If pressed, I would have to say my first solid food was Fried Chicken- Grits don’t count, they’re not solid. When I crossed the road from babyhood, the first thing I was taught to make was Fried Chicken. A naturally timid child, learning to cut up chicken is a real confidence builder! I’ve been fryin’ chicken most of my life. I can still hear Mimi telling me to put two Fryers on her grocery list. She was particular about it too- bigger than 2-3 pounds? The Chicken would be tough. Nowadays, it’s rare to find chickens that small. When we got Mimi home from the store, if I was lucky, she’d let me help her cut them up. After removing the small organ meats and setting aside, my first task would be to find the little joint on the top of the breastbone, slide the knife along the bone on both sides and off came the Pulley Bone! Then methodically, I found joint after joint and ran the knife through being careful not ruin the skin. I loved it, had visions of becoming a world famous surgeon. If I didn’t get caught, I would stand at the sink letting water run through the tiny two chambered chicken heart and experience the great mystery of water pouring in one chamber and out the other. Okay, it didn’t take much to entertain me! Still. Because I helped cut up the chicken, the Pulley Bone was my reward. If you don’t know what a Pulley Bone is, it’s doubtful you grew up in the South. In my research this week- without fail- every. single, person I quizzed mentioned Pulley Bones. Fighting over them, wishing on them- yet not one person said they ever got a Pulley Bone as the reward for helping cut up chickens! So, I have concluded that either someone was pulling my leg, ahem…Pulley Bone or I’m the luckiest girl alive!
Fried Chicken is iconic- listed in the top 10 Sunday Dinners, Church Picnics and Funeral Foods- why? Well, it’s delicious and cheap. Most Sundays you’ll find me in the kitchen, rattlin’ around cooking Sunday Dinner- as opposed to Sunday Suppers. Last Sunday, realizing it had been a good while, I made Fried Chicken. Most southern cooks fried chicken on Sundays, especially if the preacher was coming to the house to eat lunch- if he was long winded blessing the food- well… Fried Chicken could lay serenely on the Sideboard until he got through. The same goes for Dinner on the Ground or Church Picnics- good Fried Chicken can wait- but usually doesn’t. One friend told that every summer when her family left for the beach- they’d stop by her grandmother’s house- and out she’d come with a Shoe Box full of Fried Chicken, a snack to eat on the road- ‘It didn’t last long…’ she said. It never does.
I love Fried Chicken- I eat some version of it almost every week. But what you must understand is- the Fried Chicken of my youth, didn’t come in a bucket- it was more likely piled on a platter, in brown paper sack, stowed in a picnic basket or handed around like manna after a funeral. I see lots of buckets and clinical plastic containers at any and all occasions. I love it all- yet, the truth is- Bought Fried Chicken, as we say- can’t hold a candle to real-home-cooked-in-an-iron-skillet Fried Chicken.
Mimi’s Fried Chicken was a two day affair- one for cutting up the chicken, putting it in a big bowl, then icing and salting it down (brining they call it these days), put in the refrigerator overnight ‘to draw out the impurities’. The truth is- icing and salting down the chicken pieces made Mimi’s chicken- moist on the inside and crisp on the outside- exactly the way good Fried Chicken is supposed to be. Frying Chicken commenced on the second day. I still get tickled thinking of the times sitting next to Mimi, eating someone else’s Fried Chicken- she would discreetly nod her head to the joint end of a chicken bone- and whisper- ‘Look at that dark end, she didn’t ice that chicken down!’
Last week, I took a wild hair and decided it’d been too long since I’d actually made Fried Chicken. Now, I wouldn’t dare label my Fried Chicken as the best because every Southern family has a gold standard, a recipe or a method they like best.
- Some soak it in buttermilk, some dip it in an egg wash- I do neither.
- Even the ingredients are hotly contested. Salt and Black Pepper only? Or add a pinch of Cayenne? What about Paprika?
- White Lily or Martha White, plain or self rising flour?
- Single or Double Coat? Batter, Dip or shake in a brown paper sack?
- Fry in Lard, Shortening or Oil? Deep Fry or Pan Fry?
Now, my research showed- those folks from the original Colonies , who migrated from Virginia…tended to soak theirs in buttermilk, those from South Carolina or Georgia tended dip the chicken in egg. And one insulting tome- said Alabama folks were so poor, they simply didn’t dip in batter at all! I hate to admit it- my ancestors must have been as pore as church mice!
I learned that families who deep fry, almost always had large farms and field hands to feed. Mimi’s recipe is over 100 years old- taught by the household cooks when she was a girl and always declared – Fit to Eat! Skillet Frying is the way we do it.
