‘Eating Fried Chicken’ invites readers to consider what it means to have few or many resources in the world. It examines the nature of personal responsibility and its connection to enjoyment and grief. Linh Dinh expresses a complex mix of emotions using an apparently simple metaphor. The poem offers no easy answers to its questions, ending on a note of pain and uncertainty that the speaker does not or cannot resolve.
Explore Eating Fried Chicken
‘Eating Fried Chicken’ is an intense poem about the impact of colonialism and privilege on an individual.
The speaker of the poem begins with a confession. He says that sometimes when he is eating fried chicken, he thinks only of his food and not of anything else. Some readers might find this admission strange: what else ought he to be thinking about? The speaker clarifies: he feels that he should remember his family and his country, implying that he no longer lives where he grew up. He should be thinking about the “various blood debts” that a figure he calls his brother owes him.
He goes on to clarify that he is not always evil, implying that forgetting to think of these things for a moment is itself an evil action. Instead, he sometimes refuses “anything / that’s not generally available to mankind,” meaning all food and drink, and even air. He reflects on the world’s suffering and its connection to food, ending with a grim image of inhaling smoke and gunpowder.
Structure and Form
‘Eating Fried Chicken’ is a free verse poem. That means that it does not have a consistent stanza or line length, and the lines do not rhyme or follow a regular meter or rhythm. The poem has four stanzas of varying lengths. The first stanza has seven lines, followed by a tercet or three-line stanza, a single-line stanza, and then a quatrain or four-line stanza.
The fractured structure of the poem echoes the speaker’s uncomfortable and erratic mood. He does not have a strong sense of stability when it comes to his own choices or place in the world, and his poem is the same.
- Enjambment: two or more lines of a poem that are not separated by any form of punctuation. Enjambment allows lines of poetry to flow together and builds momentum. The poem’s first three lines, as well as all three lines of the second stanza, are enjambed. These lines echo each other in form and content, creating opposite images.
- Apostrophe: a speaker addresses someone else who is absent. This poem addresses someone that the speaker calls “brother.” Whether this figure is a literal brother or whether the term is being used more loosely is ambiguous. The relationship between the two figures is strained.
- Repetition: repeating words or phrases to build consistency, emphasis, and theme in a poem. “Fried chicken” is repeated three times, all in the first stanza. After that, despite the chicken being in the poem’s title, it drops out of the poem altogether, as though the speaker is disgusted and wants to distance himself from it as soon as possible.
- Metonymy: the use of a related term to refer to something else, like referring to businessmen as “suits.” In the final lines of the poem, the speaker uses metonymy twice. He says that “apples can cause riots,” when he likely means that famine (or an absence of apples and other foods) can cause riots. He also says that “meat brings humiliation,” perhaps referring to his own feelings of guilt about the fried chicken he eats.
I hate to admit this, brother, but there are times
When I’m eating fried chicken
When I think about nothing else but eating fried chicken,
When I utterly forget about my family, honor and country,
The various blood debts you owe me,
My past humiliations and my future crimes—
Everything, in short, but the crispy skin on my fried chicken.
The speaker opens with an apparently painful confession to someone he refers to as a brother. Sometimes, when he is eating fried chicken, he thinks only of the chicken itself. He implies that this is only an occasional occurrence and that most of the time, he experiences no such lapses. He goes on to describe some of the things he fails to think about, including his “family, honor and country,” his difficult relationship with his brother, and his “past humiliations” and “future crimes.”
This poem remains largely ambiguous throughout the first stanza. The speaker describes his actions with obvious regret and discomfort, but many readers might struggle to see what the problem is. For many people who have grown up with a degree of social privilege, the idea of having to think about personal history and issues while eating fried chicken may seem strange. The speaker’s distress implies that he comes from a background where access to decadent, greasy foods like fried chicken may have been rare or unthinkable. He has a sense now that he needs to continuously remember his past and atone as he eats.
Stanzas Two and Three
But I’m not altogether evil, there are also times
(Which is, when you think about it, absolutely nothing at all.)
In contrast to his earlier confession, the speaker protests that he is “not altogether evil.” Some of the time, instead of eating fried chicken thoughtlessly, he will refuse to eat or drink any food, or indeed make use of any resource, unless it is available to everyone in the world. He acknowledges that there are, in fact, no such resources that are universally available.
The speaker’s approach to his own life is a hyperbolic one. It is, of course, impossible for him to refuse resources not generally available, or else he would soon die. Essentially, the speaker is wrestling with the connection and contrast between the personal and the political. On a worldwide political level, it is both impossible to reject all resources and, furthermore, pointless.
Refusing to eat certain foods will not redistribute those resources to people who need them. The speaker is not actually talking about political impact but rather struggling with personal accountability. He feels that his own actions and his feelings about those actions remain politically salient and are crucial ways for him to act either morally or immorally.
And no doubt that’s why apples can cause riots,
Will fill one’s lungs with gun powder and smoke.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker broadens his outlook away from his own life and toward the world at large. He considers the resources that people around the world do or do not have. Food is at the heart of this exploration. A lack of food can cause people to riot while having expensive or excessive food (like fried chicken) is an embarrassing display of wealth. Even air is political: for people living in violent spaces, it may be harder to breathe clear air that is not filled with smoke and gunpowder.
In this poem, the personal and the political are irrevocably intertwined. The speaker feels deep empathy for other people, particularly those who have less than he does. It is very difficult for him to enjoy his own life when he knows that other people are constantly struggling. He creates a striking contrast between eating fried chicken and life in what might be a war zone. Far from being silly or exaggerated, the speaker’s objections and feelings of guilt are rooted in a profound understanding of the world’s injustices and a sense of powerlessness when it comes to making things any better.
‘Eating Fried Chicken’ is a poem about societal privilege and the world’s injustices. It uses the act of eating fried chicken as a way of looking at privilege and self-awareness.
The brother is an ambiguous figure in the poem. He may be the speaker’s literal brother, in which case the poem discusses familial strife. He may also be a generalized another figure, possibly belonging to a more privileged culture that has previously harmed the speaker’s home country.
Some major themes of ‘Eating Fried Chicken’ include the legacies of colonialism, personal privilege and responsibility, and grief for the suffering of humanity. Although the poem is short, it covers a lot of thematic ground.
- ‘The Complaints of Poverty’ by Nicholas James is a direct and frank discussion of the challenges associated with poverty compared to the luxuries that wealth affords. It is thematically similar to Linh Dinh’s work.
- ‘Let America Be America Again’ by Langston Hughes deconstructs the myth of the American Dream, particularly as it relates to the difficulties that people of color face in the country.
- ‘Persimmons’ by Li-Young Lee offers another perspective on coming to America as an immigrant, using food as a central rhetorical device.