Gut Instinct: Don't Be Chicken

Yum yum in my tum tum.

“I think we've traveled far enough for a piece of fried chicken,” my friend Matt says, applying his bike brakes. Like a game-show girl, he fake-smiles and gestures to our impediment— an industrial canal featuring a 15-foot plunge into fetid water, with train-topped railroad tracks looming beyond.

“Maybe we can swim,” I replied, my mind set on crunchy wings, breasts as juicy as a summer melon.

“Think again, Bernstein,” Matt said, edging his bike from the precipice. “The quest for chicken has ended.”

To what lengths will a man go for food?

That question faced me in New Orleans last week, where I attempted to spike my cholesterol 50 points in 10 days. This is no chore in the land of gravy-sodden roast beef po’ boys, oil-crisped cornmeal oysters and praline bacon. It’s a sugary, fatty foodstuff that engineers both diabetes and heart attacks. But the meat of my quest was fried chicken.

I know, I know: In New York, I can gnaw on fine fowl at Locanda Verde, Blue Ribbon, the Redhead and Momofuku Noodle Bar.These restaurants, however, offended my delicate sensibilities—well, my wallet. I despise paying $15 or $20 for a few bites of bird. I quickly did mental math (a skill learned during college breaks spent working on factory assembly lines, when I tabulated how much I earned per second). Instead of paying highway robbery prices for Big Apple chicken, it was cheaper to fly to New Orleans and eat Big Easy fowl.

Quicker than you can utter irrational, I booked a flight, rented an apartment and convinced fellow carnivores to come.The days dissolved in a greasy blur.We consumed Cajun-spicy chicken at Coop’s Place, then peppery wings at takeout-only McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’.The James Beard Association–designated Willie Mae’s Scotch House was worth the hour wait. Its chicken was deeply golden brown and discounted ($7.50 for a heaping plate), with crust as crisp and flaky as French pastry. But I will stop torturing you with sweet words about distant fowl.You’d rather devour a tale devoted to my overeager idiocy.

I’d heard whisper of McKenzie’s Chicken in a Box, which sold whole birds for about eight bucks. I consulted Google Maps, which showed an 8-mile ride—simple, since New Orleans is flatter than day-old Diet Coke. I departed with Matt, a tour guide and iron-forged adventure-seeker.We navigated Nola’s topography, passing homes rebuilt, ruined and somewhere in the middle. It can be heartbreaking to cruise through block filled with resplendent dwellings, while the next approximates war-savaged Kosovo, the streets possessing potholes the size of golden retrievers.Then we hit the canal. Then Matt and I squabbled like a sexless old couple.

“Look, it’s not that I don’t want this chicken,” Matt said, “but there’s no way to get this chicken.” “You want the chicken.” “No, you want the chicken.” I turned Buster Keaton quiet, as I often do when perturbed. I consulted my map. My eyes brightened, like sun sneaking out from clouds. “We just have to cross that.” I pointed to a nearby bridge, the speeding drivers seemingly practicing for the Daytona 500.

“I don’t know…” Matt began. “Adventure,” I whispered. “You love adventure.”

Like a dog resigned to follow his thick-headed master, Matt followed as I weaved onto the sidewalk—no bike lane, naturally—and crested the viaduct. I glanced at the water and tracks below, earning a sweet dose of vertigo, before gravity hurtled us down the incline.We entered the whizzing traffic, avoiding swerving cars and a dead-dog obstacle. In the distance I spotted the ’60s-style signage for McKenzie’s, the faint grease scent as heady as perfume.

“We’re there!” I high-fived Matt, finding empty air. He was several blocks back, crouched at his bike. I circled back. “My scarf,” he moaned, pointing at the blue fabric ensnared in an oily chain. I tugged. He pulled. I yanked. He jerked.The scarf shot out like a bullet. “No more delays,” I said, putting his scarf in my bag as we rolled to McKenzie’s. The seat-less Southern restaurant was a vision from a time when saturated fat was known as good eatin’: fried okra, deep-fried crawfish pies, fried sweet-potato pies. Fried, fried, fried! We ordered a box of half chicken, hustled it to a stoop and bit into bliss.

The bird was fresh and peppery, with skin as crisp as Saltines. A perfect end to an imperfect adventure. “Was I right?” I asked Matt, who was busily tearing into a meaty breast. “You wouldn’t be happy unless you were right,” Matt said. “Now eat a wing and shut up."

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