Fried Chicken: A Love Story
By Virginia Willis
I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little over 15 years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen. I called her Meme and she was the light of my life. My mother now lives in her home, the simple country house my grandfather hand-built over 60 years ago. The kitchen hasn’t really changed much. There never has been enough space for everything. The light still hums. Her recipes still are posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written directly on the wood. Her worn wooden-handled turning fork still hangs from the cabinet and her skillets and pans still hang on nails behind the door propped open with the same antique solid cast iron pressing iron.
She and I spent hours together in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 years old standing on a stool “helping”. I remember we’d roll out the biscuits and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my handprint biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.
Oh, she could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butterbeans, creamed corn, okra and tomatoes. Fried chicken would be my hands-down choice for my last supper if I were “on the way to the chair”. Meme knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home. I was undeniably spoiled absolutely, positively rotten.
She was not the first bit shy about pretty much acknowledging me as a favorite grandchild. My cousin Gene was the male counterpart. He and I seemingly could do no wrong. However, she and my sister were oil and water, far too much alike to ever get along. She wasn’t exactly a twinkling eyed docile grandmother. She was formidable – a veritable force of nature. Before I was born, I was told she got tired of driving into town to go to church. Not going to church wasn’t an option. So, she had my grandfather donate the land and build a little country church.
My grandfather adored her and called her his better half. She would literally make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. She would start on something and wouldn’t stop until her will was met. He’d mumble quietly under his breath, “Lawd, have mercy” but he would have moved a mountain range for her. My grandfather with his blue eyes twinkling said he always got the “last word”, and they were, “Yes, beloved.”
For as long as I can remember, they had a motor home, a camper. They drove as far South as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the far end of the Alaska Highway. I was able to take several long trips with them when I was young. She had an even smaller kitchen, but she would still fry me chicken and we would stop at farmstands for fresh produce. Dede and I would hike and walk in the woods often bringing her buckets of wild berries and she would make cobbler.
Once the three of us drove north, through Detroit into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, and caught the ferry to Newfoundland. Not a small trip. To familiarize you with the roads of Newfoundland, imagine a squiggly horseshoe starting on one end of the island that zigzags and meanders to the other side. We were about halfway across the island when Meme looked at my Grandfather and said, “Sam, pull over in that gas station and turn around, I’m ready to go home.” He did, and we did.
The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day nine years ago. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and quickly conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. I thought my heart would break. I never knew anything could hurt so badly – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was living in New York and would fly home at least every other weekend to see her. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. It was not fried chicken that I prepared, but soft, rich custards and creamy desserts that she loved.
The very cruel irony is that the cause of death listed on Meme’s death certificate is actually starvation, not cancer. The tumor prevented her from swallowing. A feeding tube would have been an inviolate injustice. Nine years later and there’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. To this day, the smell of chicken frying reaches into my soul. I often wish I could show her a copy of my cookbook and I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her just one more time.
Happy Mother’s Day, Meme.
Love you still.
Meme’s Fried Chicken and Gravy
Serves 4 to 6
1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, or 1 cup milk plus 1 cup chicken stock or broth
Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper. Set aside. Place the flour in a shallow plate and season with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Set aside. Line a baking sheet or large plate with brown paper bags or several layers of paper towels.
Heat the oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat until the temperature measures 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer.
Meanwhile, to fry the chicken, starting with the dark meat (since it takes longer to cook) and working one piece at a time, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, turning to coat. Shake to remove excess flour. Reserve any leftover seasoned flour for the gravy.
One piece at a time, slip the chicken into the hot fat without crowding; the fat should not quite cover the chicken. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature at 375°F. At this stage, a splatter guard (a wire cover laid over the pan) may prove useful to contain the hot grease. The guard lets the steam escape, while allowing the chicken to brown nicely.
Fry the pieces, turning them once or twice, until the coating is a rich, golden brown on all sides, 10 to 14 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Continue cooking until the chicken is cooked all the way through and the juices run clear when pricked with a knife, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. (An instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh should register 170°F.) Remove the pieces and drain on the prepared baking sheet. (Do not hold the chicken in a warm oven; it will get soggy.)
To make the gravy, remove the skillet from the heat. Pour off most of the grease, leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons and any browned bits.
Decrease the heat to very low. Add the butter and cook until foaming. Add 4 tablespoons of the reserved seasoned flour and stir to combine. Cook, whisking constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the stock. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring often, until the gravy is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add more stock or water to achieve the correct consistency. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
PHOTO CREDIT: TERRY ALLEN