Kellen Walker is an artist / writer / director who primarily integrates fragrance, food, audio recordings, familial ties and geography into her performative work. More info found here. Currently, she is working toward her MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts & Media at Columbia College Chicago, with her studies focusing on olfactory research paired with performance.
Her initiation into The Sin Eaters is recounted here…
MARY’S CAFE: Known to my family for decades as the best chicken fried steak in Texas… which is arguable because Babe’s in Roanoke is neck-in-neck. This little country joint lives in Strawn, Texas (I know, I know… in where?)– for those of you who don’t know where Stevenville is, it’s near Possum Kingdom Lake. No? The Toadies sang a song about that lake! The one about the prostitutes! Alright, well you for sure should know Dallas / Ft. Worth… Strawn is west of Fort Worth, toward Abilene, about, oh sixty miles outside Cowtown. My family has gone there for years, as it is two towns away from our lakehouse and one of maaaaybe three or four worth-it restaurants.
Leggings and comfy clothing on (read: stretchy), I was ready for my training in food eating competitions upon entering Mary’s… Let me back up. I am participating, performing, acting, and eating in a collaborative performance about food competitions. The work is titled Belt of Fat, written and directed by New York City playwright Moe Yousuf in collaboration with Chicago performance artist and writer Mike St. John. My one direction to engage in pre-rehearsals from Moe was to try an eating competition. I was to visit my home state for two weeks; what more perfect task than to have an eating contest hosted in “everything’s bigger,” good, old Texas! I entered Mary’s thinking the restaurant surely had some kind of dope eating challenge a la Adam Richmond, plus a badass t-shirt or something to come home with if I won!
I mean, really? Seriously? This place cannot describe small towns more charming in words. This is the front of their menu. The menu that Mary herself handed to us as we sipped our iced teas with lemon. We being myself and an old friend, Emily, who deserves all the photo and video credits for this food challenge… PLUS, I kind of did this on a whim, so she had to spontaneously watch me try to tackle a huge amount of food as she attempted to enjoy her regular-sized (in Texas standards) fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
So, on the menu, there is no “Eat This 90-ounce Chicken Fried Steak and Win A T-Shirt or a Polaroid on our Wall!” There wasn’t anything like that… if anything, the weirdest thing about the menu was the inclusion of frog legs and bull fries as sides… BULL FRIES, YALL. Nothing? What about Rocky Mountain Oysters? Anything? For the layperson… bull fries are cow testicles!!
i.e.: Mary’s is legitimate. A proper, small-town, Texan cafe.
So I proceed to ask Mary, our waitress, the owner, how large the Large Chicken Fried Steak is? She kind of laughed at me and replied, “Well honey, most people order that to have leftovers to take home.” Perfect. “I’ll take that, with a baked potato and ranch dressing for my salad.” (It was as if I never left Texas!) She smiles and remembers my order in her shorthand-worded memory. “Gravy with that, hon?” I look at Emily and respond, “Yes, please!”
So Mary, nor Texas, was not bluffing. Lo and behold, after a half an hour of waiting on the cook to make this bad boy to order (like I say, proper and down home), out comes my “large,” in which I proceed to joke with Mary with a So I Married an Axe Murderer quote… “I think I ordered the LARGE… Hello!” She smiled, but no one knew I was testing myself, “training,” as I like to call it, for Belt of Fat. In fact, no one in the restaurant batted an eye at the girl in the stretchy pants with a bit of a beer belly ordering a large chicken fried steak as big as her head.
And the gravy portion was massive as well!!
I braced myself, took a deep breath, realized I wasn’t even all that hungry, and got my fork and knife into it.
Let me just add here: I am not a big meat-eater. I have had my stints of vegetarianism, veganism, and just all-around-eating-less-red-meat-and-more-veggies-ism. I’m fairly read in pro-vegetarian literature and animal rights activism and Upton-Sinclair-esque journalism on factory farms. Let me tell you: I did NOT like this challenge once the first few bites, the beginning “mmm”s and “Wow, this is the best chicken fried steak”s faded. I could feel my body all of a sudden screaming, “WHooooa-A–a-A! Look out! More MEAT, YALL!” And my dad would be so proud.
But as I began to hit a wall, much akin to running or doing something aerobic, mentally I was struggling. Trays of food kept piling on tables beside us, bringing out fattier foods, plates of the same portion sizes, sides, sides, “Texas-sized” sides! I started to notice the obesity of my neighboring diners. Sounds of my own stomach gurgled… a rumble I’ve only heard when I’m starving. I began to say words like, “I don’t want to hurl in front of all these good people…” My partner-in-crime, Emily, was beginning to laugh nervously, and I could tell on behalf of her fork being put down that she had no more appetite.
