The First Supper (Or: How The Chicken Wasn’t Crispy)

There was a fight. It was our first meal in the new apartment; the first time, since getting gas, we were going to use our oven and our stove. I planned it perfectly: a comforting Southern meal, based largely on “The Gift of Southern Cooking” by Scott Peacock and the late Edna Lewis, wherein I would make my first fried chicken. I would fry chicken and serve it with authentic Southern biscuits (with lard!), Brussels sprouts and a sweet potato casserole. The sides were going to be easy enough, but the chicken would prove to be an incredible challenge. I like challenge and so I was determined to make it. Diana was eager to help. Look how happy we are here, lifting chicken from the big bowl of buttermilk and tossing it in a bag with flour, cayenne, salt and pepper:

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Look, I was breaking rules to begin with. The chicken was supposed to soak in the buttermilk overnight. I soaked it for four hours. The chicken was supposed to be one chicken cut up. But because Key Foods only had one respectable chicken (Bell & Evans) and because that chicken only came in legs and thighs I bought those pieces and made sure to have enough for everyone. And yet I was still cheating: Peacock and Lewis want you to fry with country ham, butter, and lard. I deflected to the Gourmet cookbook where the recipe was easier: you fry in shortening and butter.

And man, look at this:

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When I die at 28 and you’re at my funeral, please bring this picture and hold it up and say, “All he wanted was to make perfect fried chicken. That’s all he wanted…” Then break down sobbing. You’ll get major pity points.

So Gourmet says you melt the shortening and butter, and here’s where it gets tricky, “Until hot but not smoking.”

Hot but not smoking.

The thing is when it’s smoking, it’s too late. So you go by hot. I went by hot. I put my hand over it, after a few minutes, and it was hot. So I added the chicken.

There was no sizzle.

“Take it out,” said Diana. “It’s not sizzling. It’s supposed to sputter and sizzle.”

Ok, I thought. She’s right. I took it out. I waited. I let it get hot again. Hotter, still. Then I added it. I heard a sizzle.

“That’s not loud enough,” said Craig. “Isn’t fried chicken supposed to be really loud when you fry it?”

“Yeah,” said Diana. “It’s supposed to sputter and sizzle.”

Ok, these people were pissing me off. I’d been planning this for the past FOUR HOURS and I had read not one but TWO recipes and so I was the one who should make the determination whether a sizzle was enough or whether it really needed to sputter.

“When was the last time you fried a chicken!?” I yelled at Craig and Diana. “Have either of you done this before?”

“No,” they answered.

“Then let me do it!”

So they were silenced and I did as the recipe said: I covered, reduced heat to low and cooked for 10 minutes. Then I turned chicken over and cooked, covered, another 12 minutes. When it was ready, I transferred to a paper towel. It looked like this:

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It looks good, right?, but don’t let the picture fool you. That chicken isn’t crispy. It’s browned, yes, but it’s not crispy. And who wants fried chicken that isn’t crispy?

“It’s cause it wasn’t hot enough,” said Craig.

“Ya,” said Diana. “You have to get it hotter this time.”

Ugh! That was the first batch. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll eat that batch.”

I waited for the shortening and butter to get hot again, but not smoking. I added the next batch of chicken.

“It’s still not hot enough!” they said in unison.

“Ahhhhh!” I said.

They got quiet.

And so I fried the second batch and, sure enough, it didn’t come out crispy. Craig and Diana didn’t say “I told you so” but I could feel it. And yet, when we ate the chicken we admired how tender it was (the buttermilk really did its work) despite the fact it wasn’t crispy. William, who was patient and quiet this whole time, said the chicken was his favorite part of the meal.

The rest of the meal came out pretty well. The biscuits, which I was finally able to make with lard (Key Foods has lard! Take THAT, Whole Foods) were really flaky, if a bit too dry:

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Craig and William can be seen here slathering them with Flying Biscuit apple butter, a gift gifted to me by my friend Jimmy who, like me, made the journey from Atlanta to New York:

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The sweet potato casserole was positively EPIC:

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This worked nicely as a side dish that’s also a dessert, a dessert that’s also a side dish. (“It’s a floor wax!” “It’s a dessert topping!”) The pecans in the crust really worked their magic.

