KJ Dell’Antonia’s The Chicken Sisters opens when Amanda Pogociello applies to “Food Wars,” a show that features culinary rivalries. As a practical woman, she has little hope that she’ll be chosen, but her story is compelling: In the late 19th century, two sisters founded two fried chicken joints, Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s, in nowheresville outside of Merinac, Kansas. The rivalry continues to the present day.
Amanda works for the more upscale Chicken Frannie’s. Her mother, Barbara, operates Chicken Mimi’s, and Amanda is persona non grata there. Barbara wouldn’t even let Amanda use Mimi’s restroom when she was pregnant and desperate. To Amanda’s shock, the producers at “Food Wars” are intrigued. The first prize is $100,000, which both eateries need badly.
Amanda contacts her sister, Mae, a semi-celebrity who fled Merinac at the first chance she got and is now a snooty lifestyle guru. Mae dismisses the idea of appearing on “Food Wars” because it’s beneath her and a rival to her own show, which is (of course) named “Sparkling.” But when Mae gets fired, she’s quick to change her mind.
What follows upends the expectations of Amanda, Mae, their kids, Barbara, just about everyone who lives in this little Kansas hamlet and even the show’s producer, a sweetly cutthroat woman named Sabrina. The tale itself upends any expectations of rural, Green Acres-esque silliness. Yet Dell’Antonia, the author of How to Be a Happier Parent, takes her characters seriously, albeit always with gentle humor.
In the end, “Food Wars” proves to be a catastrophe for Barbara and her daughters, as old wounds, resentments, postponed dreams and layers of grief are peeled back and allowed to heal. And the mean girls of “Food Wars” and “Sparkling” get what’s coming to them. It all works to make The Chicken Sisters a delight.