Fried Chicken Day

Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken Day
| published July 6, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

For those who do not have personal knowledge about the publisher and editor of this online magazine, there is one central fact that needs to be shared: he loves fried chicken. In fact, as those who know him well will attest to, it has been his favorite food for most of his life.

We are, of course, talking about me—though in Old School journalism one is supposed to refer to oneself in the awkward third person, as in “the editor of this magazine is also the writer of this article.” We can dispense with that formality.

And did I mention that Fried Chicken Day was just days ago? Yes, there is a national day recognizing fried chicken. Later, we may do some research to find out just who or what was behind that declaration—big fast food consortiums or their marketing agencies who represent KFC, Maryland Fried Chicken or Popeye’s, no doubt. Or maybe Congress, or some past U.S. president, or some combination of powerful industrial forces and lobbyists. But, as I say, we can save that investigative work for a later piece. In the meantime, let’s talk turkey.

My love of fried chicken dates back to a point earlier than my memory. I don’t have a specific recollection of an event which triggered a passion for fried chicken; it has simply been with me as long as I can recall. I do, however, recall with warmth and yearnings the fried chicken my great-grandmother prepared, as well as the fried chicken my maternal grandmother cooked. Both were good. Well, let’s requalify that to say both were excellent, and I don’t say that just because these cooks were my grandmothers. Everyone recalls grandmotherly cuisine in a fond light.

My great-grandmother, however, was outstanding. Among traditional country and American homestyle cooks, there was little she could not do in her tiny kitchen—pecan pie, biscuits from scratch, peach cobbler, vegetables, dressing, lemon cake. And in that kitchen about the same size as a modern office cubicle, she could conjure massive meals of abundance for a group of eight to ten people—complete with dozens of side dishes and a half dozen desserts. Her fried chicken—a recipe she learned as a young teenager while living near a tiny hamlet called Taylor (tucked between the Osceola National Forest and the Okefenokee Swamp in Florida, about a stone’s throw from the southernmost point of Georgia)—was mouth-watering and irresistible.

I’d rate it about a 9.7 on a scale from zero to ten. Why shortchange her cooking? Why not use her chicken recipe and set the bar right there at a perfect ten? Because, there was something better.

On my dad’s side of the family, decades ago, were a few great aunts and great-great aunts living in a farming community in south central Georgia, in and around a tiny town called Eldorado, a short distance south of Tifton. There, among expansive fields of turnips, corn, tobacco, peanuts and watermelons, and between groves of peach trees and pecan trees, these practical, flinty women grew their own vegetables, plucked their own figs and peaches from their own trees, and raised their own chickens and hogs. When we visited in those days, a Sunday meal was fresh—not in the sense that they went to the nearest Winn-Dixie or A&P to load up on produce from the store—but in the sense that the tomatoes and the cucumbers on the plate that day came from their gardens that very morning, or at least the night before.

For Thursday Review readers with family roots in places like Alabama, South Carolina, Indiana or Illinois (just to name a few states), it comes as no surprise that a carrot plucked straight from the ground and washed off under the garden hose tastes infinitely better than a carrot bought from the produce display at the nearest Harris-Teeter or Buy-Lo. Even big chains like Publix, whose devotion to its produce department makes it well worth the few extra cents per item, can’t beat the way a tomato tastes when picked from the vine that very day, or the savory freshness of green beans cooked in a bit of bacon or fatback after those green beans were just picked, snapped and cleaned by hand.

So it was with the chicken in Eldorado, Georgia.

Spoiler alert: for vegans, animal right advocates, and the just plain squeamish, I’ll skip the unpleasant business of how fresh chicken becomes “fresh” in the scant hours before food preparation begins. And for that matter, even the cleaning can be a gruesome task. But for these great aunts, some of whom appeared to be in the 80s and 90s in my memory, the process was a necessary adjunct the business of cooking a meal, no more troublesome than washing collard greens or removing those confounded strings from the green beans.

When the meal was finally delivered to the table—and I have memories of eating this sort of meal on at least four or five occasions over a period of ten or twelve years—those cooks even had the colors and textures balanced to perfection, though this was not part of some plan to please the eye of a food critic. For them, it was merely God and nature at work: brightly colored squash, radiant orange carrots, deeply earthen greens, exuberant red tomato slices, crisply opaque Vidalia onions, fluffy freshly baked biscuits.