But back to the chicken. I’ve been thinking about this chicken and I have some theories. Here they are, in random order:

Theory One: It Wasn’t Hot Enough

Ok, so maybe Diana and Craig were right. Maybe I needed to let that shortening and butter really bubble away until it was positively volcano-like. Or, better yet, I should’ve had a thermometer and a temperature to shoot for. That would’ve made things easier, an actual frying temperature. But, even if I had that, the problem lies in Theory Two…

Theory Two: It’s Difficult To Fry In Butter

Because butter can burn, it’s difficult to fry in butter. Whereas with oil, you can let it get really hot without fear, butter is dangerous. I do wonder if the shortening, in combination with butter, raises the smoking point. But either way, butter, while packed with flavor, has milk solids that burn. So you have to err on the side of too low a temperature which, apparently, doesn’t bode well for frying. And then there’s…

Theory Three: I Didn’t Follow The Directions Very Well

Not only didn’t we let it soak in buttermilk overnight (which wouldn’t really have affected the frying), we skipped an important step, perhaps. After taking it out of the buttermilk and coating in the flour mixture, Gourmet says: “Let chicken air-dry for 30 minutes.”

We didn’t let it air dry. So maybe there’s the problem: it was too moist when it went in the oil. And, also, we had more chicken than the recipe called for: maybe we used up all the flour coating too fast. Maybe if there were more flour on each piece of chicken it would’ve gotten crispier.

And those are my theories.

Either way, though, the meal was memorable and once we got over the chicken controversy we had lots of fun. Wine helps in that regard. We drank wine and sang songs and wondered what we’d make for our next meal now that our first one was a semi-failure. We decided it would be something simpler, something less taxing and something that doesn’t require frying in butter. Then, when William left, I made Craig and Diana do the dishes. That was their punishment for questioning the proficiency of a great chef.

52 comments

  1. Alton says to fry in shortening that’s 325 degrees. I am a full-blooded Yankee, so fried chicken is not in my nature, but it totally worked for me.

  2. In my experience, peanut oil is the best for frying. It really shouldn’t matter if you let the chicken “air dry” or not. Once, in cooking school, we had a chicken class where all 15 students cut up a whole chicken. Then my friend Eric and I were assigned to make dried chicken with all of the chicken parts. You cut a chicken into 8 pieces. There were 15 of us. You do the math. I’ve never fried so much chicken in my life. But it was damn good. Soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour/salt/pepper/cayenne and fried in peanut oil. NO waiting, no soaking for 4 hours.

    That potato casserole looks amazing. It’s a dessert, a side-dish and a weapon in case someone breaks into your apartment.

  3. 1. air dry or pat dry with paper towels before frying

    2. butter is hard to fry in, try mixing with some safflower oil (high smoke point)

    3. never crowd your chicken in the pan

  4. Is that the correct title — “The Southern Table” — of the book? Or did you mean “The Gift of Southern Cooking”?

    I’d love to find that sweet potato casserole recipe, it looks terrific!

  5. i’ve recently moved to Providence, RI from Atlanta and I’ve been missing fried chicken (especially from Greens on Green St) and i feel inspired to make it, but mainly because i want to serve it with that casserole! it looks amazing!

  6. Take it from a southern belle. Use alot of flour for breading and fry in 375 degree oil. You can tell when the oil is hot enough by flinging a few drops of flour into the oil and the flour sizzles. And next time let Diana fry the chicken!

  7. My Nana was the queen of fried chicken and hers came out soft and succulent every time…not crispy, and it’s because she fried it covered! For those of us who wanted crispy, she fried it uncovered. She browned the chicken in hot oil on both sides and then slid the pan into a 375 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes (uncovered for crispy). You wouldn’t believe how good it is. After you do it a couple of times you’ll just know when the oil hot enough.

  8. If you’re worried about the butter burning clarify it first or buy ghee at the market. The problem was the temperature though, specially since you reduced the heat as part of the cooking. The initial heat should crisp the skin and reducing keeps it from burning while the chicken cooks. The air drying is to reduce the moisture that leads to the oil spattering.

