The Circus, ch. 5: Soul food as a survival tactic

A memorial for the JD's on University, and an overview of the anatomy of a chicken spot.

Photo by Ari. H via Yelp

Photo by Ari. H via Yelp

The Circus is an essay series chronicling formative moments of race, class, and identity through the eyes and experiences of one man's time in Madison. Read the previous installments here and hear Michael Penn II discuss the series on the Tone Madison podcast here.

Writer’s Note: This essay was repurposed and updated from an observational assignment on food from my senior year at UW-Madison, from an Investigative Reporting class with the late Professor James L. Baughman. May he rest in peace.

In a place one never calls home, one must find home.

In my time at UW-Madison, I thought of downtown Madison as the whole world, miles of hallowed halls connecting the worldly professor to the drunken passerby. Finding home meant finding me, something downtown was no good at providing. When you’re one of just over a thousand—Black kids, brown kids—it may not feel as such when the world is condensed. You remember the smoke of every session, the fire beneath every skillet before dinner, the sweat dripping down the apartment walls with every Juvenile song. Outside the cluster of privilege that comes with a backpack, it felt like I’d see a person like me once per mile. Where is the congregation, my flock hiding in its skin?

I’m convinced that God is Black, that they live in traces of chicken grease. Whatever Heaven I climb into better have lemon pepper and frying oil and mild sauce that isn’t mere barbecue sauce on a moonlighting gig. My friend Danez took me to JD's—the now-closed restaurant at the corner of Bassett Street and University Avenue—for the first time when he passed through the city. He ordered a Tahitian Treat, making it the first time I’d ever heard of a Tahitian Treat. Blue walls, black tables, OPEN sign illuminating on the glass. Two pairs of hands over grease, handing you a receipt you better not lose. Silence, even with the television on. A weeknight turns to a sermon when you come to the table, breaking bread and bones and so much more.

Did we find God on the end of University Avenue? I cannot confirm, but they must know JD from Chicago.

I went weekly after that. With friends, with acquaintances, but never with enemies who don’t deserve our gold. Maybe they’ll see me in a mouthful of greens, opposed to what they thought they saw on Thursdays in Chadbourne Hall: where the wing line is to the back and a chicken joke is to the front. Many a loose nostril lingered by my door on the nights I took it to go, back to my cubicle of a room to eat alone. Sometimes I closed the door as if I had something to hide; others, I felt like the bony Mr. T and left the door wide, inviting everything from “Where is that from?” to “I knew I smelled chicken…” with the smirk of an asshole matching any other asshole move. Indeed, I pitied the fools that didn’t know the code.

The code is written and unwritten, like damn near all codes. When you’re in JD’s, or any other chicken spot, there’s likely a set of guidelines (more like commandments) posted in handwriting on the wall. That’s the written code. It varies, but there are a few components you probably know already:

  • If it says not to curse, don’t curse or be very careful about it.
    • The people behind the counter get to break this rule, it’s their shop.
  • If they only take cash, find an ATM or have the homie spot you.
    • You might get your card charged extra if it’s under a certain amount… live with it.
  • If they ran out of something you want, get something else and come back when they got it.
    • Don’t moan and groan over it unless you can play it off really well.
  • The specials are probably posted on this note.
    • So step back and scope the menu before you make a rash decision that could’ve saved you money if you didn’t tweak.
  • And for the love of Christ… have your order ready and don’t lose your receipt.
    • Because no one will have sympathy and your shit might get took.

Then there are the more informal rules, which are rather endless and malleable based on neighborhood, region, accent, and plenty more. I’m only disclosing to save the unfamiliar (unmelanated):

  • Patience is a virtue. They’re making it fresh, so don’t do the most if you have to wait.
    • The threshold for checking on the food is likely 20 minutes minimum without gettin’ cussed out.
    • Call ahead and take your time if you’re that worried about it.
  • If they get it wrong, be as nice as possible about what they missed or forgot.
    • Yelling will get you cussed out, because you deserve it.
    • If they don’t deserve it nice, talk shit aloud to potentially draw empathy from the other people waiting.
    • Ain’t no refunds unless they burnt the plate or the food’s raw. Then you got reason to scream.
  • Don’t ask to change the channel.
    • Meaning if you don’t be in the shop on the regular to the point where they at least know you by face and/or what you always get, you ain’t earned the privilege.
    • Hell, maybe they’ll be nice about it, but don’t press the issue unless there’s a playoff game on or something.
  • The sauce will cost extra.
    • Unless they fuck with you.
  • Do not discuss other rival spots.
    • (Aloud.)
  • Support the bootleg man.
    • Don’t take too long browsing between the discs.
    • Get you a purse. Maybe some oils.
  • Tell more homies to pull up.
    • It keeps them going. It might even help your clout.
  • Free shit is rare.
    • Be thankful if it comes.

You’re seasoned when you know the prices by heart (tax included.) A chicken sandwich meal went for $7.91 and they’d always look at me weird for not wanting any mayo or hot sauce. I questioned my own Blackness for a bit, unprompted, but I accepted my basicness a long time ago. Anyway, I realized the sandwich was just two chicken tenders on bread and I stopped playing myself, upgrading to the five-wing meal with mild sauce and lemon pepper for $7.38.

I liked to go on weeknights when everyone was buried in dorm food, when no one else was around and there’d be everything from an AMC western flick to a CNN report on childhood obesity on the television. The former confused me, the latter felt like some sort of forecast if this became habitual. I kept coming.

The weekend nights became a microcosm for the city, for the country. The tidal wave began somewhere between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., as a lowkey shop was suddenly flooded with upwards of thirty people at a time. Most were somewhat-intoxicated, all were hungry as hell for the only fried chicken they could get downtown at such unholy hours. The OPEN sign is bait for debauchery, and a keen setting for observation: Floral shirts, white tees, suede loafers, flip-flops, makeup no longer fleek, cheeks red from the cold. I reserved some nights to get my six pieces then: to turn the chicken spot to my living room, seated in an oddly-placed recliner like I’m tailgating because I am, stuck between a bite of meat too-hot and a wave of dap with the Black bodies I haven’t seen in a while. I know I’d see them here; the chicken joke shifts back into place.

The television had MTV Jams on those weekend nights, and MTV Jams is at its best in this unholy time where the randomized medley harkens back to a time when YouTube didn’t go on shuffle or even exist just yet. Look at him: gone off several cheap beers, staring at Nicki Minaj’s ass like he’s never seen an ass or a Black woman in control of her body before. Or a Black person at all. Listen to how that kid says “Hurry up, nigga…” under his breath like no one can hear him scrape plantation from his teeth: the “nigga” being someone who could easily be his father, scraping grease and burger meat off the grill, ready to count every white dollar in the drawer.

You learn a lot watching Black hands serve white mouths in the night. God is always there, even if they’re unpleased.

Lodged between boat shoe and Badgerwear, I felt safest in this chaos of Chicago-fried delight. I’d salute the three folks at their station before leaving, always making sure I wipe my space before they get to it. That shop disappeared and returned to cart form, but I look back fondly in the irony. For every shockwave sent through my melanin, I yearn for the very box giving me life, killing me. It made me travel to many a place that no longer exists today: the Melly Mell’s off the highway, where chicken came with a waffle and children got their hair braided in the background. (It lives on in catering only.) The JB’s, no relation, on South Park Street, which was soon replaced by a 7 Eleven and a Cricket store. As vice surrounds my tongue, I still salivate over the golden crisp without the conveyor belt. My church is a chicken-fried in a place that wants my flesh on the table.