Fried Chicken And Nostalgia Gravy: An Ode To Food Odysseys

A fresh pack of chicken, some bread crumbs, and an oven, combined and put onto a plate with supposed love, my allegedly sainted mother called this “Fried Chicken,” a lie that forever dimmed the glow on her halo. Can’t blame the woman, though. What else do you do when your husky tyke’s favorite restaurant disappears?

When I was a boy living on Long Island, and in New York, Connecticut, and Virginia, Roy Rogers was seemingly as commonplace as Burger King or Wendy’s is today. Fried chicken, biscuits, burgers that came in a foiled wrapper, thick fries, and the Fixin’s Bar. It was all inexplicable magic to me, and something that I went without for more than a decade as Roy’s shrunk down from a peak of about 650 locations to a few dozen.

And then, it happened. A friend/co-worker and fellow fast food nostalgist told me about a rogue Roy’s in a local mall, birthing an obsession and strengthening a friendship that had previously been built on the shared suffering that occurs in retail, a mutual appreciation for Mel Brooks, and his willingness to take me to bars.

The first time at the Roy Rogers at the Livingston Mall, I felt like I had stumbled back into my childhood. Everything tasted the same and looked the same. I couldn’t understand how this lone restaurant had survived. Remember, the early aughts weren’t a time of social media. When Roy’s left my small world, I assumed that it perished from existence.

Over the next couple of years, Jim and I would pop in to Roy’s for lunch once every couple of months, marveling at its continuing existence while filling the silence with the usual friendship banter about work, TV, and video games as he savored the cheeseburgers (which I remain unimpressed by), and I feasted on two golden fried chicken breasts, a biscuit, and a side of over-spiced mashed potatoes.

No chicken has ever or will ever compare. Not KFC, Popeyes, half-hearted stabs at Jersey diners with their honey-dipped disappointments, Mom with her breadcrumbed abomination, or indie-chicken places that deserve a more open mind from me. They’re all fighting for second place, partially because Roy’s is moist, but not greasy, with a flaky skin that’s well-seasoned, but not overwhelming, and partially because there’s just something about the food you grew up with. It isn’t in the seasoning or in the cooking process, but it’s in every bite, and it makes everything just a little bit better. For me, a kid who moved around a lot, maybe it was that Roy Rogers felt like a constant comfort. For you, that “place” from your childhood may have another meaning, but it means something because it was there in the beginning.

Nostalgia gravy isn’t always enough, though. A trip through Connecticut a few months ago included a stop at a hot dog joint that I had frequented whenever I visited my grandparents as a boy, and all the sepia-toned memories in the world couldn’t help make those hot dogs taste like anything other than a pink cylinder of sh*t on a stale bun.

The food has to be good, and it’s at Roy’s. But, for a moment, Roy Rogers once again became nothing more than a memory for me when, a couple of years after its reentry into my life, my beloved and magical chicken dispensary was snatched away again, its absence cruelly discovered while walking through the mall where Roy’s resided when Jim stopped mid-sentence. “One day, we’re going to turn the corner and it won’t…” he said, and it wasn’t. Not anymore. “Coming Soon: Modell’s Sporting Goods.”

This is all true.

Thankfully, a comic hunting trip along the Jersey Shore a few years ago freed me from the burden of having to troll Roy Rogers’ rest stop location for my chicken fix (good in a pinch, but I’ve always found the chicken to be more dried out and the experience to be less magical) when Jim and I discovered New Jersey’s last stand-alone Roy Rogers in Pine Beach, just a brisk 90-minute drive from my home. Once more, we made with the rejoicing, and I allowed myself to get chicken drunk on both the aroma and the taste of my favorite boyhood meal… biscuit included.

There’s no additional sad twist in this story, save for the underlying damage done to my cardiovascular system over the years. Jim and I visit Roy Rogers in Pine Beach at least once a year, including yesterday (for National Fried Chicken Day and for the hell of it) when I had my fried chicken and my smile, and then basked in the sound of Prince’s “Purple Rain” as it appropriately played while we pulled away. I’ve even dragged my wife down to Roy’s, but it doesn’t thrill her like it thrills Jim and, I assume, the other revelers whose faces always seem to carry a look of shock and contentment. There was a time when my parents lived a few minutes away from the restaurant; I visited them more back then.

Here’s the thing: Roy Rogers’ business is apparently booming because they’re slowly opening up new locations, including one that’s much closer to my house. Good news? Maybe. It definitely means more fried chicken, but it also means the end of mine and Jim’s pilgrimages; a nice thing we share that doubtlessly contributes to my affection for the food at this point because traditions are nice, and there’s something to be said for the extra dash of flavor that comes from knowing something is a “special treat.”

What’s the lesson? I suppose it’s that the land of nostalgia is a hell of a place to visit, but the magic might wear off if you do it too much.