And then there was that fried chicken. If my great-grandmother scored a 9.7, these women pegged the meter at a perfect ten. Standing near the doorway from the dining room to the kitchen once, I watched these women at work testing that chicken in black, iron skillets. It was messy business, throwing off nearly as much heat as splatter. There might also be another iron pot filled with breaded okra spattering the air above it, and another pan with thin slices of pickles frying up noisily. There were no recipe books, instructions or cards anywhere in sight. All of this was prepared using folk wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.

But the chicken was the high-maintenance part of the meal—just as easily overcooked or burned as it could be undercooked. Still, it was worth it for those who sat at that table. Those glowing warm pieces of crispy fried chicken were the best I have ever eaten, period.

But let’s be clear about something—fresh ingredients or not (these folks wouldn’t know a poultry antibiotic if it had fallen in their laps, and they would have had even less knowledge of steroids or other growth-enhancements), this was not health food. Balanced, in a way, yes; but far from healthy unless you were to conspicuously eat only the vegetables and the fruit. And in those days you would have been highly suspect for not nibbling upon at least one chicken leg or wing.

That remarkable fried chicken was no doubt loaded with ingredients unhealthy to the heart and the arteries, and one could have just as easily consumed a cup of lard with less effect on the body’s circulatory system. Still, in direct defiance of such worries, most of these relatives still lived well into their 90s, and a few tapped the century mark. What this says about the long term effects of fat and salt I do not know. Maybe it was good genes, or their sturdy upbringing—“sturdy” being a euphemism for how folks were raised in an environment where, since before the Great Depression, a person farmed their own patch of soil or sand to produce their own food when there was no money available to buy things at a market.

These great aunts also had a way with their green beans, and the key to that could be found in the length of time the beans were cooked. Again, a general knowledge of the dangers of salt and fats did not factor into the cooking process; ignorance was bliss, and green beans were best cooked slowly—for hours, many hours—in a pot laden with fat back or bacon (or both) and seasoned with tiny bits of onion. The objective was the creation of green beans so tender that they require hardly any chewing—one can just gum them into sweet submission once you have some in your mouth. Sure, you’ve effectively killed much of the fiber quality, but under such circumstances—who cares?

But, let’s get back to the issue of the fried chicken. The point is that sometimes people ask me to tell them about the best or second best or third best fried chicken out there. It’s not that simple. Fried chicken, unlike, say, a New York Strip steak dinner, or a large plate of agneddu agglassatu, is subjective. You can’t just point to a list and say here it is, not in the same way that you can definitively drive into Chicago and go to David Burke’s Primehouse on North Rush Street or Morton’s on North State. And certainly not in the same way you could advise someone to go to Dominick’s in the Bronx for great Italian food.

Someone who grew up in Evansville, Indiana may have an entirely different opinion of what constitutes great fried chicken from someone who was raised in Natchez, Mississippi. So too would opinions vary between people you might ask in Zanesville, Ohio and people you would quiz in Corbin, Kentucky—the birthplace, I might point out of KFC.

But in my best objective way, I have to divide the matter into categories.

Fast food fried chicken often comes first in many people’s minds. Like hamburgers, the chicken dinner has become something of a creature of the fast-turnaround restaurant. Burgers are not a lost art for most cooks (read Michael Sigler’s article The Hamburger: A Family Affair; Thursday Review), but frying chicken is very nearly an endangered specialty. Very few people attempt it at home in their own kitchen these days. Fast food has taken the arduous, messy task and simplified it.

So in my book, let’s get this over with and say that among the fast food peddlers of chicken, Popeye’s and Bojangle’s each rank near the top—tied, more or less, for those who use a New Orlean’s-style approach. KFC comes next, and again this can vary from location to location, followed closely by Maryland Fried Chicken. Somewhere around number five on my list would be Church’s. Already, I can sense the dissent and the grousing. That’s why I say that this can be subjective. (Trivia: KFC is technically not “fried,” but rather pressure-cooked at extreme heat, a method invented by Harlan Sanders in order to speed up his cooking process.)

As for walk-in, sit-down, order-from-a-menu restaurants—well, it can get really complicated. In this sense, it depends on what you like about fried chicken. Advocates of buttermilk fried chicken would obviously clash with aficionados of Latin-styled friend chicken, two of the most popular alternatives to traditional bread chicken. Both styles are excellent. There are variations that can get exotic as well. In New Orleans and some parts of the Mississippi Delta, chefs and cooks use recipes which include Coca-Cola, peanut oil, cayenne pepper and a relish of pickle and garlic. Some Midwesterners say that the only right way to fry chicken is with shortening, not oil, and traditional buttermilk fried chicken is one of those with a recipe which requires devotion to the old fashioned method of cooking—health concerns notwithstanding. (Some recipes call for 4 cups of buttermilk and one cup of vegetable shortening for eight pieces of chicken).

