IT’S SAID THAT everything tastes like chicken. But if chicken—specifically, fried chicken—is done right, there’s really nothing like it.
The best fried chicken is one of hearsay, rumor, little more than a poultry-fied ghost 99.9 percent of the time. On the surface, little separates one bird from another, one blue plate from another, one country kitchen from another. So, you chase rumors. You train your hopes on the often unfounded prospect of something special hiding in plain sight. You secret away the snippet details of this dive or that rural outpost in the safe corners of memory for later retrieval. And then, sometimes, you give it a go.
On a Friday morning in June, we chase a tip—not so much a rumor as a recommendation, the personal favorite of a friend whose opinions we trust in these matters—an hour’s drive east of Little Rock. It’s the sort of place you grow up with, that grows on you, where your name is known, that never changes.
With the right experience, there would be a lot to connect with here. The smell of the grass in the adjacent field would be familiar, the wave and the green and the lilt of it, knowing it had once seemed so tall until you were taller, and then it was neck, then waist, then knee height. The high school mascot—a bison silhouetted on bumper stickers on the backs of trucks in the gravel parking lot—would summon memories of first loves, homecomings, rivalries, trig, pimples, puberty, pep rallies, the smell of pencil shavings, perfume. There’s the knowing, too, that if you were from here, you’d lean your elbows against the counter for a while, swapping gossip with the owners, before filling a plate. There would be no need for an explanation of the ice machine’s quirks. Everything would speak to, and of, and about home.
But to be here for the first time, looking in vain for these memories—which is, after all, what we’re looking for—in the steaming metal pans of the diner’s lunch buffet, there’s just the feeling of being outside a place so many have already connected with, from the pair of older gentlemen posted up in the back, to the half dozen electric co-op workers, all in dirty boots and work shirts, sunglasses on the visors of their caps.
But still, there’s potential. We take plates from the stack. We fill them with fried chicken. (Just above the pan of chicken, a small rectangular sign reads, “Lord, help my words to be tender … for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”) We slide into a booth, raise a drumstick over the table and say, “Cheers.”
I’VE ALREADY eaten the best fried chicken. I know it well. I know exactly how the skin flakes at the touch and peels off in brittle strips. I know exactly the way it feels in my hand and the sheen of the oil it leaves there. I know the hard malingering smell of the smoke from the still-hot cast-iron pan. I know the hum of the refrigerator, the ringing of the phone with solicitors on the other end of the line, calling at the wrong time. I know what it is like to hunch over the plate, chest to the table’s lip, talking very little because it is fried-chicken night, and any spoken words would mean losing out on a bite.
For me, the best fried chicken is one that I don’t expect will ever change. For me, it will always be served in that poorly designed home in North Little Rock, a veritable shadow box with its west-facing facade all but blacked out, and it will always be after long days at work in a city still very new to me. I didn’t know it then, but there were only a few years left before there would be no more dinners, when there would be no more cast-iron skillets on the stove, and there never would be again.
Thinking back on those dinners, those nights that my great aunt and uncle opened their home to me, I’m left with the question, Why does the best fried chicken taste so good? For the simple reason that the best catfish tastes so good, that the best hush puppies taste so good, that the best sweet tea tastes so good, that the best anything tastes so good—for the simple reason that the best food does more than satisfy or ease or quench or fill. It evokes a sense of place. And for many of us, that place is home or something like it.
A FEW DAYS later, my wife and I decide to try a very different kind of fried chicken. On the back of a spare piece of paper—the draft of a story I’m supposed to be editing—I write that this is no ordinary fried chicken. It’s got a brightness, a lightness, Chinese five-spice in the batter, pickled ginger and daikon radish in the pickles. You finish and don’t feel fried food’s sluggishness weighing down your eyelids, its tell-tale heaviness, the feeling of having ingested a canvas bag of river rocks.
What I take away from that afternoon’s meal—the reason why, in part, I suspect it tastes so good—is everything that isn’t the chicken, that happens off the table. In the years that follow, this memory won’t be just of chicken; it’ll be my leg against hers, the joy of an unplanned lunch date, her saying, “I love this more with you.”
Someday, I’m sure, it’ll be the best, too.
Looking to start a tradition of your own? Pluck a recipe from the list below.
