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The Immortality of Fried Chicken

 

 


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“But as familiar as fried chicken was to us, it was not your everyday fare;
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~ John Egerton


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The Immortality of Fried Chicken
Southern Journal by John Egerton
Southern Living September 1995

Southern Living - One Year Subscription  

"What makes fried chicken so special in the South - the real importance of it, the immortality of Southern fried chicken - is all tied up in tradition and memories.
For instance, I can describe to you all the ways I learned to love fried chicken
as a boy. I can call them up through every one of my senses. There was the sound
of it frying in the skillet, the smell of it on the platter, the golden-brown sight of
it, the crispy touch, the indescribably delicious taste of it. And more.
In the early forties, practically every family I knew in my small-town Kentucky
youth raised chickens for eggs and meat, both staples of the Southern diet. In
those war years, before I reached the age of 10, I was well acquainted with the clipped-wing fleet of hens, roosters, and pullets that thrived on cracked corn
and table scraps in a fenced area just outside our back door. When you grow
up seeing eggs laid to be hatched or cooked, and pullets dispatched by a hatchet
blow or the swift snap of a wrist, you develop a more direct understanding of
the food chain than you do from a take-out tub.
One of my chores was plucking the feathers. My mother cut up the chicken and refrigerated the pieces in salted water. When the time came, she patted the
chilled pieces dry, dredged them in flour, and fired them in the highest quality
of hog lard, melted to a depth of an inch or so in a capacious black iron skillet.
But as familiar as fried chicken was to us, it was not your everyday fare; it was special. You served it to company, to the minister, to out-of-town guests. It was
for family reunions and summer wedding parties and church dinners. It was
funeral food, a personally delivered platter that bespoke sympathy, sorrow
and respect.
And nobody - nobody - ever hinted that it might be hazardous to your health.
On the contrary, we considered it a vivid symbol of wellness and contentment
and even prosperity. Properly done, our fried chicken was never too greasy,
always crisp on the outside and moist within, spiced to perfection. And as
sure as Sunday, it was complemented with a bird's nest of mashed potatoes
and a brimming pond of rich brown gravy.
The occasions of our feasting on a plenitude of pullets were numerous enough
to run together now in my recollection, almost as if this was event hat happened
every Sunday of my young life. As soon as Sunday school was over, I would keep
an eye out for Mom, just to make sure she has headed to our home next door.
There, in the kitchen, humming to herself, she would finish the green beans, potatoes, and yeast rolls, and bake a pie or a cobbler. Finally, when the time
was right, she would begin to lay the floured chicken pieces into the hot lard. Meanwhile, midway through the church service, my brother and I would begin squirming on the back bench.
Sometimes, in a state of near delirium, I imagined that I could actually smell
that chicken cooking in our house. Once when my Sunday school teacher groped
for a way to explain the meaning of eternity, I suggested that it felt like the end-
less wait for a pulley bone and all the other wonderful things that accompanied
my mother's Sunday dinner.
I was fortunate enough to end up with the big, deep, heavy cast-iron skillet and
lid that produced all those poultry masterpieces a half-century ago. To this day
we still recognize it at our house as the one and only vessel for serious chicken frying.
There is a reassuring comfort in the knowledge that this utensil will never wear
out, never lose flavor, never fail. It is an heirloom worth its weight in silver or
gold, and as much to be treasured as a fine old piece of furniture and as prized
as a precious memory."

 

In Pursuit of Perfect Fried Chicken
by Susan Dosier

"Without fried chicken, a picnic is just a meal with ants; a family reunion is
only a series of endless hugs; and a church covered-dish supper - well, the
very thought of this omission leaves the spirit wanting.
An occasional rendezvous with the frying pan won't kill you - and it can
be downright fun. Our day with food writer and historian John Egerton of
Nashville, proved that point heartily. John's book

Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History
(University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill)

has provided history and inspiration to our staff for years. So it was only
natural to invite him to join us.
The grease started popping about 9:30 a.m. We cooked eight broiler-fryer
chickens every way imaginable and concluded about 1 p.m. to sample them
all. Each was judged as critically as a prize pickle at the state fair.  Here's
what we discovered. A cast-iron skillet is ideal, but an electric skillet or a
stainless steel fryer will do the job. The chicken cooks more evenly, browns
to a prettier color, and is much more crispy when fried in a cast-iron skillet
because the oil's temperature remains more constant.
A fresh chicken is best. Some stores fool us with frozen birds that are thawed
before they are sold. Get to know your butcher and ask for help.
Vegetable oil with 1/4 cup bacon drippings is our fat of choice.
In an effort to keep the kitchen somewhat clean, we opted for the oil in our
cast- iron skillet to be three-fourths the height of the chicken - usually 2 inches
deep. The chicken absorbed less oil (we measured how much oil was left in the
skillet after each batch) when it was soaked in buttermilk or salt water in the
refrigerator overnight. Salt water offered the best results for us; buttermilk ran
a close second.
Seasoning the chicken offers more room for variation than any other step. Our favorite recipe was simple. The chicken was dredged in a combination of flour,
salt and pepper. Dipping in beaten egg before flouring left the chicken clumpy,
and it absorbed much more oil. We tried batters with herb seasonings, but the
flavor didn't come through.
Add the chicken to the skillet when the oil reaches 360 degrees F. Then keep
the oil sizzling at 300 to 325 degrees F. for the remainder of the frying. We
used a candy thermometer to test the oil's temperature.
We covered the cast-iron skillet after adding the chicken. Covering helps to eliminate spatters and it didn't make our chicken soggy.
"The whole objective is to get the right color and outside texture and cook the chicken through in about 30 minutes," John says. "Take the chicken out of
the pan when it's brown enough to suit your taste."
And when we did take it out of the pan, we drained it on paper towels, let it cool,
and sampled it gustily. Even the most disciplined of our tasters gave in. We now smelled like a Southern picnic basket. We'd definitely learned a few new tricks.
John summed it up for us. 'We did what came naturally,' he said. 'We broke the rules, but we didn't break them all to pieces. And you know, we ended up back
where Mary Randolph was in 1828 with "The Virginia Housewife," one of the
first cookbooks published in the United States.  Her recipe called for cutting
up a chicken, dredging in flour, sprinkling with a little salt, putting the pieces
in a skillet with hot fat, and frying to a golden brown. Then it instructed to
make a gravy with the 'leavings' ".
It's good to know that some things never change."