So then, let’s cut to the chase: the best fried chicken I ever had at a sit-down dinner was in Tallahassee, Florida back in the 1980s. The place was called Skinner’s Restaurant, but a search online turned up no solid evidence that the diner still exists (though there were lots of references to its existence as of a few years ago). Thursday Review contributor Brien Sorne, a Tallahassee resident of many years, informs me that the original location of Skinner's is now gone, having made way for critical road and street reconfigurations.

Once, on a long vacation drive from Florida to Indiana, over to Illinois, and then back to Florida, I stopped for lunch after a long morning of driving. I had left Champaign-Urbana early that morning, driving south along I-57 toward Kentucky. After a couple of hours in the car on the mostly featureless interstate, sensory deprivation set in. To avoid boredom and madness, I got off the interstate near Effingham. Not long after that, following state and county roads more-or-less in the direction of Paducah, Kentucky, I came across a small “country cooking” diner. I have no recollection of the name of the town or the restaurant—only the memory of the fried chicken which I ordered. It was buttermilk style, and I rank it second on my all-time list.

Again, someone will need to inform me on this since I have no clue even after years of studying maps of Illinois. If you live in the vicinity of Flora or Fairfield, perhaps you will recall this place (and perhaps it still exists!). Coincidentally, I drove through a tine place called Eldorado on the last hour of that journey through the southernmost part of Illinois.

Next on my list: a place called Cathy’s Kitchen at a crossroads in South Carolina, about halfway between Hartsfield and Lydia. I say it was called Cathy’s, though it may have been Kathy’s (with a K). Again, locals can help with this one. My father and I used to stop there at least once per year on our drives to visit family. I rank this fried chicken third on my list. The first time we stopped there my dad ordered meatloaf. The next year, upon our return, I had prattled on about the chicken so incessantly in the two hours prior to lunch that he finally said he would order the fried chicken if I would agree to stop talking about it. Deal. He was not disappointed, and later that day told everyone we encountered that his son was right about that fried chicken.

There are plenty of runners up. Once, driving across Nevada, I stopped at a small diner in Elko. Having lived my entire life in the South, I didn’t have much in the way of high expectation when it came to fried chicken, Nevada-style. The menu has lots of other tempting items, including what was billed as the best country-fried steak in Nevada.  But when I spied fried chicken on the menu, the waitress assured me that it was top-notch. It was indeed, incredibly delicious. The cook, as it turned out, was originally from rural Ohio—another place where they apparently know their way around fried chicken.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida gave me two good options as a younger fellow. One was a place called Jimmie’s Buttermilk Chicken. Jimmie’s was a family-owned operation which specialized for many of its early years in boardinghouse style dining: food was brought to the table in the same manner in which food would be served at home or in a boardinghouse: in family-sized bowls and on large platters.  Later, the restaurant adopted a more traditional style menu, but retained the mouth-watering chicken, and also home-style side dishes—such as coleslaw, rice, creamed peas, and some of the most outstanding biscuits you could imagine. Unpretentious, as a chicken place should be, and, as it turns out, one of my mother's favorite restaurants.

There was—and still is—a little place called Beach Road Chicken Dinner, on Atlantic Boulevard in Jacksonville. That modest shack-of-a-restaurant has remained largely unchanged since it was first built in the 1930s. When it was constructed, it was a simple roadside diner for people making their day trips from town to the beach (as the name indicates). Aside from the to-die-for chicken, which is cooked continuously in the backroom kitchen, Beach Road has famously wonderful creamed English peas and top-notch French fries. The menu is Spartan and spare, with only a few options that deviate from the standard meal (though they also serve fish and shrimp). The chicken is fresh at Beach Road by default: on many days there is a continuous line of people waiting to get inside.

Then there is Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Tennessee. This is one of those places you must take time to visit if only to say you were there. People drop in from very nearly everywhere in the world to eat there, or to pick up their take-out order. What sets this place apart from most is that it specializes in varying degrees of spicy hot chicken. You can order mild or medium, or you can go hot. Then there’s extra hot, and those familiar with Prince’s say that the extra hot is for the one percenters. Not the Mitt Romney kind of one percent, but that special breed of folks who can easily withstand something akin to plutonium on their tongue. According to their page on Facebook, one customer once told them that the extra hot chicken cleared his sinuses and cured his athlete's foot. The place is legendary, and the spicy chicken is good but intense.

I recommend you start with mild—but then I’m a mild kind of guy.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Hamburger: A Family Affair; Michael Sigler; Thursday Review; July 4, 2014.