The Chicken Sisters

The Chicken Sisters

by KJ Dell'Antonia

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Available for Pre-Order. This item will be available on December 1, 2020

Overview

Three generations. Two chicken shacks. One recipe for disaster.

In tiny Merinac, Kansas, Chicken Mimi's and Chicken Frannie's have spent a century vying to serve up the best fried chicken in the state—and the legendary feud between their respective owners, the Moores and the Pogociellos, has lasted just as long. No one feels the impact more than thirty-five-year-old widow Amanda Moore, who grew up working for her mom at Mimi's before scandalously marrying Frank Pogociello and changing sides to work at Frannie's. Tired of being caught in the middle, Amanda sends an SOS to Food Wars, the reality TV restaurant competition that promises $100,000 to the winner. But in doing so, she launches both families out of the frying pan and directly into the fire. . .

The last thing Brooklyn-based organizational guru Mae Moore, Amanda's sister, wants is to go home to Kansas. But when her career implodes, helping the fading Mimi's look good on Food Wars becomes Mae's best chance to reclaim the limelight—even if doing so pits her against Amanda and Frannie's. Yet when family secrets become public knowledge, the sisters must choose: Will they fight with each other, or for their heritage?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593085141
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 178,402
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

KJ Dell'Antonia is the former editor of Motherlode and current contributor to The New York Times, as well as the author of How to Be a Happier Parent. She lives with her family on a small farm in Lyme, New Hampshire, but retains an abiding love for her childhood in Texas and Kansas.

Read an Excerpt

Amanda

It was one thing to put a message in a bottle and another thing entirely when that bottle came back to you from across the sea with a genie stuffed in next to the reply. She had to rub the bottle now, right? She’d cast the spell, wished the wish, and asked in prayer, and she had received. It would be different if she didn’t believe. It wouldn’t have worked if she didn’t believe. But of course, she did believe. She believed with all her heart and soul that Food Wars had the power to change everything, and she was right.

Later, she wished she’d been a little more specific.

It had been fun, sending the e‑­mail. And honestly, she figured the result would be a few weeks of dreaming, of imagining how Food Wars could make everything better, followed by a letdown when they said no or just never replied. It was a lottery ticket, minus the dollar she couldn’t afford to spend.

Now she was sitting in her car outside Walmart, idly scrolling, a new habit born of an unreasonable expectation that somewhere in her phone was something that would change her mood, when the ­reply appeared, a response beyond her wildest dreams that sent an ­actual, literal chill through her body. She turned her car back on, abandoning her planned shopping trip, and backed out of the parking spot she’d just pulled into, narrowly missing a beat‑­up Camry. Her foot shook on the gas pedal. Her whole leg was quivering. This is it, she thought. From now on, everything will be different. Different, and better.

Better. She kept repeating that to herself, and that conviction, really this is going to make things better, helped her squash down any doubts about her mother or about Frannie’s or about what the hell Merinac was going to make of Food Wars and vice versa. It carried her past the two miles of corn and soybean fields between Walmart and Nancy’s house and right through her mother‑­in‑­law’s back door, bellowing her name. She stopped short when she saw Nancy, already in the kitchen and looking worried at Amanda’s wild entrance.

“No, no, it’s good, it’s something good. Food Wars, you know, the show with the restaurants that ­compete—​­they want to come here! To do us, us and Mimi’s. Food Wars!” She waited for Nancy’s response, biting her lip, fists clutched, a euphoric and probably goofy smile on her face. Because, Food Wars. Here!

Nancy smiled back, but it was a confused smile, a little dubious. She did not look thrilled. Why did she not look thrilled? Amanda did not need doubts right now; she needed enthusiasm. She grabbed the older woman’s hands and squeezed them tightly. “They’re going to come here. And film us, and we will win a hundred thousand dollars, and everyone will know who we are and want to eat here, and Frannie’s will be famous.” She let go of Nancy’s hands and let her feet do the little dance they wanted so much to do, waving her arms in the air and shaking her hips. “Here, they’re coming here, they’re really coming here! And we will be huge.” She grinned. “Huge!”

Once, long ago, that had been the plan for Frannie’s. Back then, the town had been bigger and the world felt smaller, and Daddy ­Frank—​­great-​­grandson of the original Frannie, and father to Amanda’s husband, ­Frank—​­was a leading figure in Merinac’s business scene, a restaurant owner and real estate magnate with big ideas. A Banquet chicken dinner in someone’s freezer or the sight of a Tippin’s potpie at Albertsons would send him into a lengthy monologue about his dream of sharing Frannie’s with the entire country, or at least the shoppers at major midwestern grocery stores. They all dreamed big along with him, back when the Franks had been in charge of the business plan, Nancy a capable and steady first mate, and Amanda a mother first, a student second, and a Frannie’s fill‑­­in hostess and waitress only a distant third.