 

How to Cut Up Chicken with a Pulley Bone

The other name for the pulley bone is the wishbone, the V-shaped breast
bone of the chicken.
Cutting up a chicken using a sharp knife to get at the joints and kitchen
shears to trim the rest saves money - and many argue that it's a better
product altogether. Assistant Test Kitchens Director Peggy Smith gives
us a quick lesson.

1. First remove the legs by cutting at the joints with a sharp knife.
2. Crack the back thigh joint, finding the joint with your fingers. Cut
straight through to remove thigh; repeat on the other side. Use
kitchen shears to trim extra skin and fat.
3. Stretch out wings and cut into the joints, removing them.
4. Cut down the back from the tail end to the neck end.  Clip along the
ribs with kitchen shears. You'll now have a large breast section.
5. Press your fingers on the neck end of the breasts; the pulley bone
connects to these two plump muscles. You can feel its V-shape with
your fingers. Cut straight down from the top of the breast to the
cutting board, cutting between the ribs and pulley bone and separ-
ating the pulley bone from the rest of the breast. Your piece will
be shaped like a plump "V". Be careful not to crack the bone
while you're feeling around for it.

Tip:  If you don't cut up your own chicken, you'll find pieces with the
pulley bone cut out for you in packaged chicken cut up country style.

 

Our Best Southern Fried Chicken

3 quarts water
1 tablespoon salt
A 2- to 2 1/2-pound broiler-fryer
chicken, cut up
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable oil
1/4 cup bacon drippings

Combine 3 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt in a large bowl; add chicken pieces. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours. Drain chicken; rinse with cold water, and pat dry. Combine 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper; sprinkle half
of mixture over all sides of chicken. Combine remaining mixture and flour
in a gallon-size, heavy-duty, zip-top plastic bag. Place 2 pieces of chicken in
bag; seal. Shake to coat completely. Remove chicken, and repeat procedure with remaining pieces. Combine vegetable oil and bacon drippings in a
12-inch cast-iron skillet or chicken fryer; heat to 360 degrees F. Add the chicken, a few pieces at a time, skin side down. Cover and cook 6 minutes; uncover and cook 9 minutes. Turn chicken pieces; cover and cook 6 minutes. Uncover and cook 5 to 9 minutes, turning pieces during the last
3 minutes for even browning, if necessary. Drain chicken on a paper
towel-lined plate placed over a large bowl of hot water. Yield: 4 servings
.
- John Egerton

Note:  For best results, keep the oil temperature between 300 and 325
degrees F. Also, 2 cups buttermilk may be substituted for the saltwater
solution used to soak the chicken pieces.  Proceed as directed.

 

Fried Chicken Gravy

1 recipe Our Best Southern Fried Chicken
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk or water
[we use milk or a combination
of milk and chicken broth]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Fry chicken according to recipe directions. Pour off pan drippings, reserving 1/4 cup drippings in skillet. Place skillet over medium heat. Add flour to the drippings, stirring constantly, until browned. Add milk gradually; cook, stirring constantly, until thickened and bubbly (about 3 to 5 minutes). Stir in salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Yield: 1  2/3 cups.

 

Oven-Fried Chicken

1 quart water
1 teaspoon salt
6 chicken drumsticks
4 bone-in chicken breast halves, skinned
1/2 cup non-fat buttermilk
3 cups corn flake crumbs
2 to 3 teaspoons Creole seasoning
2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)
Vegetable cooking spray

Combine water and salt in a large bowl; add chicken pieces. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Drain chicken; rinse with cold water,
and pat dry. Place chicken in a shallow dish; pour buttermilk over the
chicken, turning pieces to coat. Combine corn flake crumbs and season-
ings in a gallon-size heavy-duty, zip-top plastic bag. Place two pieces
chicken in bag; seal. Shake to coat completely. Remove chicken, and
repeat procedure with remaining pieces. Place coated chicken, bone
side down, in a 15-by-10-by-1-inch jellyroll pan coated with cooking
spray and spray chicken with cooking spray.  Place pan on the lowest
rack in oven. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 45 minutes (do not turn).
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
 

Featured Archive Recipes:
Annie Lou's Fried Chicken
Gigi's Oven-Fried Parmesan Chicken
Jean Anderson's Oven-Fried Chicken
Marcelle Bienvenu's Crunchy Fried Chicken
Notes from a Southern Expatriate, with Recipes
 

“Whenever we want chicken,” says Mrs. McCollum [of Rockingham County,
North Carolina] “I just go out in the yard and catch one. It doesn’t seem to me
like I do anything special about frying chicken, but my children like the way
I do it, especially Susan – it’s her favorite. It’s real crispy and brown outside
and juicy all the way to the bone. I always make chicken gravy, too, so we can
spoon it over hot biscuits.”
from The Grass Roots Cookbook icon, by Jean Anderson, 1992, Doubleday

 

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