The question that I get most regularly when someone finds out that I’m from Alabama is “can you make fried chicken?” I’m not sure where this pervasive stereotype comes from, but people up here seem to think that we make and eat fried chicken 5 days a week down south (really, it’s only 3 or 4, depending on the season…) and that every person with southern blood seems to posses this skill. Well, I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE fried chicken- who doesn’t?- but not only have I never made it myself, it also wasn’t something that people in my family ever made. I didn’t have a granny who stood barefoot in a kitchen on Sundays and churned out heaping plates of southern cookin’, and while I can make some mean biscuits and both of my parents are quite fabulous cooks, that whole image of the big southern meal wasn’t really much a part of my childhood. We were as likely to have stir-fry as chicken and dumplings.
Regardless of that, I have come to want- nay, need- a repetoire of southern recipies that I feel that I have mastered. Call it a desperation to connect to my upbring if you want, but really I think it’s just because southern food is so goddamn fabulous and I know I can impress people with it. Either way, it works out well for you if you come over to my house for dinner.
About a month ago, one of my friends up here requested that I make her fried chicken. I warned her that it wasn’t something that I had ever made before, but that I’d be willing to give it a go as long as I could make it at her house (the clean-up is a nightmare) and it could be on a weekend when I had all day. It just worked out that the 4th of July fell perfectly, so we planned it for this weekend.
I combed quite a few trusted sources, before finally settling on the Alton Brown method (how do I love thee…? Let me count the ways: sweet tea, pizza dough, fried green tomatoes, roast chicken…) which was perfect in it’s simplicity. One thing that was pervasive in all recipes: use a whole chicken that you cut up yourself. Sounds like excellent reasoning, but hell if I know how to cut up a chicken. Good thing for us all, the friend who I’m making this for has a roommate who’s an executive chef, and he invited us to come down to his restaurant in Providence, RI for lunch and a chicken-hacking lesson on Friday afternoon. How awesome is that?
And- AND!- not only did he volunteer his expertise, he also knew where to get me some excellent, fresh chickens. Turns out there is an abattoir (that’s a GRE word for slaughterhouse, y’all) right in the middle of this swanky street in downtown providence. Awesome. The chickens I used were alive mere hours before I stuck my knife in them. It was surreal to be standing in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant in my sandals and jeans while GIANT pots (we’re talking witch cauldrons here) of chicken stock bubbled away, a pizza oven was roaring a few feet away and a guy was making fresh pasta at a table next to me, but it was a great lesson and now I am theoretically adept at dismantling a chicken in an efficient way. Also lunch was fabulous.
And through the entire thing we were all desperately clinging to our cell phones awaiting news of the delivery, which was taking place as we were at the restaurant. Damn…that really was a crazy day.
The chicken pieces got a nice, long soak overnight in buttermilk and the next afternoon I set out to attempt to fry chicken. There were many false starts, I’m sorry to say. First of all that there was SO MUCH CHICKEN. Chef Jeff got three chickens so that I would have ample practice, and that makes for a shit-load of bird parts. I was cooking them for hours- being severely impeded by having only one properly-seasoned cast iron skillet (and I’m not about to enrage the southern-cooking gods by using anything else). And then I didn’t have a thermometer. Every source I saw was adamant about having the oil at 325 and not to allow it to stray to either side, so I was doing a lot of guess work. The very first piece I removed was unbelievably perfect with a beautiful, golden crust. I could hear Colonel Sanders crying. And then it all went to hell…pieces were cooking too slowly and then too quickly and they were perfect on the outside and raw on the inside and there was much hemming and hawing and stamping of feet.
And t hen they started to burn. Fast. And then the fire alarm went off. So we were all rushing frantically to the smoke detector waving towels and pans at it and I was trying to turn down the heat while molten crisco was sputtering all over the kitchen and then…
And then Chef Jeff walked in. To witness my utter failure! But he just smiled and said “I think your oil is too hot” and I bit my tongue to keep from saying anything snarky. After another 20 minutes of frustration, I got everything evened out and the remaining 1900 pieces cooked to my standards. They were quite beautiful. And really, really tasty.
We sent some over to the neighbors and when they came over afterwards to play lawn games with us they told me it was the best friend chicken they had ever had. Bless their yankee hearts.
It was far from perfect, to be sure, but it was certainly edible. And now I’m on a mission to perfect fried chicken. I’ll be happy to cook you some on my quest, but you have to clean up after me.