Good buddy of mine, Norman Van Aken, is rather erudite for a chef. (I hearing him laughing as we speak, but sorry, having worked with tons of chefs for more than two decades, I’ll allow that their talent is largely in the kitchen – not at a keyboard. Yes, there are exceptions…but it’s not the norm.)
I got caught up in the story he posted on his blog, about fried chicken, Thomas Wolfe, and traveling to the South.
At the end, he posts a recipe for a fried chicken salad. Looks good, and it’s a tasty fried chicken going on there, but it’s not my mom’s.
Fried chicken once a week
Van Aken writes about not eating fried chicken as a child; it wasn’t in his mom’s repertoire.
My household was the exact opposite. When all else failed, eat something fried, and chicken or steak worked equally well. Itwas a staple as in every other Southern household across L.A., ( Lower Alabama), where she grew up. Actually, it was Pensacola, but that part of the state should be annexed over to Alabama, for its affinity to Dixie.
Butterbeans and biscuits
I digress. We ate fried chicken with a plate of biscuits, another plate of sliced ripe tomatoes, and either fried corn, or yellow squash fried with onions, or those fat butterbeans that Norman quotes from the Wolfe story. Fat limas, actually, until summer when we would bring home from Pensacola a freezer full of field peas, and speckled gray butterbeans shared from my Aunt Eleanor’s garden. These were gunmetal gray on the outside, and green on the inside. Aunt Eleanor picked them young – they were a pain to shell. They were so delicious, cooked with a little bacon and a heavy hand of salt – my mother’s trademark – they were well worth the effort.
We’d have mashed potatoes sometimes, but my mother favored rice with chicken. She didn’t bother with gravy for it; we had buttered rice – cooked rather sticky, as I recall. “Rice is nasty — you have to wash it,” she’d say. Within an inch of its life, of course. She always made enough for leftovers to make rice pudding for my father. (I cannot stand the texture of that one dish – it’s likely the only food other than canned fish, or beef liver I won’t eat.)
The Chicken Frying Rules
There are rules to frying a chicken. Use a whole fryer that you cut up yourself. You should have 9 pieces: 2 pieces of breast ; 2 drumsticks; 2 wings; 2 thighs; 1 back. Don’t argue. (Keep the gizzards and liver for a night when you eat fried chicken livers with grits and gravy.)
Use an iron skillet chicken fryer – it’s 14 inches across and deeper than normal. Don’t argue. Well, OK: You may use one of those Sunbeam electric frying pans from the ’60s. The trick is to maintain an even temperature on the oil (360F. is ideal). Don’t overcrowd the pan. Don’t be in a rush to turn the chicken, either, once you have it in the pan; let it brown nicely. Use peanut or vegetable oil or a little bacon fat mixed with vegetable oil. Never olive oil and never butter.
Southern fried chicken
- 1 fryer, skin on, cut into pieces
- Milk or buttermilk, 2 or 3 cups
- 1 egg, beaten into the milk
- All-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and black pepper
- Optional: a pinch each of cayenne or garlic powder
- Vegetable or peanut oil for frying
Rinse and pat-dry the chicken. Heat 1 inch of vegetable oil in a 14-inch cast-iron chicken fryer over medium-high heat. If using an electric skillet, set it to 360 degrees.
Pour milk or buttermilk with beaten egg over the chicken in a large bowl. Turn pieces well. Lift pieces of chicken, draining milk back into bowl. Dredge each piece in flour, knocking excess off on side of bowl. Put flour-dredged chicken pieces on a baking sheet, separately.
When oil is hot, dredge chicken again in flour, knocking off excess, a piece at a time. Put chicken into hot oil. Do not crowd the pan; four or five pieces at a time will fit in a 14-inch skillet.
Allow chicken to fry for at least 3 minutes before turning with tongs If oil seems too hot, adjust heat under pan, or move pan off the burner for about 45 seconds. Turn chicken, and continue to fry until nicely browned on all sides.
Remove chicken to newspaper or paper toweling to drain well – do not cover, however, or chicken will steam, making the crust soggy.
If you are making several batches, heat the oven to 200 degrees and place the cooked, drained chicken on a foil-lined baking pan in the oven, uncovered, to keep warm.
Continue to cook until all chicken is cooked; serve with hot, buttered mashed potatoes, and butterbeans or fried corn or fried squash and onions, with hot buttermilk biscuits.
Serves 4 to 8.