I loved her green beans. I can still see them swimming around in the pot with little pools of grease from the pork she used to season them with. The biscuits, an extremely close second though. But then again, the way she cut cucumbers for me and chilled them in ice water made even the simplest vegetable special. And then there were the milkshakes. My god, those milkshakes.
Recipes don’t exist for any of it. There are no words of wisdom written down on the back of a grease stained envelope that once contained a light bill, like other recipes I have of hers, barely held in a small breaking down yellowed cardboard box.
I’ve never seen a written copy of her fried chicken recipe either.
I’ve heard its praises sung countless times though.
So here I am, left testing out numerous fried chicken recipes from the most credible sources I can find until I get it close enough. The whole time talking to no one in particular at all, yet all the women who have come before me, asking if I’m adding in too much salt, can I get by without lard and should I flip the chicken yet.
I’ll never get it the same. I don’t think I would want to, but I’m good with getting it pretty close.
It has improved since the first time I cooked it. That time I set the oven on fire.
It was a recipe for fried chicken where you fried it for just a bit on the stove, then put it in the oven to finish. Supposed to keep it real juicy that way – or so the recipe said.
She wasn’t there to tell me to put the chicken on a pan with a rim and not a completely flat baking sheet so the grease wouldn’t spill over and catch the damn oven on fire.
Then again, she wouldn’t have ever let me take the chicken off the stove to begin with.
Even 10 years later, I am still ashamed that I essentially tried to fry chicken in the oven.
As southerners, we hold our food in high regard. We love to eat. And I don’t just mean that we love to eat so we can sustain life, I mean that we love to eat damn fine food and fill our belly as much as we can with it. If our waistlines and hearts would allow, we’d love to eat that way for preferably every meal. What’s the damn use in wasting an empty belly on a turkey sandwich? It’s a cryin’ shame is what it is.
I digress though.
At the top of our food chain is, as you have probably already figured out, the almighty Fried Chicken.
Steaks weren’t always aplenty during the time of our grandparents, their parents and the ones before them. However, there was usually a chicken running around the yard that could be sacrificed for Sunday dinner. And so, cooking the crispiest, yet juiciest, fried chicken became an art perfected by women cooking with very few seasonings, over a hot stove in very small kitchens without any air conditioning.
And by god, perfected it they did.
There aren’t many things that will bring a tear to a grown Southern man’s eye, but talking about his mama’s fried chicken can.
I made fried chicken at the farm a few months back. After supper, my uncle said it was the closest fried chicken to my Grannie’s he’d had since she had died.
After confirming he wasn’t just being nice (I texted him from someone else’s phone so he wouldn’t know it was me), I knew then that that evening I’d been cooking with her.
I had cooked fried chicken in her kitchen that tasted almost like hers.
I had turned on her radio, heated up the stove and stood in the same spot where she had cooked fried chicken countless times. I knew I had salted and peppered and floured enough when that little voice inside my head said, “That’s good now, Jenna Ann,” and I like to think that was her voice. After all, there are few people left in this world who still call me Jenna Ann and they weren’t even in the house.
I made fried chicken again at the farm a couple weekends back.
When my uncle walked in and saw both the fried chicken and the collard greens on the stove, I told him not to get too excited – it was my first attempt at the greens. He said you can’t mess up collard greens.
Well, while I’ve finally figured out fried chicken that tastes pretty close to my Grannie’s, I’m still working on the holy collard greens.
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P.S. For the most part, I go by the fried chicken recipe from Rick Bragg’s book, The Best Cook in the World. It’s a collection of his mother’s recipes, along with stories. His mama is from the same generation as my Grannie was, so I figure that’s as close to a written recipe as I’ll get. You’ll fall in love with Mr. Bragg’s mama as you read the book, if you haven’t already fallen in love with her from his previous books. Y’all, that lady is a saint. And he is too for writing it all down. I could go on and on about my love for Rick Bragg too, but you can just read about that here if you want. Also, I have found that, for me the chicken comes out best when I’ve cooked it in a large cast iron Dutch oven. I am slightly ashamed saying that as I know all the women before me would have used a cast iron skillet, seasoned well from use over generations. I do feel they would appreciate how much less splatter there is though with a Dutch oven. I’m sure Grannie would understand. So long as I don’t try to put fried chicken in the damn oven again. And as you may have noticed from the picture of the chicken, yes, I only fried chicken legs. That’s my family’s preferred part of the chicken, so I just stick with it for now.