The Things We Treasure

I've Moved 7 Times, but I've Never Left Behind These Chicken Chairs

Sometimes a chair is just a chair. But for columnist Eric Kim, it's a reminder of his brother, who helped carry him through the roughest patches in his life.

by:
January 16, 2020
Photo by Eric Kim

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.


Seven years ago, on the curb in front of a furniture store in East Harlem, I stood next to a couple of upholstered dining chairs I had just bought for my new apartment. They were patterned with rainbow-colored chickens and didn’t really go with anything in my apartment at the time—which meant, of course, that I had to have them.

I don’t know why I bought two chairs: I was moving into a 150–square foot shoebox studio in Morningside Heights, by myself. The apartment had barely enough room for a twin bed, let alone dining chairs (or a dining table). If I had bought just one chair, I could’ve hauled it across town by myself. But for some reason I bought two, which is why I called my big brother to help me carry the second one. As I stood on that curb guarding the chairs, Kevin was standing in the street hailing a cab for us.

At the time Kevin, four years my senior, lived downtown, having moved to New York years before I had. When it finally came time for me to pick colleges, it felt natural for me to apply to schools where he lived, because that was just the way we were: Everything he did, I did, too, four years later. My first few years in New York were made significantly easier because I had a brother in the city. This was a great comfort to my parents, as well, who lived in Atlanta, where we grew up. No matter what happened, they’d say, miles away from the nest, living our sin-filled lives, at least we had each other.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Thirty years ago my mom and I were in an antique store in New Jersey and we came across a 18" platter celebrating the Donner Party. Being native Californians and having learned California history in 4th grade public schools, we knew about this wagon train from Illinois in 1846-47 that got stuck for months in a terrible snowstorm in the Sierra Nevadas. More than half of the 89 settlers died from freezing or starvation. Some cannibalism ensued, a human taboo of course, and a rather negative history took place. If you take the highway from Reno to San Francisco (Donner Pass) over the Sierras, you will have taken the Donner Party route. My mom and I started laughing hysterically looking at the printings on the platter and I just had to purchase the thing. I call it my "Donner Party party platter" and keep it on my family room coffee table. Please don't think I'm crazy, but Californians tend to make jokes about this sad tale and my friends can't understand how anyone could commemorate this event. I think the manufacturer made about 150 of these plates.”
— Anne B.
Comment

They were right, in many ways. My proximity to Kevin meant that I had a security blanket while navigating New York City as a broke twenty-something, somewhere to crash whenever I messed up or felt lost. If my brother was the rock, I was the recurrent tidal wave crashing into it. One time I had bedbugs, so he helped me lug all my clothes and linens to the Laundromat several blocks away. Another time, when my apartment flooded the day before a big exam, I studied at his place and he made me coffee. The day I decided to quit my job in academia and called him in tears, terrified about my future, he said, “You’re always talking about food, Eric; you should write about food.”

In those days, sometimes, I’d stay out late drinking with my friends downtown. Instead of making the trek back to my apartment uptown, I’d stop at Kevin's place and sober up on his couch. I’d wake up to black coffee and scrambled eggs in the morning, and he’d hail me a cab when I was ready to go home. That image of my brother hailing a cab is so ingrained in my brain, years later. Even now that he lives in Los Angeles.

They say first-born children learn to speak sooner than second-born children.

It took my brother leaving the city for me to finally come into my own. No longer did I have a second apartment to use as storage, a nice bathtub to soak in on the weekends because mine was old and gross, a safe haven to flee to whenever I wanted to get away from myself.

If my brother was the rock, I was the recurrent tidal wave crashing into it.

Over the years, as I learned to exist without my brother as a crutch, I gained my own footing, my own sense of security, and eventually my own unbridled self-confidence—which Kevin always seemed to possess by default. I started dating boys and meeting people outside of his circle of friends. That second chair, now empty, meant that there was finally room in my life to let others in.

But in many ways—some conscious, some not—that second chair I bought was, and will always be, his seat first. Back then I didn’t have much to offer my brother, but the rare moments when he would come over for coffee, cake, or dinner, at least I could give him a chair to sit in.

Three apartments later, I still have those chairs. I mostly use them as racks for clothes that are too dirty for the closet but too clean for the laundry. One chair has water stains all over its cushion because I keep it in the bathroom next to the tub. It’s nice to sit in a cool chair after a hot bath (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). The chairs couldn't be more beat up and less taken care of, and yet they still have their tags. I never cut them off in case I ever wanted to return them.

With each move, I’ve thrown things out and replaced them with new pieces of furniture. Now I have huge white shelves filled with all my favorite novels and cookbooks; a stainless steel kitchen island where I develop recipes and entertain friends; a full-sized bed where my dog and I can spread out.

I still don’t have a dining table, but I do have a little white desk, where I sit on a chicken chair and write about food.

Do you have a priceless object you treasure? Let us know in the comments below.
Tags:

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sharon
    sharon
  • Anne Baldocchi
    Anne Baldocchi
  • Suellen
    Suellen
  • Alex Egan
    Alex Egan
  • Talicia Smith
    Talicia Smith
Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he is currently working on his first cookbook, to be published by Clarkson Potter in Spring 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at Saveur, Bon Appétit, and The New York Times and follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho. Born and raised in Georgia, Eric lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson.

32 Comments

sharon January 27, 2020
my husband raises fancy poultry breeds, i think your chairs artistry is very classy- let alone that they have great memories connected with them- glad you have moved with them many times. love your story-telling- enjoyed reading the story.
 