    The lard will keep the butter from burning – to an extent. I do the same thing by adding olive oil to butter.

  9. my mom used to check if oil was hot enough by getting a little spit on her fingers and flicking it into the oil. if it really sizzles, it’s ready!! (we’re talking about a very refined Belgian lady whose favorite meal was veal kidneys in mustard/cream sauce — i could never figure out where she picked up that spit/flick move, i think she must have cooked on a merchant marine tramp ship once.)

    another method that might prove less gag-inducing to your guests involves using a sprinkle of flour or a little tap water onto the oil for similar sizzle-testing method.

    also, it is indeed much harder to burn butter when it’s mixed with an oil (which is why i tend to sautee butter-loving items like mushrooms in a combo of butter and o.oil).

    p.s. i like your blog. you seem to fit in category of person i most enjoy: “odd bird, good egg.”

  10. I onced watched Sara Moulton stick the end of a wooden spoon in the oil. If little bubbles formed around the handle, the oil was hot enough. Or, you could get a deep fry thermometer. Yummy! Fried chicken sounds heavenly.

  11. The thing my mom did, and that I in turn do, when making fried chicken is using half flour and half corn starch. I’ve had pretty good turnout with crispy fried chicken that way. Good luck!

  12. Take it from a Southern fried chicken expert –(And I’ve had my share of failures so I can give these tips out with confidence):

    — Do some advance planning and soak the chicken in buttermilk and spices for at least 24 hours.

    — I love Edna and Scott but nix the butter for goodness sake. I use a combo of canola oil and bacon fat.

    — Don’t fry the chicken until the oil sizzles when you sprinkle a little flour in it.

    — Letting the chicken sit with the coating (air-dry) for 30 minutes is so the coating doesn’t come off in the pan when fried. Not necessary but it sure does help.

  13. Gotta go with the peanut oil. I just made fried chicken on Tuesday, and both spouses (the conventional one and the law school spouse [AKA study partner]) loved it — I actually had the opposite problem where one batch was somewhat burnt, but it still came out great.

    So are you going to share that sweet potato casserole recipe? Please?

  14. the most perfect fried chicken recipe i’ve ever had was from Paula Dean. I have made that chicken perfectly every single time and it is awesome and easy, no waiting!

  15. just to be honest, the chickin in the picture looks terrible, er not something to brag about. Not that I could do better of course. And it does sounds like your “guests” had you for dinner instead. Remember to repay them back the favor in kind.

  16. One thing I am really good at making is fried chicken, but I’ve been developing and developing techniques through trial and error for years.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t put butter in with the shortening. In fact, I normally just use oil.

    What helps with my fried chicken is that I don’t toss them immediately into the fryer after breading. After breading, I let them sit in the fridge a while longer so that the breading forms a doughy skin and absorbs some of the chicken flavor. They meld and become one.

    Also, Old Bay Crab Boil seasoning is great for fried chicken.

  17. My grandmother was a good southern lady and she made a LOT of fried chicken. She never used buttermilk — in fact, not a lot of “coating” at all — just seasoned flour. It was really nice because a.) it was crispy CHICKEN not *crispy breading* and b.) the chicken was good cold the next day.

    She also did the wooden spoon in the oil thing (OIL, no butter.) I don’t make fried chicken…not for a looooong time, but I do stick a chopstick in my oil to make sure it’s hot. I’m sure you have a wooden chopsticks around, right? If it doesn’t bubble around the chopstick right away, it’s not hot.

    I don’t think the buttermilk had anything to do with it. The moisture would likely just make it splatter more, but wouldn’t affect the crisping necessarily.

    I’m sorry your biscuits were dry. I think grandma used vegetable shortening for hers.

