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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
The sweet potato casserole was positively EPIC:
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.