1. Marie’s Kentucky Fried Chicken
From Little Rock Cooks (1972), published by Junior League of Little Rock (jllr.org)
1 fryer, cut up, 2 1/2 or 3 pounds
3 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons fines herbes [Editor’s note: We used a packet of poultry seasoning]
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 envelopes instant chicken broth
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
1/4 tablespoon pepper
1 cup flour
Salad oil for frying [Editor’s note: Light vegetable oil]
Chicken broth (see below)
Chicken gravy (see below)
Cover cut-up chicken in salt water in a medium-size bowl, and chill for 1 hour. Make a fine powder of fines herbes, onion powder, seasoned salt, instant chicken broth and pepper with an electric blender or mortar and pestle. Combine the herbs with flour in a plastic bag. Remove the chicken from water one piece at a time and shake in the flour mixture while still wet (save the salt water for later use). Coat thickly with flour. Pour enough salad oil into the skillet to make 1 inch deep, and heat to 375 degrees. Fry the chicken pieces 5 minutes on each side. Turn with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels. Remove the oil from the skillet (don’t wash), and add 1 cup chicken broth. Return the chicken to the skillet. Cover and cook 20 minutes. Keep warm in the oven while making the gravy.
Chicken broth: Place the salted water that the chicken had soaked in into a pan. Add the chicken giblets, 2 onion slices and several celery tops. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Makes about 3 cups.
Chicken gravy: Strain the remaining 2 cups of chicken broth, and add to the skillet in which the chicken was cooked. Heat to boiling while stirring and scraping baked-on juices from the side and bottom of the pan. Make a paste of 4 tablespoons flour and 1/2 cup cold water in a small cup. Stir into the boiling liquid. Continue stirring for 1 minute. Salt and pepper to taste. Add chopped giblets, if desired, and simmer 2 minutes longer.
2. Savory Chicken
From The Food of Our People (1994), published by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (orthodoxchurch.com)
3 pounds chicken, cut into pieces
3/4 cup flour or crushed bread crumbs
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup butter or margarine
2 tablespoons water
Wash the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Combine the flour, salt, pepper, allspice and cinnamon in a bowl. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture until evenly coated. Heat the butter in a large skillet. Brown the chicken on both sides for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat, and sprinkle with water. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender. To crisp the chicken, uncover for the last 10 minutes, turning the chicken frequently.
3. Chicken Barbara
Recipe by Mrs. Banks Dawson from Recipes for the King (1963)
12 chicken parts, (breasts, drumsticks and thighs)
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon rosemary needles
1/2 cup water
(A more elegant dish may be prepared by using only the breasts from six birds.) In a large skillet, combine the onion, celery, rosemary and water. Place the chicken parts over the mixture, cover tightly, and cook very slowly for 30 minutes or until the chicken is almost done. Take the chicken from the skillet, remove the skins, and allow to cool. Dip the cooled chicken in buttermilk waffle batter, and fry very quickly (at 375 degrees) in deep fat until golden brown. Remove from the fat, and drain on absorbent paper.
Buttermilk Waffle Batter
1 1/3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons melted shortening
Sift the flour and measure. Add the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Sift again. Separate the egg yolk and white. Beat the egg yolk, and add to the milk and melted shortening. Pour into the flour mixture, and stir just enough to moisten the dry ingredients. Fold in the egg white, which has been beaten until stiff but not dry.
4. Ozark Fried Chicken
From My Ozark Cupboard (1950), by Cora Pinkley-Call
Have a deep iron chicken fryer one-third of the way full of steaming hot lard with 2 tablespoons of margarine or butter added. Cut the chicken into 13 pieces after washing well. Place a cup of sifted flour with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a paper bag. Drop the cut-up chicken into it, and shake well. Place the chicken in the hot fat, and let brown on both sides. Then pour off only enough fat for the gravy. Place the lid on the fryer, and turn the heat low. Let simmer about one-half hour. Remove the chicken, and place in hot oven until the gravy and the balance of the dinner is finished. Make the gravy as for Southern Fried Chicken (see below), using milk instead of broth and adding 1 tablespoon of butter to the fat, which always gives a better flavor.
Here is the secret handed down from my Cherokee ancestry that gives your gravies and soups a flavor that is different … a nutty flavor that is delicious. It is called oa-whis-i-tee and is made from pulverized parched corn or hickory or pecan nuts. It may be kept for months in tin containers with tight lids. Stir in 1 tablespoon or so to a skillet of gravy or a pot of soup. The nuts, or corn, whichever you prefer, are toasted until brown, then pestled in a mortar. A wooden bowl and a wooden potato masher may be used to powder the corn and nuts.
Gravy for Southern Fried Chicken: Drain most of the fat from the chicken fryer. Sift enough flour to completely cover the bottom of the fryer. Let brown until bubbles begin to come up; stir with a fork until all the flour is brown, but be sure you don’t scorch it. Pour in 1 pint of hot stock [ed. note: or milk, per instructions above], until the mixture is the right thickness. Simmer until thick as thick cream. Stir in one tablespoon of butter. Salt and pepper, and add in a bit of savory or poultry seasoning. Drop in a piece of parsley, and garnish the platter of chicken generously with parsley.