  18. So yes, I made a booboo, the book is “The Gift of Southern Cooking” not “The Southern Table” (though “The Southern Table” is also an excellent southern cookbook.) And since everyone asked SOOO nicely, here is the recipe for the sweet potato casserole which is a dessert, a side dish, a weapon and your candidate for this year’s People’s Choice Award for best casserole! Here we go:

    Ingredients:

    5 pounds small sweet potatoes (about 10 potatoes)

    8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter

    1 3/4 tsps salt

    3/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

    1/3 cup honey

    1/3 cup light-brown sugar

    1/2 cup granulated sugar

    3 eggs, lightly beaten

    2 tsps vanilla extract

    3 cups milk, heated

    1 Tbs unsalted butter, softened

    Topping:

    1 cup light-brown sugar

    1 cup all-purpose flour

    1/2 tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon

    1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

    1/4 tsp salt

    8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled

    1 cup chopped pecans

    Preheat the oven to 350 F.

    Wash the sweet potatoes and put them on a foil- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 1-1/2 hours, until they are very tender. Remove from the oven and allow to cool briefly, then peel. Put the peeled sweet potatoes into the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with beaters or a whip attachment. Mix the hot sweet potatoes on low speed to begin mashing them. Add the butter, and mix until it is absorbed. Add the salt, nutmeg, honey, and both sugars, and mix until they are thoroughly blended. Add the lightly beaten eggs and vanilla, and beat on medium speed for two minutes. Reduce mixer speed to low, and slowly add the heated milk. When the milk is incorporated, taste carefully for seasoning, and add more salt or nutmeg as needed. Thoroughly butter a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish with the softened butter, and pour the sweet-potato mixture into it.

    Raise the oven temperature to 375.

    Make the topping: put the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt into a mixing bowl and mix well. Use your fingers to work the chilled butter into the mixture until it resembles oatmeal with some pea-size pieces of butter in it. Stir in the pecan pieces, and mix well. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top of the sweet potatoes, and bake in the 375 oven for 30 – 45 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and crisp and the sweet potatoes are set but still slightly loose in the. Serve hot. Like yo mama.

  19. Sorry your chicken didn’t turn out exactly right, but it sounds as if you had a good time anyway. I’m a Yankee who moved to Atlanta to stay (I think they call us “Damned Yankees”) and southern food is one great reason to never live north of the Mason Dixon Line again. ~Monica

  20. I’d recommend leaving out the butter next time…my memory of Granny’s chicken is that it was fried in Crisco.

    As for the sogginess…perhaps your pan was too small or too crowded?

  21. I agree with Kelly. As a Tennessee girl, I can say that Paula has a fantastic chicken recipe. (The only one I like better is my Mom/Grandmother’s, but that’s how we Southerners are!)

    I posted it below for you. I hope you give it a try Adam!

    The Lady & Sons Southern Fried Chicken

    Difficulty: Medium

    Prep Time: 7 minutes; Cook Time: 13 minutes

    Yield: 4 servings

    House Seasoning:

    1 cup salt

    1/4 cup black pepper

    1/4 cup garlic powder

    Southern Fried Chicken:

    4 eggs

    1/3 cup water

    1 cup hot red pepper sauce

    2 cups self-rising flour

    1 teaspoon pepper

    House Seasoning

    2 1/2-pound chicken, cut into pieces

    Oil, for frying, preferably peanut oil

    Directions:

    To make the House Seasoning, mix ingredients together and store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

    In a medium size bowl, beat the eggs with the water. Add enough hot sauce so the egg mixture is bright orange. In another bowl, combine the flour and pepper. Season the chicken with the House Seasoning. Dip the seasoned chicken in the egg, and then coat well in the flour mixture.

    Heat the oil to 350 degrees F in a deep pot. Do not fill the pot more than 1/2 full with oil.

    Fry the chicken in the oil until brown and crisp. Dark meat takes longer than white meat. It should take dark meat about 13 to 14 minutes, white meat around 8 to 10 minutes.

  22. I second the initial frying/finish in the oven approach (I believe it’s Ina’s “oven fried” chicken) recipe.

    As well, air drying has been proven to be really important.

    And while there’s a pile, I’ll jump on the peanut oil recommendation.

    (Here’s a picture of how my fried chicken tends to turn out… http://www.helenjane.com/photos/marriedlife/easter2004/Easter2004/friedChicken.html — a little darker, but with satisfying crusty crunch.)

