There’s a particular dish that, for me, sums up everything that the Christmas season is all about.

Fried chicken.

It’s an odd choice, no?  Perhaps you expected figgy pudding.  Let me explain.

It was roughly twenty years ago, in the early 90s. After a long day’s work, my friend Andy was greeted at his front door by a complete stranger.  Hi, I’m Holly, she said, peering through her glasses.  I’m gonna call you Daddy.  Her disheveled hair was blond; she wore a dirty, well-worn purple dress.  She was five years old, maybe six.

Andy went inside and learned that Holly really was going to be calling him Daddy – she was joining their family as a foster child.  As stressful or momentous as this may sound to you or me, this didn’t faze him much. It wasn’t the first foster kiddo for him and his wife Paula, and it wouldn’t be their last.

To be precise, Andy and Paula cared for exactly twenty children over the course of their foster parenting career, adopting three of those twenty in the process.  Add the two beautiful daughters they had the, uh, old fashioned way, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide brood.  In fact, Andy and Paula raised so many young children that they literally had a kid in kindergarten twelve years in a row.

Let me repeat that: They were parents of a kindergartner for twelve years in a row.

Given that their house was full of social workers, paperwork, and a mild level of general chaos, Andy knew that a home-cooked dinner wasn’t gonna happen on Holly’s first night with her new family.  So he did the sensible thing – he ran out and picked up some fried chicken from the place just up the street.

Later, at the dinner table, Holly’s eyes were understandably wide.  Reaching into the bucket of chicken, Andy asked whether Holly preferred a drumstick or a thigh; she chose drumstick. A few minutes later, Andy scooped some mashed potatoes onto her plate.  That’s when she said the words Andy would never forget:

You mean I get two things to eat tonight?

Now, I wasn’t there, but I’m willing to bet that every heart in the house melted right then.

Andy had no way to explain that their home was an all-you-can-eat kinda joint – it would have blown her little mind.  Instead, the family did their best to make her feel comfortable, welcome, and safe, the same way they’d done with the others who had sat in her place before.

It took a while for her to adjust, Andy told me.  It was months before she stopped raiding the kitchen garbage can for food.  He and Paula would find remnants and wrappers and scraps in the bedroom, leftovers from her late night scavenges.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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By now, we’re all familiar with the Christmas narrative:

And [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

In one sense, the story of Christ is a story of rejection.  He was rejected by the political and religious leaders of his day, he was rejected by his neighbors and townspeople, and eventually, he was rejected by his closest friends.

That story of rejection actually began the day he was born: There was no room for them in the inn.

Christ taught his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome strangers.  He preached about caring for the sick and visiting those in prison.  When he left, he commissioned his followers to continue his work, to be his eyes and ears and hands and feet – that is, to be “the body of Christ.”

Sometimes I wonder if I’m truly a part of the body of Christ, if I’m really walking the walk.  It seems like such a tall order.  Is it possible, in this modern age, to do what he asked of us?

Then Christmas rolls around, and I think of this story.  There was room in Andy’s inn — for Holly and nineteen others.

Is there room in the inn of my heart?

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Once, during an awkward icebreaker exercise with a large group, I was asked what I would choose for my last meal.  Sidestepping the morbid nature of such an inquiry, the answer was easy: my mama’s fried chicken with all the fixin’s.

I’m not great at frying food, and I’m even worse at making gravy, but I’m learning.  Here’s a basic recipe.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
adapted from the Joy of Cooking

3 to 3 1/2 pounds chicken drumsticks or thighs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 teaspoons salt, divided
2 teaspoons black pepper, divided
Sriracha or other hot sauce to taste (optional)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground red (cayenne) pepper, optional (or substitute your favorite Cajun seasoning blend (e.g., Tony Chachere’s)in lieu of the salt and the cayenne)
About 3 cups solid vegetable shortening
Nearby box of baking soda and/or fire extinguisher, just in case (seriously!)

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry. In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1 teaspoon of the pepper, and Sriracha or hot sauce, if using. Add the chicken to the buttermilk and turn to coat. Let stand for at least 15 minutes, or in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours.

In a large paper grocery bag, combine the flour, the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, the remaining 1 teaspoon black pepper, and cayenne pepper, if using. Shake to mix, then add the chicken pieces to the bag and shake until well coated.

In a large cast iron skillet (12-inch or larger), heat the shortening over medium-high heat to melt it. The goal is to have a 1/2 inch depth of hot melted shortening to fry in, so use more or less as necessary.

Heat the shortening to about 375 degrees, or until a small amount of flour sprinkled into the shortening bubbles furiously. Carefully lay the chicken pieces skin side down into the hot shortening. Cook for until browned on the bottom, about 10 minutes, checking frequently and repositioning if they are coloring unevenly. Lower the heat if they are browning too quickly.

Turn the pieces with tongs and cook an additional 10 minutes or so, until the second side is browned and the meat is cooked through. Remove the chicken to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Hold in a warm (170 degree) oven if not serving immediately.