Christmas Prisoner of War

I close my eyes in the dim lighting, trying to keep my palms from sweating. I nervously dry them on my pants, for I really have no idea what is coming. I’ve talked to others who have inadvertently ended up in my situation, and their only assurances were that you do heal and the mental anguish is the worst, coupled with the humiliation of the event. I imagine that this is what it must have been like to be a warrior a long time ago, abandoned by your tribe, pushed down the path of torture and violence, proving that you can take whatever pain that can be dished out.

I think of the Sioux Indians, who would hang by hooks in the muscle and sinew of their chests by hooks, slowing spinning over an open fire while chanting their chosen death songs until the hooks tore free from their flesh, rudely dumping their numb and throbbing body into coal and flames while they were cheered on by members of their tribe. I think of the Cherokee, my mother’s ancestors, and how they would scar themselves during the rite of manhood with a knife heated to glowing over the coals of a smelting fire to ensure that the wounds carved would carterize during the process, leaving behind only the grisly reminders of such courage.

There is no one here to cheer, nobody to acknowledge the pain that I am about to undergo of my own free will. Then I wonder internally as I seek the core of myself, that place that I can go hide in while everything sensory fades away. I wonder, “Is this truly my own free will?” I don’t think it is. I think that I have fallen victim to a society and to the whims of those who decide such things for us, how we should look, what is acceptable, what is considered attractive.

My sole companion is another male about my age, Caucasion like me, visibly nervous. Sweat dots his brow and I surreptiously touch my brow to ensure that I am not following suit, that his visible demonstration of fear is somehow transmitted through the air via pheremones. They say that you can smell fear, and I wonder if our captors, demure as they are in their heels and make-up and perfect hair, are truly aware of the trauma they are inflicting. I don’t think they do. They are distant and cold, yet polite as they ready the equipment and tools of their trade.

They finally call my name. I am startled, then relieved to be first. Now it will be over and I will be able to face this situation head on instead of wondering what was going to happen. Were those in power relieved that I am joining the masses that have been mutilated in this fashion? I realize as I make my way down the hall that men will truly do anything for women. I wish that it was a few hundred years ago when I could have just beat on a drum and brought home a mastadon leg or something to impress the females with. But this is now and this is happening. I think of 007, Jack Reacher, Carter and all those actors before me impersonating spies that have this same procedure done to prove their worth. The hall becomes impossibly long.

The technician orders me, gently enough, but it’s still an order, to remove my shirt, unbutton my pants and lie on the bench on my stomach with my face down. I attempt to relax, but cannot. My skin jerks inadvertently as she brushes on the scalding hot wax, taking careful even strokes. My panic increases and I think of my family and son and wonder if I will be the same when I see them again.

I find out that having your back waxed isn’t quite as painful as I thought it would be, but not exactly a walk in the park, either. All my fears of torture were a bit unfounded, but still justifiable. I was assured by the technician that this would be the very best Christmas present I could have given my wife. That makes me happy. I don’t say a word when I go home, thinking to surprise her with my baby-butt smooth back at some romantic interval that will make her realize just how much I love her, being willing to go through so much pain.

Four weeks later, she still hasn’t noticed. Oh, well. At least I know not to have that done again and I can enter the silent ranks of those who have walked that humiliating and painful path.

Racism and Fried Chicken

I met my wife ten years ago this coming June. Although we’ve only been married for a few years of those ten, we’ve been largely inseparable since we met in 2004. I like to think that she and I complement one another and together are better people than not. I know that I am.

Our tenure as cooks and, although I am hesitant to use the term as it implies a certain amount of arrogance, foodies began shortly after we met, mainly due to necessity. We were living on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., working relatively low-paying jobs for the area and completely strapped for cash. Cooking together became a way to save money on food costs, allowed us to experiment with foods that we would otherwise not be able to afford and helped us bond as a couple much deeper and faster than any other situation.

She also introduced me to other foods and cultures along the way. I’d never spent a lot of time on the true Eastern Shore, where I found to my astonishment that the people were friendly, down to earth and spent a lot of time doing things that I like to do, such as crabbing, hunting, oyster gathering (and eating!), gardening and working on old cars and trucks. I tried real crab cakes, ate half my body weight in raw oysters, learned to clean and shuck those tasty morsels, tried different types of roe, learned how soft-shelled crabs are harvested and why they are so tasty and expensive and expanded my horizons rather dramatically.

Which brings us to our annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day. The first year that we were dating, my then girlfriend, and to-be wife was seriously looking forward to celebrating MLK Day. At first I thought she was joking – it just seemed wrong, somehow. Why? We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (a bit too much), Cinco De Mayo, Thanksgiving (which seems wrong somehow as it is supposed to honor the Native Americans), Hanukah, and a whole host of international holidays which are wrapped around food as a honor to that culture.

So why did celebrating MLK Day with Fried Chicken, Collard Greens, Grits, Cornbread and reading Dr. King’s quotes make me so uncomfortable? For one thing, I think that it was my total lack of exposure to other cultures growing up where I did, in a holler between the small towns of Richlands and Grundy in deep Southwest Virginia.

Is it then, racist, to celebrate, as a white American, black culture through food on a major holiday? Why do we even question such a thing? Why are we, as a couple who are serious about honoring a southern black culture and embracing it’s positive effect on our own, hesitant to even admit that we do such a thing?

For one reason, nearly every white person that we have told about our celebrations of MLK Day through distinctly black southern, or one could argue just southern, food has hesitantly laughed, coughed and changed the subject. Rapidly. It’s as if we aren’t supposed to talk about Jim Crow laws, or segregation or this little thing called the Civil War. Why is that so wrong? Is it a southern white thing? Are we inherently ashamed?

All I know is that we made the best fried chicken, black-eyed peas and cornbread that I have ever had except for my Mom’s last night, invited some friends over and admired how much courage that it must have taken for Dr. King to deliver his message of equality and peace in a time of turmoil and outrage.