Now, six years after the car crash that killed both Franks and left Nancy and Amanda in charge, the restaurant did little more than break even. Every day brought more bills and more tax forms and, for Amanda at least, a giant, ­soul-​­sucking fear that the future held nothing but more of the same. She often thought that Frannie’s could spiral around the drain and finally get pulled under and no one would even notice that she and Nancy had gone with it.

But Food Wars would change all that.

Amanda looked down at her mother‑­in‑­law’s tiny, tense frame, at the burgundy hair that was due for a color, thinning, just a little, in a way that was hard to disguise. Please don’t let her start in on the risks and the worries and the things that could go wrong. Please let her see how much she needs this, how much we all need this.

Suddenly Nancy rushed forward and hugged Amanda, hard. “Food Wars? Us? Frannie’s? You did this? You got them to come here?”

One more wish, granted.

“I did. I did!” Amanda squeezed her mother‑­in‑­law back, dancing them both back and forth before they let go. “I wrote them, and they’re coming. They loved what I told them about the chicken ­sisters, and the history and everything.”

“We’ll be on TV.” Nancy grabbed a chair from around her kitchen table and sat down on it, hard. “TV. Like ­Mae—​­TV. Frannie’s.”

Mae. Oh hell. But even the thought of her sister wasn’t enough to suck the glory out of this moment. “Television, yes, and they do a lot of live bits on the Internet. Social media.” Amanda loved those. She followed all of TFC’s social media accounts, but Food Wars was her favorite. Nancy, though, looked at her blankly. “Like, they record a little bit, and people can watch it on their phones or computers if they follow the show. It usually takes a while for the episodes to get on television, but they do a whole bunch of live stuff while they’re recording, to get people excited about it. It’s sort of a cross between a web show and a regular show.”

Nancy brushed that aside, as though Amanda had said Food Wars would also be available for pandas to watch from the zoo, and rushed on. “Television! Do you have any idea what this could mean?”

Amanda, who thought she did, laughed, and Nancy got out of her chair and grabbed Amanda and hugged her again, then stood back, still clutching Amanda’s shoulders. “We have to win,” Nancy said. “I mean, of course we’ll win. There’s not even a comparison.” Nancy paused, and her voice, which had been getting increasingly higher, dropped. “In ­fact . . .”

Amanda knew where she was headed, and this, unlike the ­mention of Mae, did suck a little air out of her bubble. Mimi’s and ­Frannie’s both served fried chicken, yes. And they had the same kind of name. And they had been started by sisters. But from there, the ­similarities—​­and any ­competition—​­ended. Frannie’s was open all day, with an extensive menu. Mimi’s offered only dinner: chicken, biscuits, French fries, and salad, and ­off-​­the-​­menu doughnuts on Saturday mornings for those in the know. And of course pie, but only when the spirit moved her mother to bake. It wasn’t a real restaurant so much as an erratic ­take​­out joint, supported by loyal cus­tomers willing to overlook the way the place had run down over the years.

There was no way Mimi’s could compete. And very little chance Amanda’s mother would want to.

Nancy gazed at Amanda, her expression serious. “Did you ask your mother about this?”

Amanda shook her head. “I didn’t think they’d actually come.” It was only in the past few years or so that she’d really been able to have a conversation with her mother at all. Ask her about a wild, crazy dream that could never happen? No way. Nancy sat back down, and Amanda joined her across the table, sighing. “I know. I know. She might not do it. But Mimi’s could use more business. And she doesn’t really even have to do anything differently from what she’s doing. She just has to let them film her.”

Nancy, who had known Barbara for ­thirty-​­five years, drummed her fingers on the table. “She’s not going to win, that’s clear enough, although the money could sway her. Mimi’s always needs the money.”

She didn’t have to tell Amanda that. Mimi’s need for money was in Amanda’s bones. It seeped through her pores; it beat through her veins. Mimi’s needed money, Barbara needed money, but whether her mother would accept the connection between Food Wars and her bank account was an open question. Barbara didn’t see things like other people did, and certainly not like Nancy did. Amanda glanced around her mother‑­in‑­law’s kitchen, at the clear counters, the sun streaming through the neatly curtained windows with barely any dust in the air to set alight. Amanda had loved this kitchen since she first set foot in it, although it felt more spare now, almost too clean, if that were possible. It was so unlike anything she’d ever ­known—​­and, she thought with a little regret, not much like her own kitchen, either.

Nancy leaned forward and gently snapped her fingers in front of Amanda’s face. “Come back,” she said. “This isn’t going to go away if you do.” Amanda smiled. It was a familiar joke between them. “She’ll do it,” Nancy said. “Why would she pass something like this up?”

