We had an assignment at the beginning of my sophomore year that required us to go to the Prospect Park Zoo to do some animal observation (as acting programs have wont to do). In the usual way back then, a group of us coordinated our trip to go together. Despite having been a shorter train ride away from Prospect Park than Central for our whole freshman year, I had not yet been. Even if I had made a couple of trips, though, I doubt there would have been any less aimless meandering down paths of misdirection as we tried to make our way to the intended destination. Despite intermittent map-glancing and address googling, we seemed to be circling it? Or maybe just to the left? Maybe it had closed down and we were being duped? We found a carousel on the way, which was fun, but not exactly the work we were supposed to be doing.
After finally finding the zoo and doing our work we were starving. With all our lost meandering we had stumbled right into the heart of dinner time without having had a proper lunch and not a dinner plan in sight. And just as our journey in was filled with misdirection and confusion, so was the journey out. Exiting the park itself was the easy part but, getting back home from wherever it was that we were, or at least back to Park Slope for some food, proved to be more of a challenge. A long wait for the wrong bus and what felt like a million blocks of walking later, my friend spotted our new favorite place for filling the body and soul when both felt empty.
She had recognized the large lettering outside Sweet Chick from an actors’ social media and said that they did chicken and waffles and other such soul food. A pile of fried food over some carbs sounded particularly perfect at that moment, and we propelled ourselves towards sustenance. The first whiff of crispy, fried, syrupy goodness hit before even opening the door making knees go weak, and our stomachs pause from eating themselves to look up in anticipation at what that intoxicating smell was indicating. Every plate at the tables of jovial people that filled the floor seemed to be the source, piled high with chicken, waffles, biscuits, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, grits, and more. We scored a table in the oasis, and while tempted to order one of everything, got some mac and cheese to share while we waited for our individual chicken and waffles.
Mac and cheese is one of the few foods I would eat as a kid. There was a sick irony to this as I was quite lactose intolerant, but the child’s palate is not ruled by reason or fear of future vomit. Only by simple starches and soft cheeses. So naturally, I would also not eat any old mac and cheese. Like the kind made with, say, real cheese. Only the powdered orange stuff of kraft creation would do. I loved sliding the smooth, uniform tubes onto my fork. The one monotone, but dependable and unchallenging, note of “general cheese” flavor I could rely on to fill the dairy-loving void in my life. I loved the visually stimulating bright orange of the powder making me feel like I was eating a fun and exciting food from a cartoon. None of these are things I look for in my mac and cheese today, but the base love that was formed at this early stage persists, and now a more “adult” version still holds a near and dear place in my heart as an ultimate comfort food. I don’t have mac and cheese very often, but when I do, I want it to hit me straight in the heart with maximum ooey-gooey cheesy goodness filling all the nooks and crannies of a good short pasta with both to spare.
When that little bowl of mac and cheese hit the center of our table my heart was just about pummeled. Tears just might have escaped all our eyes upon the witnessing of its beauty. Immaculate shells enrobed in glossy cheese of a color most opposite from the vivacious one from a box. An understated off-white speckled with crunchy bits of toasty brown breadcrumbs, and the occasional fleck of green from an herb mixed amongst them. But while its visual beauty was that of understatement, the slightly funky and cheddar-y sharp dance it did on the taste buds was anything but. The power of that mac and cheese vibrated throughout our bodies and gave us a new life. We chewed each one of those shells with gratitude and intentionality, not wanting to waste a second of the gloriousness we were lucky enough to receive. Damn, we should have each just ordered a whole mac and cheese for ourselves. Should we get another? One to go maybe? No, that’s too much. Right? It was a good thing the main event came in time to save us from ourselves.
I had never had chicken and waffles before. Individually I had eaten many kinds of both on numerous occasions but never married together on one plate to be eaten on one fork. While New Hampshire is obviously big on anything onto which maple syrup can be poured, this was one dish that seemed to be an exception at local restaurants and diners. But, as a t-shirt I own says, salty and sweet can’t be beat! So I was filled only with excitement as I embarked on this first chicken and waffles journey. That excitement was furthered by the special twists made to some of the standard portions: the waffles and the butters. While there was a plain waffle available, there was also the choice of ones dotted with rosemary and mushrooms, imbued with apple and cinnamon, and peppered with bacon and cheddar. I went with the last one, as the sole pork eater at the table with a desire for a well-rounded sampling of the offerings. Luckily the butters didn’t have to be decided on, and a sample of three different compound butters was available to the table. Whether you were feeling a wash of cool berries, a hit of bright lemon, or a savory bump of herbs you could jack up your waffle up in whatever way you wanted in each crispy pocket.
While the mac and cheese subdued the barbarousness of my hunger and laid a base layer of luscious childhood joy, the chicken and waffles were a punch right the gut of present-reveling, forward-looking, life-affirming joy. Each bit of chicken (even the surprisingly tasty vegetarian one that was ordered) was shatteringly crisp as could be on the outside and dripping with juice on the inside. Just enough grease for it to live up to being fried food but not so much that it was pooling everywhere and sogging it up. But most importantly, it was just enough to be absorbed by a bed of waffles that shared crispy-on-the-outside fluffy-on-the-inside excellence. And on the taste buds, it jammed out with a salty-sweet mix of its own, with the base waffle batter carrying a light sweet tune overlayed with an occasional salty crunch of bacon and a subtle sharp cheddar undertone tying them together. A slather of any butter and a dip in that good quality maple syrup (housed in the only kind of containers I want to see syrup in a restaurant so I can have fun sliding the spout opening back and forth)) and the soul could not help but be revitalized.
A great meal in a great atmosphere with good friends is sure to leave one glowing. I’ve been to plenty of restaurants and felt that post-meal contentment unique to eating well from the fruits of another’s labor of love. But the utter satisfaction of both body and mind after the harrowing journey of the day was unlike any other. We left the restaurant that evening with scant leftovers in hand (they were finished later that night) and the luminous pink words “It’s all good baby, baby” pulsating straight truth on the wall behind us.
We’ve made a pilgrimage to Sweet Chick again multiple times. We returned together, months later amid the quintessence of spring in celebration of a school year nearly complete. We returned separately with family or friends for a night to sit back, relax, and share joy. We returned always with a deep hunger that never failed to be satiated. With a desire to live inside a piece of perfect joy in a separate plane from the rest of the maddening world. Where the food and the people and the place all spoke the language of comfort.
I have been longing deeply to find myself at that rustic wooden table huddled amongst friends in a sea of friendly strangers again. I did my best to recapture a little piece of that spirit on my birthday this year, making my own chicken and waffles for birthday dinner. But while tasty in the way I wanted, it only made my Sweet Chick nostalgia deepen. And in that nostalgia, that potent memory of the feelings of pure elation, fullness, and friendship I will dwell to refill my reserves until it doesn’t have to be a memory anymore, and we find ourselves safely around that table again, giving our hearts some much-needed replenishment.
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