I’m just on my way back from a luncheon where I’ve been the featured speaker and have hopefully said something vaguely inspiring or coherent. I’m beginning to think I no longer sound very coherent. Or maybe I’m just sick of hearing myself talk.
As someone who talks to various groups around the country — I have become an unexpected connoisseur of rubber chicken luncheons and dinners. You name a chicken dish – I’ll bet I’ve eaten it— at least the American version. Who knew there were so many ways to prepare, disguise or gussy up poultry?
As I walked in the ballroom, the flower arrangements were bright and spring-like. People invest a lot of time and energy on these centerpieces and they learn to be pretty darned clever when there is a tight budget involved. A couple of carnations can go a long way. During the VIP cocktail portion, there were the coterie of well-dressed women in dresses and suits. We shook hands and traded pleasantries and I thought to myself………. Chicken. They’re definitely going to serve chicken. $100 bucks says I’m right.
But of course I couldn’t bet with the organizers—that would seem ungrateful. And I wasn’t ungrateful. But I was correct. There it was in all its’ baked and crumb-sprinkled glory, swimming in its own pool of hardening sauce.
Here’s the thing. I never really liked chicken to begin with. It was always my mother’s fall back position meal growing up. And somehow my mother, who is no Julia child but has many other talents, always seemed to overcook it. My image of chicken isn’t a succulent, falling-off-the- bone, flavorful bird; it’s the chicken of my childhood, with the bejesus baked out of it and without the dignity of even a dipping sauce. My image of chicken is dry, stringy white breasts. Come to think of it, not unlike my own image of myself at this age and stage of life.
When I go out to eat in a restaurant, I’d rather order ANYTHING than chicken. OK—pizza, even the stylish Wolfgang-Puckish kind is actually very last on that list. This is amateur food, stuff I have served to my kids for years. Chicken nuggets, pizza, mac and cheese are staples in my home kitchen and I’m not paying real money to have someone present me with the same old same old. When I go out to eat, I want to order something I cant and don’t make, something that seems to involve labor and ingredients I don’t have in my pantry.
So, how is it I have found myself in the ballrooms or meeting rooms of hotels and corporations and universities around the country for the past few years and it seems we always eat… chicken. Occasionally there has been a salmon or rarely some beef. Once or twice even pork—a religious risk, I’m sure, in some towns. I have begun to dread the dramatic moment when the banquet trays come out stacked with the silver plate covers. Chicken, I think to myself. How will they dress it up today?
I’ve stuck a fork in baked chicken, chicken tetrazzini, chicken cordon bleu, chicken teriyaki, chicken stuffed with spinach, chicken Hawaiian, and chicken Caesar salad. No one has tried to do chicken fingers at a group event yet but that’s probably because no one has had the guts.
Chicken is easy and cheap. Forget about the loaves and the fishes. Jesus would have gotten more bang for the buck with poultry. He could have fed more folks and franchised a whole heck of a lot easier.
Recently I was sitting next to the mayor of a city where I was speaking.
“Let’s see what they do to the chicken today,” he said, and I perked up.
A fellow traveler on the rubber chicken circuit, I thought. Of course—a politician. Who else would understand instinctively, the dismay and trepidation when the server lifts the metal lid off with a flourish?
“So have you thought about how much chicken you eat in a given month at these things? I asked. “You must have to eat a heck of a lot chicken.” He laughed out loud. I liked this mayor.
“Most of the time I don’t even eat it, “ he confessed. He explained that as mayor he often had to go between three lunches at a time. That much chicken would make even a politician lose his grin. Or grow feathers.
“You ought to keep a rubber chicken diary,” I said, and he laughed.
“I ought to take picture of each of the plates of chicken with my iPhone,” the mayor chuckled.
“You could post them on your iCal,” I ventured. “Kind of a memento of your time in office.” I liked that the mayor was a Mac person. It gave him edge.
The glasses clinked and it was time for the speaker to take to the dais and so we quieted. I pushed my chicken around in its gooey Elmer’s Glue-esque sauce.
I noticed the mayor didn’t touch his. He made some vague motions with his knife, cleverly cutting, pushing and doing a fork-fake. He moved a few bits under the rice for emphasis and took a swig of his iced tea.
At the airport later that afternoon I grabbed a bag of chips and some Twizzlers. They would be my bad girl stand in for lunch today. Kind of a punishment and a reward for the rigors of travel. God forbid the airlines dispense anything edible these days. Times were tough.
As I hustled to the gate and ducked in the ladies room to change out of my heels and into my jeans on the way to Denver—I breezed past a Chik-Fil-A, with people lined up for chicken-related snacks. An image of the mayor popped unbidden into my head.
By now he’d be home flipping through the TV channels in some sort of high-end barka lounger, a drink in hand. I pictured him asking his wife what was for dinner, calling into the kitchen absentmindedly from his den.
“Barbequed chicken!” she might answer. And he would wince, ever so quietly in the calm of his study. And then he would slowly let out his breath.