Michael Wertz
Food was never very important to my family when I was growing up, so my relationship to it has always been functional: I eat when hungry, and I don't care whether I'm sharing the experience with anyone else. In fact, I never knew how important food was to some people--much less that people actually bonded over it--before I met Rhonda. She was my first neighbor in Seattle, and she came knocking the day I arrived in the city, giving me a couch and insisting upon feeding me. Rhonda was the sort of person who would do anything for you, but the gift that meant the most was always her cooking.

It started with fried chicken, which was nothing new to me, even though she insisted that white people don't know what the stuff is. Rhonda's chicken was good--really good. It was also the greasiest I'd ever eaten. Occasionally, I'd wrap a wad of paper towels around a helping to absorb some of the excess, an act she solemnly disapproved of. But that was a rare occurrence, and otherwise, Rhonda loved to watch me eat, always laughing and providing running commentary, as though I were a child learning to use a fork for the very first time.

I started hanging out over at Rhonda's a lot. She would cook grits at night, with bacon and toast. I had never had grits before I met Rhonda.

"It's just like oatmeal," I told her the first time.

"This ain't no oatmeal," she replied, reverently.

"Sure it is," I said. Rhonda frowned as I devoured what she'd served me, scooping it up with the overabundance of accompanying bacon. Rhonda actually added salt to her bacon, or she must have, as it was essentially all I was able to taste when we ate together at night. It made the Olde English we shared go down like water.

"Look at you, scoopin' grits like a little nigger," she said with a snort.

"You're crazy," I told her.

"You my baby though, seriously," she offered. "You my heart." I smiled, warmed by the sentiment, and continued scooping grits with the salty bacon.

A few weeks later she took me by surprise with a neck bone.

"Suck the bone!" she screamed. "Suck on the boooone!"

"I'm not sucking on the bone," I said, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation (which seemed lost on Rhonda, who was deadly serious). I was having a hard time finishing the moist, gnarly tissue she had put on my plate. She was standing over me, bossily.

"I said, suck it!"

I sucked it. It was nasty, like sucking on a bone.

"There, you see? It's good, isn't it? Heh-ha-haaaa! My baby all up in here, suckin' on a neck bone!"

It was at least 3:00 a.m. at this point. She grabbed the telephone and dialed: "Estelle, you up? Listen, you know my baby Jeff, right? My next-door neighbor? My baby, Jeff! Yeah, well last week he was up in here doin' the runnin' man, right? Yeah, I know I told you Okay, well listen here, you know what he be doin' now? Girrrrl, you know what he be doin'? My baby, Jeff, is all up here, in my apartment, SUCKIN' ON A NECK BONE! HEH-HAAA-HAAAAHAAAA! Girl, I just about FELL OUT!"

One day, Rhonda told me to stop by and grab some chicken to take with me to work. When I knocked, a stranger opened the door. Rhonda had some people over.

"Hi baby!" she hollered from the kitchen. "Get in here and get your chicken." I gave a hello and a little wave to her guests and went to grab my food.

A man's voice at my back went, "Hey, wait just one minute. What you doin' here, Rhonda? You gonna serve some white boy before you serve us?" He was drunk, loud, and angry. I stopped short.

Rhonda looked him up and down before crossing the room to stand before him. "This here's my baby. And if he in my house, then he my nigger, not you, so sit yourself down and shut the fuck up, you got that?" I braced myself for the man's response, as I imagine we all did. He said nothing.

Rhonda gave me my chicken and a big hug, telling me to hurry up, that I was going to be late for work. It was the best-tasting chicken I've ever eaten. Straight from Mama's heart.