Anne B. January 26, 2020
I love the chairs! Thirty years ago my mom and I were in an antique store in New Jersey and we came across a 18" platter celebrating the Donner Party. Being native Californians and having learned California history in 4th grade public schools, we knew about this wagon train from Illinois in 1846-47 that got stuck for months in a terrible snowstorm in the Sierra Nevadas. More than half of the 89 settlers died from freezing or starvation. Some cannibalism ensued, a human taboo of course, and a rather negative history took place. If you take the highway from Reno to San Francisco (Donner Pass) over the Sierras, you will have taken the Donner Party route. My mom and I started laughing hysterically looking at the printings on the platter and I just had to purchase the thing. I call it my "Donner Party party platter" and keep it on my family room coffee table. Please don't think I'm crazy, but Californians tend to make jokes about this sad tale and my friends can't understand how anyone could commemorate this event. I think the manufacturer made about 150 of these plates.
 
Claudia T. February 2, 2020
This reminds me of an engraved silver water pitcher I saw in a museum that had been given to a local doctor and lauded him for his role in helping with the cholera outbreak. This was before they figured out cholera was spread by... Infected water!
 
Suellen January 26, 2020
This is such a wonderful post filled with memories that have enriched your life. The chair is awesome and I enjoy your food writings.
 
Alex E. January 24, 2020
This is what I would have wanted from this column if I had known what to ask for. Loved this! It captures such a brief but vivid moment in time. Excited to keep reading the rest of the series!
 
Talicia S. January 21, 2020
I have the world's ugliest couch. It's upholstered in somewhere between olive drab and forest green velour, weighs approximately 537 lbs, and has real wood trim. At some point in my many moves, a leg got lost, and so it sits about 1 foot tall. It is the best napping couch on the planet. It is now in my office, but still exceptionally napworthy.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 21, 2020
This made my day, Talicia. In my world, past and present, there has never been a greater priority than a good nap.
 
Joan S. January 19, 2020
Great story, one I could identify with.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 21, 2020
Thank you, Joan.
 
Jane C. January 17, 2020
I have the same two chicken chairs that I have moved with me as well since 2012! We are kindred spirits. I love my chicken chairs!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 18, 2020
Jane, kindred indeed! That's about precisely when I bought these. Spring of 2013, I think.
 
M January 17, 2020
Love reading about people's personal style and meaning. I'd rather read a million odes or arguments for elements I wouldn't choose than style trend suggestions that I would choose. In a world trying to push for downsizing and minimalizing, it's nice to be reminded of the tactile power of certain objects.

Hate the fact that my brain is distracted by its wish to reach into the screen and pull off the scan code stickers those spines.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 18, 2020
Ha! I'm a sucker for used books/especially old library copies...
 
M January 20, 2020
Used books are the best. But lemme tell ya - Catch 22 is much better than Catch Label. ;)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 21, 2020
Lol! Very good.
 
Helen January 17, 2020
Thank you for sharing your story. What a beautiful way to say thank you and I love you to your brother. I am a mom to two boys, and whenever they fight (which is quite often considering they are 6 and 3), I remind them that they don't have to be friends but they will always be brothers. Sibling relationships can be so deep and complex sometimes. I heard somewhere that it's because siblings are the ones with whom you go through life. For the most part, your parents leave you halfway through life, you meet your spouse later in life, and you can choose and lose friends, but siblings are there for the whole thing, beginning to end. If my boys can be the chicken chair to each other as they go through life, it would bring me immense joy and peace as their mother. Much love and respect to you and your hyung.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 18, 2020
Helen, thanks for sharing. Your words are wise and I'm showing them now to my brother as we speak.
 
Linda January 16, 2020
Eric your writing always moves me. I loved the chairs but probably won't have been as brave as you to actually buy them. Please keep up the wonderful writing.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 18, 2020
Thank you so much, Linda.
Always,
E
 
Maggie S. January 16, 2020
"That second chair, now empty, meant that there was finally room in my life to let others in." OK OK! <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 18, 2020
Mmk.
 
Shane L. January 16, 2020
Great piece as always Eric ☺️ It resonates with my feelings since the new year. I’ve been in a cleaning and minimizing mode, which has brought up a lot of old memories, and helped me to focus on what’s important.

OX
-S
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 18, 2020
Going through old things makes me nostalgic, too. Great to hear from you, Shane.
 
Shane L. January 18, 2020
Certain items, such as your chicken chairs, are imparted with powerful memories. These kinds of sentimental belongings, are something that I could never part with; refinish, reupholster... maybe.
Actually, last week, I put into use, my grandparent's old round kitchen table. Someone in the family cut it down to coffee table height ages ago, which limited its usefulness for me. That is, until I decided it must be enjoyed (there are a lot of good memories contained in that old table) and not stashed away in the basement. Now, I have it nestled atop a fun, round, koi pond rug in my kitchen, and with some floor cushions, it has become a cozy spot to take my dinner.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 19, 2020
I love that. There is no more important piece of furniture than the one at which you sit to dinner.
 
elm January 16, 2020
I too have that chicken chair. My son and daughter-in-law bought it for me at the Habitat Re-store. 45 years ago I had a group of friends and we were known as the "the chicken ladies". Now and then I get gifted a chicken item. Brings back good memories.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 16, 2020
I, too, used to collect chicken things. (Hence the chairs.)
 
Arati M. January 16, 2020
"That second chair, now empty, meant that there was finally room in my life to let others in."
Thank you Eric, for this beautiful essay. The relationship between the objects we treasure and the narratives behind them is both undeniable and irreplaceable.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 16, 2020
Thanks so much, Arati.
 
Max M. January 16, 2020
"I don’t know why I bought two chairs" This story is so lovely!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. January 16, 2020
:)