Soul Food

HELEN CHAPPELL

September 03, 1992|By HELEN CHAPPELL

Oysterback, Md. -- "Now,'' says Miss Nettie, ''I call this nice.'' She settles herself down at the picnic table and looks around at the assembled faces. Most of them aren't looking at her; they're all fixated on the big platter of her fried chicken she's placed in the middle of the table, between the sliced tomatoes and the Silver Queen corn. Miss Nettie's fried chicken is the stuff dreams are made of.

Even Reverend Briscoe is in the spirit of things; he makes the grace short and sweet: ''Bless this fried -- ahem, this food -- to Thy service, Lord, amen,'' he says, and he's rewarded with the first breast off the plate and an extra large spoonful of Ella Spark's potato salad.

''You know, Reverend,'' Doreen Redmond says to him, teasing, ''I never did yet see a minister that didn't like fried chicken.'' Quick like, she reaches over and smacks her youngest kid's hand out of the roll basket. ''They will be passed to you, Chelsea,'' she says.

Surely, there will be Miss Nettie's fried chicken in heaven.

''Well, there's one minister who'll never eat another bite,'' Junior Redmond says, and sort of grins at his best friend Hudson Swann. But Huddie's about to have a big bite of a chicken thigh, and he just shakes his head.

''That's Reverend Briscoe's story. He ought to tell it,'' Huddie says. ''You and I were just there, sort of.''

Well, it only takes a little coaxing, but Reverend Alfred Briscoe likes a good story as much as any Eastern Shoreman, so he takes a sip from his iced tea and clears his throat.

''A while back, recall, I had a visit from a classmate from my seminary, Billy Sol Gantry.''

''The TV preacher?'' Desiree Grinch asks. ''The one that says the Equal Rights Amendment is a 'communist plot to destroy the American family and turn women into children-killing, husband-leaving lesbians who plan to destroy capitalism through the use of witchcraft, but they won't, if you put your hand on TV and send him money for his $600 suits?' '' There is a dangerous edge in her voice.

''He was hidin' out after that scandal with the topless duchess,'' Junie snorted, helping himself to another cat's head biscuit. ''Huddie and I could see that ol' Billy Sol was makin' the Rev unhappy, braggin' about his big ol' rich tee-vee ministry and how he was rakin' in the Cadillacs and the big Republican checks, so we figured we'd take him out fishing, get him out of Rev's hair for a while, right? Well, lo and behold, Ole Billy Sol Gantry there hooked a great big ol' blue, and while he was reeling it in, his whole set of false teeth, them great big white shiny choppers you see on TV, they come outta his mouth and fell in the water. Out to Jack's Hole, where it's about 300 feet deep, no less.''

Junie and Huddie are both looking suspiciously innocent, as if they had nothing to do with this. Huddie even picks up the story here.

''Well, that was fine with us, we was tired a listenin' to him inflate himself. And you know you ain't gonna find nothin' once it's gone down Jack's Hole. But Reverend here, he prevailed on us to do the Christian thing and try to retrieve Billy Sol's store teeth.

''So, we grabbed up one of Miss Nettie here's fried chicken legs, and we tied it to a long, long string and dropped it overboard into Jack's hole.

''And lo and behold, after a bit, we get a bite, and we reel that long string up, and there's Billy Sol's teeth, grippin' on that chicken leg like it was their last hope of salvation, which it well might have been.

''Billy Sol left town right after that. I guess facin' the media about the topless duchess was easier than admitting that no preacher can resist Miss Nettie's chicken,'' Huddie said, reaching for another piece.

''Maybe that'll teach him to badmouth women,'' Desiree says. ''And witches,'' she adds under her breath with a small, strange smile.

Helen Chappell, a novelist, writes her Oysterback tales from Easton.

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