You can’t talk about Southern cooking without mentioning fried chicken. Fried chicken has been a staple of the Southern diet since colonial times. The Second World War can be used as the watershed event in the history of Southern Fried Chicken. The post war period heralded the beginning of the fast food industry and with this came the invention of the deep fat fryer. This, in conjunction with the introduction of the mass produced rubber chicken, has resulted in hundreds of varieties of deep fat fried latex chicken that only has the taste of whatever flavoring or spices were added to the coating.
Anyone that is the least familiar with the chemistry of cooking will agree that the deep fat frying process does not allow the cooking chicken to breathe, thus changing the flavor of the end product. It may be further fouled by frying catfish, hush puppies and french fries in the same cooker. Strange flavors often result.
The modern mass produced chicken had the flavor bred out of it years ago. Today, it is simply cheap white protein. This chicken has to be seasoned to have flavor in much the same way curry is used in India to mask the taste of spoiled meat. Colonel Sanders realized this forty years ago and came up with his secret blend of herbs and spices that give the coating on his chicken a distinctive flavor. If you go out to eat and order fried chicken, chances are you will get a tasteless blob of protein, coated in a deceptive armor of artificial flavors and cooked in stale, burned grease. The sad thing about this is that we all have been conditioned to accept this mess as Southern Fried Chicken.
Let’s take a look at the pre war fried chicken. My grandmother, Kate Rainer, remains to me the quintessential Southern cook. I had the opportunity to watch her prepare many of our meals, and I especially remember her fried chicken. She began with a yard chicken. What’s a yard chicken you ask? Well in ain’t an organic chicken, nor is it a free range chicken, though I will agree that both of these are superior to the junk available in our super markets. Organic means that the chicken was raised without chemical additives, certainly a step in the right direction. Free range means that they were not kept in little cages, but allowed to walk the carefully prepared ground. Both are fed a diet of grain.
A yard chicken is allowed to run loose in the backyard and eat insects, worms and God only knows what else. Occasionally, cracked corn or table scraps would be scattered if the dogs didn’t get them. These chickens were physically active and developed muscle structure, their dark meat had a distinctive gamey flavor and the whole bird had some taste. Yard chickens were fresh, we usually watched the lady that supplied our chickens wring their neck, pick ’em, clean ’em and cut ’em up. They would be in the skillet within an hour of their demise.
Notice, I said skillet, like big, black and cast-iron. My grandmother would prepare the chicken for frying by soaking it in a buttermilk and egg wash seasoned with salt and pepper, then coat each piece in plain flour mixed with more salt and pepper. She would fill the skillet with a mixture of Crisco shortening and bacon drippings so that the pieces of chicken would be half in the grease and half out. Over medium heat, she would cook the chicken until golden brown, turning it only once. The finished product was to die for. She would then make a roux with the remaining grease and make fantastic chicken gravy, but that’s for another time.