*If there’s a secret ingredient- so common that almost no one tells you- it’s that the best fried chicken was first dipped in Self Rising Flour! No exceptions. I’ve known so many wonderful cooks in my lifetime- a detail they tend to leave out is Self Rising Flour- but all of them kept Self rising Flour on hand for the biscuits they made by the dozens. They made their dumplings and fried their chicken and country fried steak with Self Rising Flour too! If you don’t have it on hand, add a bit of fresh baking powder to plain flour.The other secret ingredient is Corn Starch, if you have it on hand use it too.
Now, I’m gonna share my grandmother’s recipe, mainly because I know very few of you will actually fry chicken and those who DO- will fry it the way their own mothers and grandmothers did. Well, I’ve kept you in suspense long enough- here’s the method for –
Mimi’s Fried Chicken
- 2 small fryers cut up (if your family prefers chicken breasts- buy bone in/skin on and cut them in half or- Smile at your butcher and ask him if he’ll do it for you!)
- Using Kosher Salt- not Table salt- salt the chicken pieces and cover with ice- at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Remove ice and rinse chicken. *Allow chicken to come to room temperature.
- In a pie pan, mix together 1 1/2 cups self rising flour, 2 T. of Corn Starch, Salt and a generous amount of Black Pepper- add a pinch of Cayenne, if the preacher isn’t coming, unless he’s Pentecostal and doesn’t mind tongues of fire.
- Dredge chicken pieces in flour mixture. Lay out floured chicken pieces in single layer. When all of the chicken pieces are floured, re-dip them again shaking off excess flour.
- In a well seasoned iron skillet, heat oil or shortening, no deeper than one inch, or half way up the chicken pieces. I use Canola Oil these days- whatever oil you use must be able to withstand high temperatures. Heat oil to 360 degrees, it will be medium high and needs to remain so throughout the cooking process.
- Carefully slide a few pieces of chicken into the hot oil- you will know it’s hot enough by the gurgling sound- honestly, I think there’s a choir of angels who know how to gurgle like that!
- Do not crowd the chicken pieces! Fry a few pieces at a time.
- Allow the chicken to fry undisturbed for 8-9 minutes on one side. Turn the chicken carefully. preferably with tongs.
- Cover with a lid and allow to fry covered 5-6 minutes. Remove the lid, turn chicken and fry without being covered for another 5-8 minutes, turning at least once the last few minutes to insure even browning.
- Remove chicken and drain on a brown paper sack or paper towel covered Sheet Pan. Make sure the fried chicken is in one layer until cool.
- Continue frying until all chicken pieces are fried- I start with the largest pieces and adjust cooking times for the smaller ones.
*Lest you think real fried chicken is greasy- it’s not if the oil is hot enough. I fried 18 pieces of chicken in about a cup and a half of oil, and used less than a scant half cup of oil to fry it- some of which was left on the draining paper! The chicken is done when the juices run clear- no juices? it’s overcooked!
*For Gravy: Pour off and reserve the pan drippings along with those invaluable bits of crust on the bottom of the pan. Reserve the dredging flour for gravy, I prefer to use water or chicken broth instead of milk- but it’s your call. Do not use the gravy to smother your fried chicken! Put it on rice, mashed potatoes or biscuits instead.
A great piece of fried chicken looks as sturdy as a sisal rug, but is as light and flaky as a croissant. Real pan fried chicken is as rare as old lace in a hope chest. Truly home fried chicken seemed to be a Sunday tradition, a gathering of saints and sinners. The platter was handed around reverently like communion wafers or in gleeful jubilation, when all who are of one mind and one heart agree-
‘Blessed is the Creator of Chickens, Blessed are the chickens who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for this meal, Blessed is the Cook who stood, Tongs in hand like the Baton of a Great Conductor and presided over the Culinary Equivalent of the 1812 Overture- with Skillets hotter than the Devil’s Back Doorknob, the Baptism of Flour and Fire, the Angelic Chorus of Gurgling Oil and the Cymbal Clashing Lids- and Blessed among men who walk the earth, are the Recipients of Southern Fried Chicken.’
Can I get Hallelujah Chorus? Amen and amen! Have a blessed Lord’s Day!
Love y’all, Camellia
* A big thanks to Judy, who’s one of the best cooks I know and to all of the others who contributed selflessly to the research of this article- you are the most patient of all friends! Your reward will not be Fried Chicken, it will be the re-telling of the ‘Tale of the Three legged Chicken’ by the fella who cannot get through the story without crackin’ hisself up!*A Pulley Bone is what Yankees call the Wishbone, I hope you get one of those little crisp morsels and all your wishes come true! *All photographs are obviously mine.