Fried Chicken & Watermelon: Ingredients for Un-Othering

After a local farmer and my produce manager got done calculating, chuckling, handshaking, and backslapping, I quickly found out what the big deal was about. One of the biggest deals of the summer, of every summer. Watermelon season!

As temperatures rise, so does the demand for the green-hulled, red fruit. Well, it’s usually red, but sometimes yellow. Usually with seeds, but sometimes seedless. Usually oblong with light green stripes, but sometimes round like large, dark green, bowling balls.

Bins of watermelons. Bins the size of small outdoor pools, about three feet high and covering the entire 48” x 40” wooden pallets. Pallet after pallet. Pallets on pallets. Forklifts to remove top pallets from bottom pallets. Hand-jacks to haul bins from the storage area to the produce area of the store. Toss the melons from one worker to the other, from one bin to the next, until the bins are brimming over. Jump into the half-empty bins to toss the remaining watermelons to a coworker to pile them onto a fuller bin. Jump back out and replace the empty bin with another full bin. And, of course, toss some more melons from one person to the next to top off the new bin.

It was important that workers not fall out of sync with each other, but every once and a while somebody would miss the catch. The rind seems so hard when you’re picking up a watermelon, but breaks like an egg when crashing on the grocery store floor after flying eight or ten feet through the air. Nobody wanted to clean up scrambled green rinds, red flesh, and black seeds, from the floor or ourselves. The worst part was mopping up what looks like water but becomes sticky like syrup when not completely dissolved.

It seemed everyone in the zip code was alerted when we received a fresh batch of watermelons because several times a day we had to steer the hand-jack through traffic jams of grocery carts to supply their demand. It seemed watermelon was ripe for all occasions: children’s birthday parties, church picnics, June wedding receptions, July 4th celebrations, preseason tailgating in August, you name it!

Not only did we sell whole watermelons, but we cut and packaged watermelons to be sold by halves and quarters. We shrink-wrapped triangular watermelon slices on display trays. We chopped up watermelon chunks and sealed them in plastic containers for customers who were in a hurry for a convenient, cool, clean snack.

The store’s deli refused to let the produce department have all the fun and profits. Their salad bar stayed stocked with fruit salad containing scoops of watermelon, along with cantaloupe, and honeydew melons. These artisans carved fruit baskets from the outside of the watermelons and filled them with watermelon scoops, grapes, fresh pineapple chunks, apple slices, or whatever else appealed to their eyes and the customer’s taste.

Having the deli right next to the produce department made meal breaks especially convenient for us. One of the deli’s staples was fried chicken prepared in a variety of ways. Of course, there was regular, extra crispy, or spicy thighs, drumsticks, wings, breasts, backs, and necks. Boneless, skinless fried chicken strips were also very popular, coming with several choices of dipping sauces like barbeque, ranch, sweet and sour, and honey mustard.

But that’s not all. They kept freshly fried chicken livers and gizzards on hand, too. Amazingly, some people preferred snacking on these little organs like popcorn, rather than eating the more popular parts. These are merely the varieties of fried chicken sold at this major grocery store.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot of finger-lickin’, lip-smackin’, and seed-spittin’? Especially in a 90% White, Midwestern, suburban community, from a store where less than 10% of the employees were Black?

by Carl McRoy

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