Dirty Rice, So Nice

One of my first food memories is of Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken. Most folks know these days that eating Popeye’s – or any fast food – on a regular basis is probably not the smartest nutritional decision, but back in the bad old days, Popeye’s chicken was IT, baby.

I first remember eating Popeye’s when I was about five years old at my cousins’ house on Milan Street in New Orleans. Milan Street crosses Claiborne Avenue, and anyone who’s been around awhile knows the very best Popeye’s location was at Claiborne and Napoleon Avenue in the Uptown area. Never mind that Popeye’s is a chain, and all the food is prepared the same across locations; I’m telling you, this little building with the black lava bricks and the red roof was the best place to get that hot and spicy chicken.

One of the side items available at Popeye’s back in the day was dirty rice. Being a little kid, I took the name literally. So when my Aunt Ruth asked, “Nick, do you want some dirty rice with your chicken?”, my little five-year-old self was saying inside, “Auntie, I love you, but how are you gonna offer me some rice with some dirt in it? Do I look crazy?”

Well, my inner consternation must have shown on my face because my cousin Steve came to my rescue. Steve was my ace, my buddy, my partner in crime. The seventh of nine children, and three years older than I am, Steve took me under his wing and schooled me in the ways of the world as only an eight-year-old can.

“Nick, it’s not real dirt. They just call it that because it looks like dirt in the rice,” he assured me.

Well, Steve was my trusted advisor, so I threw caution to the wind and ate a spoonful. I “love(d) that chicken from Popeye’s” for decades afterward, until my palate matured and overcame my loyalty to the New Orleans icon. I rarely eat Popeye’s these days, but I still love dirty rice.

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