Country-Fried Tofu and Collard Greens for Two
For the tofu: 1/2 c. oil. 1 pkg. firm tofu, sliced
3/8 in. thick, pressed and marinated chicken-style.
Our special Southern-Fried Spice Mix (turn to pg. 9).
1/2 c. soymilk mixed with 2 tsp. lemon juice.
2 c. breadcrumbs.
How he sits at the table, rough hands with dark half-moons of dirt
and train grease beneath his nails, rough hands gentle as he tears
the darkly verdant lobes of collard leaves into small and smaller pieces.
How the oil smokes in the skillets as you add the essential elements:
Southern ghosts flattened and folded into the batter, Spanish moss
blackened in the bottom of the pan. An alligator foot amulet here,
a pinch of jasmine blossom there.
Place spice mixture, soymilk mixture, and breadcrumbs
in separate bowls.
You stir, sauté, fry. He puts a bottleneck over his finger, slides it across
the nickel-plate strings of his guitar. How he plays, fast and loose,
a brawl that ends in a kiss, that American primitive.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
Take each slice of tofu and dip it in the soymilk mixture,
then the breadcrumbs, and finally the spice mix
before placing it in the skillet to fry in the hot oil.
Cook each piece until browned, then flip it over
and cook the other side ‘til it’s a nice golden brown, too.
He hands you the accordion and you squeeze out notes
like seasoning— sprinkle of bluegrass here, tablespoon
of zydeco there, and the two of you slide further south. How
Tennessee turns Mississippi, Louisiana; mountains melt into bayou.
Place cooked tofu slices on a plate lined
with paper towels to blot out excess oil.
Place names like spices, recipe as map: mix in Osceola, Jericho,
Senatobia, Bogue Chitto, Magnolia, Tangipahoa, Ponchatoula,
Nouvelle Orleans. And always that Big Muddy, that quicksilver river,
silt between your teeth just like the grit on unwashed greens.
How this meal is haunted by other dinners you’ve shared. Dinner
of hors d’oeuvres stolen from posh nightclubs, food full of words
crisp as new money—watercress, bruschetta, applewood smoked
bacon with the soggy fat cut off; dinner of running from the doorman
when he realized you were empty pockets, splashing
all the oily puddles on Water Street. Dinner of mud prints
on the kitchen floor, his boots, your bare feet; dinner of whatever
you could throw together, soup of expired miso, remnants
of two-day-old rotisserie chicken, basil from your windowsill garden.
For the greens: ½ small yellow onion, diced.
3 cloves garlic, minced. 2-3 cups vegetable broth.
1 teaspoon smoked salt. ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes.
2 lbs collard greens. black pepper. hot sauce.
Dinner of Night Train and inked ellipses. How you’re distracted
by music, his silhouette glowing against the dusk that presses in
through the window, the honeysuckle light, and the tofu burns a little
on one side. How he doesn’t care. You both eat standing up, lean
your faces into the steam off the still-hot pans, feed each other forkfuls
of collard and fried tofu, grease and Crystal leaving snail-trails on your chins.
Coat a large deep skillet or pot with vegetable oil.
Sauté onions until almost tender over medium heat
and then add in garlic. Cook until onion and garlic
are fragrant, about 2-3 minutes.
Better than mama used to make, he says, his voice all jasmine,
night-bloomed, his big muddy drawl. He calls for more music, a trip
to Tupelo by way of Memphis. How Elvis spins on the turntable
and this boy, this dog lost in the August rain who followed you home
and stayed, spins you across the dusk kitchen.
Add in vegetable broth. Season broth with smoked salt
and red pepper flakes. Taste and adjust the seasonings
if needed. (Go easy to start, because you can always
add more but you can’t take ‘em out once they’re in.)
Bring to a simmer and reduce heat.
His arms around you, warm as the southern breeze. You rest your head
against his shoulder and wonder if, when he finds his way
back to his real home, he’ll ask you to follow him for a change.
Add in the greens. Greens will wilt down as they cook.
Or if he’ll decide to stay in your northern city.
Simmer for 1 hr to 1 hr 30 mins. Do not boil.
Add more vegetable broth if needed. May need more
or less time so be sure to check them after 30-45 minutes.
When done, greens will be dark green, tender
and will not have a raw taste. Add hot sauce, if desired.
How you know he’ll take his gray hat and go. How he belongs
to hot jazz and andouille like you belong to polka and bratwurst,
but that’s alright. You love him anyway. You do.
Jessie Lynn McMains (they/she) is a multi-genre writer. Their first full-length collection of poetry, The Loneliest Show On Earth, was released by Bottlecap Press in February 2020, and their next chapbook, Wisconsin Death Trip, is forthcoming from Bone & Ink Press in July 2020. They are currently “safer at home” in southeastern Wisconsin. They miss good, greasy diner breakfasts more than almost anything, and are sad that there will be no county fairs or parking lot carnivals this year. They are glad that drive-in theaters are seeing an upswing in business, and are looking forward to the lilac bush in their yard bursting into bloom any day now.