“To know about fried chicken, you have to have been weaned and bred on it in the South. Period.”
Fried chicken. No other food is more associated with the South.
And as is the case with many things in this country, but even more so in the South, neither the bird nor the cooking method is indigenous. Columbus may have given chickens to America in 1493, but it was African slaves who gave us fried chicken. (Lord knows what the Brits would have done to this noble bird!) And even though fried chicken has taken over the world (KFC is the #1 fast food restaurant in China), its home will always be here in the South.
The first written recipe for fried chicken appeared in 1824 in Martha Randolph’s Virginia House-Wife. Her recipe differs little from what should be followed today: cut-up pieces of chicken, dredged in flour, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and fried in hot fat. Seems pretty simple, right? Wrong! Not surprisingly, Southerners have serious disagreements over the proper way to make fried chicken. But one thing we all agree on is the proper way to eat it: with your fingers.
No one in the South consults a cookbook on how to make fried chicken. You simply know how it’s done. What training one does receive comes from observation—typically a mother or grandmother; occasionally an aunt.
My mother made the best fried chicken. She would stand over the chicken as it sizzled in the skillet, carefully turning it over with a fork until it was crisp and golden brown. It was a staple growing up. And her fried chicken was just as good cold as hot. She would wrap cold fried chicken in wax paper and bring it along for family picnics or long road trips to the beach.
It’s been a long time since I made fried chicken—too long. But this past Sunday, fried chicken called me back home. I made it for Laura for the first time. I made it for Forrest for the first time since he was a little boy so, in a sense, it was the also first time for him.
And while I’ve always made fried chicken in a cast iron skillet with about an inch or two of oil, this time I would use the deep fryer. There were, however, a couple of challenges. First, the fryer must have gotten detained in customs because it would only give me temperatures in celsius. (Thanks to Google, this was not a serious obstacle.) Second, I had no idea how long to cook the chicken or at what temperature. All my previous experience was based on a cask iron skillet: 20-25 minutes with frequent turns of the chicken. Temp was easy: get it just to the smoking point.
And notwithstanding my fretting, it turned out great. We all gobbled it up with gusto.
The next evening, there was still more chicken left to be fried. By this time, I had a better feel for the deep fryer. But there was still room for fretting because I was trying to get some chicken made before I had to take Laura to the airport.
“We’re cutting it close on time, dear!”
“Just a few more minutes babe; it’s almost done!”
I dropped Laura off at the curb with her two pieces of fried chicken wrapped in foil, still warm. We crossed our fingers that she would get them through TSA. When I got home, and after I began to fry the remaining pieces of chicken to get me through yet another Birmingham winter weather event, I got a text from Laura proudly saying that the fried chicken made it safely through TSA, and that she had already eaten the chicken while sitting at the departure gate. I had to smile at the thought of my wife at Gate B-2 unabashedly eating some homemade fried chicken.
Maybe I’ve made a Southerner of her yet.