I know some people have described eating food in the same caliber as this as “feeling their heart slow down,” or “hearing the fat cells multiply..” I don’t know about those. (What is it, like, bubbles popping?) All I know is, I could physically feel my intestines processing heavy, unwanted, abnormal amounts of cow flesh… Pan-seared in flour and drippings. Smothered in gravy. The potato was comforting in an odd way. The salad and “Texas toast” I didn’t even touch, forget that. And the iced tea surprisingly refreshed my over-the-top, full stomach and gave me the gumption to keep eating.
I ate three-forths of this chicken fried steak.
Let me just say a few things:
-I was more full than I am after the infamous Thanksgiving dinner each year.
-A lukewarm-turning-cold chicken fried steak (and gravy) has a different, not pleasant texture and flavor than deliciously right-out-of-the-cast-iron steak.
-I probably could’ve beat this “competition” if I were starving and just ran a half marathon.
-If I were eating something healthy(ish) or if it were vegetables, and varied (the monotony almost killed me), I could have pulled off the robotic chewing / cutting / overall persevering attitude.
-At one point, I started slurring my words! Either out of food drunkenness or out of my entire body shutting down to digest.
-Four hours later, I was already contemplating vegetarianism and tripping that my skin was already noticeably greasy, depression was setting in, and no motivation and naps were the most important task in my life (was I being overly dramatic? Or was is relevant?)
-Most of all, I had an incredible wave of guilt wash over me for the animal that gave me its life for me to gorge over… and for no damn T-shirt.
How American of me, to do something to an animal, to my body, to my mentality, only if there’s a prize awarding me at the end! I walked out of Mary’s with my tail between my legs since I had a styrofoam to-go box.
I heard that Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food eats mostly vegetarian when he’s not shooting an episode. I completely hear you, Adam. Since then, two weeks ago, I’ve eaten some baked tilapia, seasoned some cabbage with animal stock, and had a few chicken nuggets out of comfort since my dad made them all bachelor-esque; the rest has been pure vegetarian. I haven’t even craved bacon, you guys.
Since my makeshift food challenge, I’ve contemplated food portions in our country. Firstly, I’m not sure if chicken fried steak is solely a southern thing, but I do know that when you order it off a menu down here, expect it to come on a plate of astounding mass. I don’t think there was ever a time when I or a friend or family member ordered this dish and felt light and still hungry afterwards. It’s a meal that induces a guaranteed food coma. Also, all these food challenges (which, by the way, hot dog eating competitions were shown on ESPN last year for 4th of July…shocking!) are almost all about overly-consuming animal products. If it isn’t a challenge that boasts the spiciest, then I assure you it’s about the quantity of meat. Philosophically, what is that saying about our country? So, our wallets and stomachs can stretch enough to attempt these challenges, and only for a little tiny trophy at the end, if that! I think of my travels to Bosnia in 2010, how my best friend (die-hard vegetarian) had a hard time finding foods she could eat over there… One being the language barrier (I’m not sure if there is a Bosnian word for “vegetarian”); also the fact that since now their civil war is over, people want to eat meat to show that they can afford it. Back in the Bosnian war, most meals has no meat because they had to. WWII recipes rationed out meat scarcely, making savory pies with tons of roasted vegetables, adding just a skosh of minced beef or pork for flavoring rather than to star in the pie. Meat is the star of our food story today. I think about the global plates I’ve met, and by far the American ones pail in comparison with the largest meat ratios to everything else. And the meat just keeps getting bigger, more center stage, more affordable, and no one questions unless it’s an organic fryer or a traditional bird from the farmer’s market whose price seems outrageously expensive because it costs the honest cost needed to raise a proper chicken.
SIDENOTE: I really didn’t intend for the political, philosophical side of me to flame up in this project, but here it is. Now, more than ever, I want to re-visit Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope, Jonathan Saffron Foer’s Eating Animals, Food, Inc., shit I haven’t even read The Omnivore’s Dilemma yet. I always do this in waves, these passionate eras of my life where what I am eating is closely related to what I truly believe. Problem is, I really… really…. REALLY miss roasted carcasses when I’m straying from meat. There is just nothing better than pan gravy and tarragon-roasted-chicken with potatoes and parsnips, y’all.