Natalie M. Colón: [Poultry or lack thereof]

I was raised a vegetarian, and when I say raised vegetarian it means that since birth my parents never fed me or allowed me to eat any meat. None whatsoever. I never tried meat until I was about six or seven, and even then it was hidden from my parents at a neighbor’s house, hidden from his parents too, since they were very good friends of the family and we thought they would tell on us. My brother, my neighbor and I would sneak into their kitchen, making sure no one was around, and get some slices of bologna ham and gobble them up in a rush of fear, adrenaline and the allure of the forbidden. But that is as far as we went. We were children, and as far as my brother and I were concerned, our parents were Gods, and I suspect that our little ham transgressions had more to do with our neighbor’s mischievous nature (he was more prone to disobedience) than with our need for meat. My brother and I were content with our lot, never missing what we had never had. 

Aside from the ham, at school and at other friends’ houses we would be extremely obedient, even helping those poor clueless mothers who were on the verge of a nervous breakdown because they could not imagine a meal without meat. “But, what do you eat?” They would ask, puzzled. We would patiently and compassionately ask them: “Do you have any rice?” “Cheese and crackers maybe?” A relaxed expression would take over their faces and a sigh of relief would involuntarily explode from their lips. The little children would not starve without meat, much to their surprise. 

We handled gracefully the constant questions and the frequent “but you can have fish right? Fish is not meat!!” We never suffered any serious teasing due to our diet. Other kids were more curious than offended or frightened, and their mothers were fine with it, once they got over the initial shock and figured out what to feed us. Everything was fine, 

until the day we tried chicken. 

We were at our neighbor’s house when his mother, who did not know we were there—it was the eighties, before cell phones and text messaging—arrived with a friend of hers, Lima. They had brought home a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to enjoy. Lima, who disliked my father, offered us some chicken; drumsticks to be exact. We refused, as I said, we were very obedient and the thought that we could just stop being vegetarians and eat meat had never occurred to us. We kept explaining to her about our diet, even though she knew about it. She kept insisting. We said our father would not let us and we would get into trouble. This would have been enough for most adults, if your parents did not allow you to do something it was their responsibility to not let you do it either; it was the unspoken parent code. But it wasn’t enough for Lima. She insisted and she told us our father would not be mad, that we had her permission and that our father would be proud of us if we tried chicken for the first time. She even said we should take the bones to our dad, so we would have proof of having eaten the chicken and he could properly congratulate us. She made it seem like a big deal, like a milestone we were supposed to hit, whose time had come. We were excited for our first time and we accepted. We enjoyed our chicken. With greasy faces we crunched on the delicious skin, without guilt or worry because we had “permission.” When we were done we took our bones and we ran home. We came in through the kitchen door and found our father there. We excitedly showed him the bones and gave him the good news, we had tried chicken for the first time. His face went blank and filled up with a quiet rage. He was mad at us, extremely mad. With a condescending tone that tried to mask unsuccessfully the anger inside, which I’m guessing now must have sounded like an understanding tone to him, he explained to us why we didn’t eat chicken, why it was wrong. Keep in mind we lived in the country and had chickens in our back yard. They were our pets; they had names. He said it was as if we had killed one of them. He said it was murder. He said eating any kind of animal was murder and that my brother and I had just become murderers. To be exact the word he used was “asesinos.” My brother and I did not cry, we were too ashamed to cry, we were now criminals, not victims, and crying is a luxury allowed only to the injured party. Murderers do not cry, they carry their guilt inside, and we did. Our father hated us now, we had gone beyond the limits of what was moral in our house, and our father never forgave us. He never gave an understanding word or an explanation that would put the blame where it belonged, Lima.

We never ate meat again until our parents divorced. We were with my mother at the supermarket and we started poking the packages of uncooked meat as we usually did. We were not used to the sight of it and it filled us with awe. Then my brother, who was older, spoke. He dared say it, well actually no he did not say it. What he actually did was grab both my mother’s hands and say: “Mom can we have… you know?” She did not know, and answered: “What honey?” probably thinking he wanted junk food or snacks. He insisted, “You know…” and touched the uncooked chicken inside its plastic wrapping. Genuinely surprised she said “Oh” and looked at my grandmother with whom we lived now. They apparently decided yes with their silent glances and bought the chicken. By our excitement they guessed we meant that we wanted the chicken now, but they were too tired to cook for us so they took us to Church’s Chicken. They ordered the chicken and we sat down to eat it. After the first bite my brother stood on the table and screamed something like “Chicken finally, we’re eating chicken!!” I was more tentative. I looked at the chicken and then at my mother and I asked “¿La cáscara se come?” meaning “Do I eat the peel?”
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