Because it was Amanda asking, maybe? She put her chin in her hands and jiggled her leg under the table, silent.

“I know your mom can be tough.” Nancy knew better than anyone just how tough Amanda found her mother. “But this is different. She has to see it. She will see it. And your aunt will love it.”

That, at least, Nancy had right. Aunt Aida, who was actually Amanda’s ­great-​­aunt, had once had a thriving career in movies and television, until she’d faded out and moved in with Barbara. No one would welcome the arrival of cameras more than Aida. “She won’t be there, though. She hardly ever goes to the restaurant.”

“Well, talk about her, then. And talk about all the business Mimi’s will get.” Nancy stood up. “Come on, then. Off you go. I’d go with you, but we both know that won’t help.”

Not hardly. And ­wait—​­she was doing this now? Amanda had been thinking later tonight. Or tomorrow morning. Or ­never—​­what if Food Wars just showed up? Wouldn’t Barbara have to go along with it?

Her mother never went along with anything. Not for the first time, Amanda wished her mother was more like her mother‑­in‑­law. Reluctantly, she got up, then hesitated, her hand on her chair. “But what if she says no?”

Nancy ­smiled—​­the reassuring smile that had carried Amanda through a lot of years, ever since she’d married Frank and traded in her mess of a family life for Nancy’s ordered world.

“You won’t know until you ask,” she said. “And she’s going to say yes. This is going to be the thing you want that she wants too.” She squeezed Amanda’s arm. “They’re coming Wednesday? As in, tomorrow?”

“That’s what they said.” Tomorrow. Well, talking to Barbara would be over by then, anyway. And once Food Wars showed up, Barbara would be their problem. Amanda straightened up and smiled back at Nancy, her excitement returning. The money, and just the business, and all the ­publicity—​­this could save them all.

Unless, of course, Barbara said no.

Nancy was right, Amanda thought as she left the table and the cozy kitchen. The faster she asked, the sooner she’d know.

#

Away from Nancy, Amanda’s resolve faded almost immediately. When was the last time she’d been by Barbara’s place, anyway? It had to have been months ­ago—​­she remembered walking there with Pickle after getting coffee last fall. The dog hadn’t survived the winter. He had been her and Frank’s first baby, picked out of a litter by two utterly unprepared newlyweds months before Gus was born. After Pickle died, things got even lonelier. Gus started thinking about college in earnest. His younger sister, Frankie, started shutting herself in her tiny bedroom. If Pickle were here, Amanda would feel better about tapping on her mother’s door, knowing she’d at least have a sympathetic ear when she got back into the car.

Which was pretty pitiful when you thought about it.

So instead of thinking about it, Amanda turned into Mimi’s parking lot, wheels spinning at the switch to gravel, and pulled up next to an unfamiliar pickup. Must belong to the new fry cook. Amanda felt a little curiosity mixed in with her nervousness. Her mother’s dog, Patches, a fat ­black-​­and-​­white beast with a big head, hauled herself up from beside the stoop, barked once, then came forward to nudge Amanda’s hand. Amanda rubbed her under the chin.

Barbara appeared in the screen door exactly as if the dog had summoned her, and with her, the scent of Mimi’s, of frying and spice, a little musty, a little sharp, once the smell of Barbara coming home from work and then, later, Amanda’s own hair after every shift. Frannie’s smelled like cooking when they cooked, like cleaning when they cleaned, like fresh napkins and cooked vegetables. Mimi’s only ever smelled like Mimi’s.

“Amanda?” Barbara stepped out and stood for a moment, surveying her younger daughter. Amanda realized she should have prepared some sort of opener. Why was it always so hard to even say hello to her mother? She started forward, considering a hug, but Barbara leaned back into the kitchen. “Andy? Andy, come on out here. I want you to meet Amanda.”

Okay, that would work. Barbara had never hired anyone to cook for her before, although she always had counter and dishwashing help. From what Amanda had heard around town, the guy was basically some sort of weird charity project for her ­mother—​­good-​­looking (Mary Laura, Frannie’s bartender, had reported she “wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers”) but more than a little down on his luck, which was obvious, because otherwise, why would he be here?

Andy had to duck a little to step out of Mimi’s kitchen back door. He was tall and broad, and he wore an apron over a T‑­shirt and ­standard-​­issue chef’s clogs with shorts, which revealed pale but muscular legs, abundant tattoos (basically a Mary Laura prerequisite), and a­lower-​­arms-​­only farmer’s tan that had to have been years in the making.

“This is Amanda, huh?” He held out a hand, and his big, warm grip covered Amanda’s smaller hand entirely. He held it an instant too long, looking at her face with curiosity. “The one who can’t come inside?”

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