A Family Feast that Features Meat Susan Straight explains to her daughters why the food at family gatherings is always meat. It makes the family feel prosperous, because there were times when they could not afford ribs and chicken. Susan Straight's new novel is A Million Nightingales.
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A Family Feast that Features Meat

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A Family Feast that Features Meat

A Family Feast that Features Meat

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Here's a story from commentator Susan Straight about the food at family gatherings.

SUSAN STRAIGHT: My oldest daughter said, seriously mom, everything we ate had meat in it. I thought there was going to be meat in the fruit salad. We were driving the two miles home from another family gathering. There'd been only close family, which meant about a hundred of us.

For this one, as always, we all brought our signature dishes and meat was everywhere. The men barbecued pork ribs like huge xylophones on the oil drum grill. The side dishes, barbeque beans with sausage. Green beans with bacon and salt pork. Black eye peas with neck bones and salt pork. And my gumbo with rice and ham, sausage and shrimp.

We have meat because no one had any in the old days. Meat is our means of displaying survival, prosperity and pride. Uncles told stories about how they survived on whatever they shot in the fields and woods of Oklahoma. My father in law said, sometimes I wonder if there were any squirrels and we got grown and moved to California. Relatives my own age have stories of hunger, too, because of circumstance or bad marriage or alcohol. Our cousins talk about growing up in Texas, shooting black birds from the sky with slingshots. Another cousin talks of scavenging at a dump here in California. He barbequed for this holiday and when he was done, I helped pile the ribs and chicken into huge foil pans.

People in the neighborhood see us gathering and they smell free meat, he always says angrily. This time I watched when one neighbor came up the driveway all hardy smiles and welcome and our cousin said loudly, what you bring? Nothing, like always. The smile faded and then came back wider. The man wanted a plate of food, as he does every holiday. But our cousins are tired of giving meat to everyone, so I was instructed to follow the man inside and make his plate for him. Salads, side dishes and one rib, one piece of chicken, no more. Our cousin said, come up here wanting meat every time. A whole plate of it. Don't know what all that meat costs.

In the car that night my oldest daughter said, and cousin E was so mad about that one guy and you had to make that plate for him. She had been unnerved by our cousin's vehement protection of the ribs. Do you understand what that meat means to them? I said. It meant survival. Your dad and all your uncles pay for all that meat every time. You've heard all the stories people like Mr. G tell. Mr. G is close friends with my father in law. He was born in North Florida and his own father died in an accident before his birth. The family was starving. When he was seven, he took a hammer and walked to a neighboring farm, where he killed a pig and dragged it back to his mother's house. He told me, I was so hungry and I was tired of waiting for me some meat. He has been a roofer for years. Owns three houses, drives a Navigator, but he still remembers that pig.

He figures our kids need to hear about the pig and the hunger so they'll understand meat and need and why we gather in the driveways and living rooms to cook flesh and share it and sit together, alive and prosperous and watchful.

NORRIS: Commentator and writer Susan Straight. Her new novel is titled A MILLION NIGHTINGALES.

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