  23. My mom made good fried chicken, which looked quite similar to your results, so I’d have to say yours looked pretty good.

  24. My $.02 says that you went wrong when you covered your pan. If you want to do that do so with a cookie sheet (to prevent splatter)…where there’s moisture and steam dropping onto your chicken it’s going to be soggy.

  25. My $.02 says that you went wrong when you covered your pan. If you want to do that do so with a cookie sheet (to prevent splatter)…where there’s moisture and steam dropping onto your chicken it’s going to be soggy.

  26. If I remember correctly from the delicious Cook’s Illustrated recipe for fried chicken, do the frying in Crisco, not oil (and certainly not butter), and cover the chicken only before you flip it for the first time. This helps the chicken cook faster and more evenly (so you can fry at a higher temperature and end up with crispiness). If you cover it after the flip you’ll just be making your crispy first side soggy.

  27. I have failed miserably in the fried chicken department. I have made every mistake imaginable (too impatient, no overnight soaking, no drying, flour falling off, sogginess etc.). I’m insptired to try again, though! I’m headed for the peanut oil and I’m sure as hell going to make that casserole! Holy Sweets, that looks INSANE!!!

  28. Gotta let that bird dry! Keep the pan uncovered, and don’t crowd it, either. Fried chicken is very particular. Let me jump in on the “no butter” thing, too…this is the first time I’ve seen anyone try to fry chicken southern-style, with butter.

    You need a fried chicken do over, everyone commenting is on the right track.

  29. I’m just chiming in with a little empathy, since last week I tried Amanda Hesser’s much-vaunted oven-fried chicken, with results that look amazingly similar or actually quite a bit worse than yours. I cooked it so long that I really couldn’t cook it any more — but it never developed the necessary brown crispy crust. I think I crowded the pan waaaay too much. But I’m going back to my favorite Laurie Colwin oven-baked breaded chicken, which comes out gorgeously crisp and flavorful every single time.

  30. You should fry the chicken with your lard, and use the butter for your biscuits. Lard biscuits always turn out too hard but butter (and cream or half and half) will yield you flaky, soft and (naturally) buttery biscuits every time.

    If you want a good crust, double dip. And it’s important to pat the chicken with paper towels before dipping.

  31. take the butter in that recipe and use it for something else. Butter for fried chicken is s-h-i-t shit and I mean shit. Don’t cover your pan, make sure there is plenty of liquified fat stuff, and get a splatter guard to put over the pan.

    Also, absolutely marinate the chicken in buttermilk overnight. There is something that happens to the skin when you do it that makes the chicken positively glorious.

    That’s how we do it in New Orleans. Damn I miss it there.

  32. Another tip: Cut the thighs and legs apart before you start. Smaller pieces are exposed to more oil and cook faster. This is important for dark meat.

  33. Ok, I am a southern girl. Fried Chicken is a staple here. The best is to soak it in a mixture of buttermilk and eggs overnight (or at least a couple of hours). Then coat it with your flour mixture just before frying. We almost always use peanut oil and you want the oil to be really hot and then halfway through lower the heat a few notches so that the middle gets done but the outside doesn’t burn.

  34. So much advice! I love the recipe in the Prudhomme family cookbook. Instead of air drying, you just let it sit in the flour for 10 minutes after the egg dip.

    Also, marinate the chicken with big chunks of bell pepper and onion thrown in the bowl–it’s amazing!

  35. I know everyone has been so helpful. Offering up some really good advice, some better than others. I too attempted such an adventure not too many years ago on Meathenge.

    See, I had a friend visiting from Mobile and he promised to SHOW ME exactly how to make Southern Fried Chicken. See, as near as I can tell, it isn’t about the spices and technique, it’s about getting a piece of fried chicken that leaves you smiling for a few days aftwards. Leaving you with fried chicken that people talk about for years afterwards (just like today).

    Well, John gave me the stuff he needed to have ready. Chicken, lowfat milk, flour, eggs, any oil (I had 3 but he chose canola) and some kind of device for heating the oil. This could have been a pan or an electric deep fryer. I had the deep fryer, one of those cheapie rigs.

