Chicken, Fried; Beans, Green; Tea, Iced (Part I)
The title of this post reflects our dinner menu last night, plus two kinds of potato salad (American and Southern), creamed corn, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, wheat rolls, and two desserts: Boston Cream Pie and French Silk Pie. All selected and prepared in honor of one of my brothers-in-law and his 49th birthday.
First and foremost, though, this post is about my mother’s fried chicken. Think her cornbread is good (see my posts from April 23-24)? Her fried chicken makes other fried chickens slink away, with their heads (if they still had them) hung low in shame. The bottom line: this ain’t your mama’s fried chicken. It’s MY mama’s fried chicken, and it deserves the best write-up I can give it.
Here’s the backstory: My mother’s father–Ray Clarida–spent most of his adult life preparing food. Without formal training, per se, he called himself a chef and his food was apparently worthy of the title. Ray Clarida worked in the grand hotels of the 1920′s and 30′s, following the seasonal East Coast tourists from New York to Miami and back. He owned a restaurant in Monteagle, TN, in 1935; we have fabulous old sepia-toned snapshots of him in his cook’s whites, holding my mother as a baby. He sold the restaurant at some point, moved to Knoxville, and went to work in the kitchen of the big hospital there (probably St. Mary’s). According to my mother, he carried on a running battle with Sister Annunciata over the manner in which a kitchen should be operated.
For both age and health reasons (my grandfather had served in World War I and his health was compromised by exposure to mustard gas), the work involved in running a hospital kitchen became too much for him, so the family went to Gatlinburg where he opened the “A Sip & A Bite Cafe”–long before Gatlinburg was the gateway of the Smokies and Pigeon Forge was nothing but a wide spot on the road to Sevierville. Unfortunately, this was during World War II, and any able-bodied folks who might ordinarily have worked in the cafe were either serving in the military or leaving Gatlinburg to find war work in the more industrialized north. This left my grandfather doing most of the work himself, which further strained his health.
In the late 40′s, he retired and moved his family over the mountain to Asheville. He was no longer cooking for a living, but his children had learned and absorbed his skills over the years, so his “good taste” was carried forward into another generation.
All that to say, my mother’s fried chicken is also her father’s fried chicken, i.e. what you’d expect to be served in any good pre-1970′s diner in the South. (After 1970, I think diner culture started to change, and although some originals remain and others have been revived, it’s not really the same any more.)
Start with fresh chicken (yes, it can have been previously frozen, but fresh skips the need for thawing and worrying if “Sam & Ella” will crash the party!). My mother used to start with whole chickens because they were more economical and she could turn the extra bits and pieces into broth and stock. These days, following a stroke in 2002, she tends to go with packaged parts, but she still removes the skin herself (skinless chicken being more expensive than its unskinned counterpart, don’t you know?). She prefers to use a mix of pieces: breasts, “hips”*, legs, even the occasional wing, because all of us have favorites. White meat or dark? Knife-and-fork or finger-picking? We all have an opinion, a preference, and an appetite!
Next post: preparing “A Sip & A Bite Cafe” fried chicken, with photographic evidence.
*Years ago, my grandmother (on my father’s side) asked to be served a chicken thigh (the dark meat section above the drumstick), but she couldn’t think what to call it. She said, “You know, the chicken’s hip,” to describe the piece. We, of course, have never called it anything else!