But all of that came back to me when I saw Minney wring that chicken’s neck… and prep it for frying in that beautiful black skillet. Good eats, folks!
Here’s a pic of me with Mercedes and Arturo shortly after Mercedes had given birth to her youngest (at least at that time). They were so excited to have a picture of me with the baby. I was always amazed by the joy that they had in life. It was contagious!
We love chicken in our house. I don’t have them running around my yard, but I wish I did. But we cook chickens all the time. A few years ago we made the switch to free-range chickens. I remember the first time I ate a free-range chicken. I was amazed by it. It felt and tasted so different than the Tyson chicken we bought at the grocery. There was so much more flavor. Once we tried it we were hooked.
I’d like to share with you a very simple way to prepare a whole chicken. We cook chicken this way in our house at least once a week, sometimes twice. Now, we are a family of five, so I usually do two birds. We always have leftovers, but that is a really good thing, as you will see.
We have two vertical roasters (upright roasting stands). Boy, I really love those! So I take the whole chickens and place them on a working surface, where I season them with a Konriko (a Creole seasoning mix). The same effect could be had with kosher salt, ground black pepper, cayenne, and maybe a little granulated garlic. I also use Greek seasoning that we get from the Greek Fest every year. It contains dried oregano, red pepper flakes, rosemary (and possibly dried basil?). I stick the chicken in one big pan, sitting them on the vertical roasters. I stick them in the oven that has been pre-heated to 400 degrees. After 20 minutes I turn the temp down to 350 and let them roast for another 40 minutes.
That’s it! They are so delicious. But the fun doesn’t end there. Mama and Daddy get the wings (that’s our favorite!), despite the kids always begging for them. And we keep all the bones. Once the kids are finished gnawing on the bones, they know not to throw them away. They go in a special container that we then put into the fridge or the freezer (depending on when we plan on making stock). Yep. We use those bones to make the best chicken stock you’ve ever tasted. And that stock can be used for other soups or gumbos. You see, if we have left over chicken that first night, I’ll take the meat off the bones and reserve it. Make a stock the next day, and then use the meat and the stock to make a soup. You talk about good! And it’s economical too. We get everything we can out of them little yard birds.
So, Mercedes, Gracias for opening my eyes to where the chickens I eat really come from. And thanks for befriending me for those two years in Mexico. Buen provecho!
That was Sarah Reinhard, folks with her Mary in the Kitchen segment. We are so lucky to have Sarah on the show here with us. And you can find more of Sarah, and links to her work elsewhere… and her new book at SnoringScholar.com. A special thanks to L’Angelus for letting us use their Ave Maria in the show!
Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, which commemorates that Mary, at the end of her life, was taken up to heaven body and soul. By a special privilege, she did not know death.
Now, you want to talk about the true Help… The true Help is Mary. She’s the Mama who is taking care of everybody else children. Well, she’s taking care of God’s children. And she is very much concerned that all God’s children go to heaven. I admit, I was thinking about Our Lady while I was watching The Help. God is good.
Just a couple of quick announcements here before we close out the show…
First of all, I was so excited the other day to receive a text from my friend Sarah Vabulas, also known as the Catholic Drinkie at CatholicDrinkie.com. She texted me to tell me that the two of us were mentioned on the Smithsonian Magazine’s blog. Wow! That is really awesome. Lisa Bramen wrote an article about grilling and saints. Of course, St. Lawrence figured into that article. I was very much impressed that Lisa Bramen referenced the Catholic Foodie. She linked to an article I wrote last year for the feast of St. Martha. Make sure to check out Lisa’s article on the Smithsonian’s blog.
Secondly, I want to let you know that I am re-designing CatholicFoodie.com. It’s not ready yet, but if you want to take a sneak peek you can go to new.catholicfoodie.com. I hope to have all the old material moved over to the new platform by next week. It’s been a slow and painful process as I am migrating three years of content from Drupal to WordPress. I am looking forward to launching the new site soon for many reasons, one of which is that it will make the Catholic Foodie book project much easier to manage.
Yes, you heard me correctly. The Catholic Foodie book project. It’s finally happening. I hope to be able to give you the scoop in the next couple of weeks. Until then, pray! It’s very exciting!
Also, if you have feedback for the Catholic Foodie, particularly if you want to share with me how food meets faith in your life, give me a call on the voice feedback line – 985-635-4974 or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you!
And, until next time… Bon appetit!
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