    First thing he did was remove the basket from the fryer and remove the lid. Damned those pesky safety devices.

    I stood there the entire time watching him. He made a quick wash of a few eggs and a pour of milk. No salt, no pepper. He did both, wet dry wet dry and dry wet dry wet. It didn’t matter!

    Next thing he promplty did (after getting the oil to temp) is over load the fryer. He said that was all horse pucky about too much meat lowers the temp and ruins the chicken.

    The fried chicken he produced, in my kitchen, with my ingredients was hands down the best I’d had. Except for my mother’s of course, but she did pan fried chicken, not deep. So it doesn’t count, see?

    And through Meathenge I spent at least 6 posts over a year and a half attempting to reproduce what he did. I got close and called it done. But truly, it wasn’t exactly the same. The texture, the crunch … just not the same.

    I say it’s all about Fried Chicken Fu. And brother, either you have it or you don’t. I sir, do not.

    xo

  36. In the interest of full disclosure I have not, I repeat, not tried to fry chicken. I suppose this makes most of my advice hearsay at best. So sue me.

    I read this somewhere – Julia/Jacques maybe? – to determine if oil is hot enough to fry, stick the, uh, stick end of a wooden spoon in the oil and if it sizzles around it, its hot enough. No sizzle, crank up the heat.

    Secondarily, although I have never actually attempted fried chicken personally, my recipes for chicken fried steak call for peanut oil. Personally, I prefer the taste of foods fried in peanut oil and high heating point of it makes it ideal for frying.

    You make me want to start a food blog!

  37. I made that recipe, out of that very fine book, last night. Do what Ms Edna and Peacock say!

    That is, break down and use the lard next time. It is better for you than that hydrogenated shortening abomination.

    Lard maybe obtained at any pork store. Like A&S on Fifth Ave in Park Slope. DO NOT BUY HORMEL at the grocerystore — that is hydrogenated lard and will kill you and send you to hell.

    I used lard mixed with peanut oil since I didn’t have *enough* lard. You can strain the burny bits of fried stuff out of the lard, put it in your fridge and use it again in 6 months when you fry again.

    It’s important that the chicken be half in and half out of the fat, so it can release steam and get crispy.

    And the temperature is everything. Get a thermometer already!

    there’s some very useful discussion about fried chicken on the home cooking boards at Chowhound btw . . .

  38. Our Best Southern Fried Chicken

    From Southern Living

    3 quarts water

    1 tablespoon salt

    1 (2- to 2 1/2-pound) broiler-fryer, cut up

    1 teaspoon salt

    1 teaspoon pepper

    1 cup all-purpose flour

    2 cups vegetable oil

    1/4 cup bacon drippings

    Combine water and 1 tablespoon salt in a large bowl; add chicken. Cover and chill 8 hours. Drain chicken; rinse with cold water, and pat dry.

    Combine 1 teaspoon salt and pepper; sprinkle half of pepper mixture evenly over chicken. Combine remaining pepper mixture and flour in a large freezer bag. Place 2 pieces of chicken in bag; seal. Shake to evenly coat. Remove chicken, and repeat procedure with remaining chicken, 2 pieces at a time.

    Combine vegetable oil and bacon drippings in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or chicken fryer; heat to 360°. Add chicken, a few pieces at a time, skin side down. Cover and cook 6 minutes; uncover and cook 9 minutes.

    Turn chicken pieces; cover and cook 6 minutes. Uncover and cook 5 to 9 minutes, turning pieces during the last 3 minutes for even browning, if necessary. Drain on paper towels.

    Note: For best results, keep the oil temperature between 300° to 325° as you fry the chicken. Also, you may substitute 2 cups buttermilk for the saltwater solution used to soak the chicken pieces. Proceed as directed.

    Yield: Makes 4 servings

    Southern Living, AUGUST 2003

  39. Oh, HON-ey — you’re making it way too complicated! Just rinse pieces in cold water, then dip in whisked egg or buttermilk. Pop into a grocery sack with seasoned flour & shake until coated. No lard — use vegetable oil @ 350-375 in a deep-fryer. You come see me in Oklahoma and I’ll show you how it’s done.

    Smootches!