Southern Fried Chicken: America’s Ultimate Comfort Food. And Mine.

Log_House_Restaurant_2

As I’ve mentioned before, ours was a family of modest means. But my father worked hard to see that we were able to afford some of life’s nicer things. An occasional dinner at the “Log House” after Sunday’s church service was one of the more pleasurable of them. And one of my life experiences I will likely never forget.

The Log House, as the name implies, was a real log cabin in which a popular restaurant was housed. It was unique, affordable, and located right on the way home from our house of worship. But best of all, this restaurant specialized in southern fried chicken–one of my family’s favorite meals.

My mother always ordered first. Two pieces of dark meat for herself; a drumstick for my sister; a chicken breast for me. Then my father would order the three-piece white chicken dinner for himself–“extra crispy”, with mashed potatoes and green beans. Afterwards, looking our server in the eye while putting togetherfried chicken dinner the thumbs and index fingers of both hands to demonstrate the size, he would add “with a little bowl of cream gravy.” After the waitress left to fetch our meal, my mom would exclaim, “Albert, why do you always do that? You know it comes with a side of gravy.” And with a slight look of exasperation on his face he would calmly answer, “I know, I know. I just don’t want her to forget.”

Now for those of you not familiar with southern fried chicken (and I’m not sure who that could possibly be) the following paragraphs will attempt to clarify what it is, its origin, and perhaps a few other interesting facts.

fried-chicken-basket

Simply put, southern fried chicken consists of a young hen that has been cut up–usually into eight pieces–dredged first in buttermilk, then in well seasoned flour, and fried in lard (or some other fat) in a cast iron skillet, rendering the exterior with a crispy outer shell that keeps the meat juicy and tender. And while this may sound straightforward enough, making great fried chicken is an art mastered by only a few, and then only after months, sometimes years, of practice, trial, and error. It is also worth noting that the term “southern fried” is a relatively recent term, not appearing in print until 1925.

While fried chicken was not particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century, it is certainly a traditional southern meal and among the region’s most well known exports. But the dish is not indigenous to the South. Actually, most food historians credit Scottish immigrants–who preferred frying their chicken over baking or boiling, as did other Europeans–with first introducing the dish to Southern colonies as they migrated here in the mid eighteenth century. And while the Scots may have brought fried chicken to America, it was West Africans, brought here as slaves, that helped make it a southern staple.

Fried chicken is known to have been a common part of many West African cuisines. As the slave trade led to Africans being brought to work on southern plantations, those whose job it was to cook for the owners brought with them spices and seasonings that greatly enhanced the flavors of Scottish fried chicken recipes. Fried chicken was also well suited for plantation life, as it provided cheap but nutritious sustenance for both owners and slaves alike. And chickens were about the only meat African American slaves were allowed to raise.

Gordonville VA chicken vendors

As the American Civil War began to wind down and it became necessary for former slaves to create new lives for themselves, some turned to trades learned during slavery. But one group of African American women from the town of Gordonsville, Virginia turned to fried chicken as a means of providing a living for themselves and their families, earning the name “Chicken Vendors” along the way.

It seems Gordonsville was an important train junction for the Confederacy and, as such, highly defended during the Civil War, surviving virtually unscathed. When the war ended in 1865, passenger service was restored quickly. But trains at that time had no dining cars, and passengers had no choice but to eat at trackside establishments. The Chicken Vendors greeted the waiting rail cars with trays of fried chicken and baskets of rolls, selling wares to passengers through open windows–legs and breast was fifteen cents; backs and wings, five and ten cents. This practice continued until the mid-1900s when health regulations forced it to stop.

By the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of fried chicken in the South had grown to become the region’s top choice for Sunday dinner and special occasions among both blacks and whites. Today fried chicken, like America itself, has taken on a new look. Modern, forward thinking chefs craft versions of this classic dish never before fathomed and certainly a far cry from Southern Fried Chicken 002that first recipe published by Mary Randolph in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife. And although good fried chicken can be found in just about every state in the country, great fried chicken can, at least in my mind, only be found in the South. Places like Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, or the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta.

So while the Log House Restaurant burned down many years ago, those childhood after-church Sunday dinners and my father’s “little bowl of cream gravy” will forever be etched in my memory. And the taste of fried chicken forever on my tongue.

Try Em: Charles’ Country Pan Fried Country, Harlem, NY; Mama Dip’s Kitchen, Chapel Hill, NC; Coop’s Place, New Orleans, LA; Harold’s Chicken Shack, Chicago, IL; Stroud’s, Kansas City, MO; Arnold’s Country Chicken, Nashville, TN; Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, TX

Make Em: Grandma’s Fried Chicken, Paula’s Spicy Southern Fried Chicken

Another Year, Another Black-Eyed Pea.

New-Years-Day_meal

For longer than I care to admit, I’ve started each year enjoying a typical Southern style New Year’s Day meal—baked ham, collard greens, cornbread, boiled new potatoes, and of course, black-eyed peas. In fact, to the best of my recollection, it’s about the only day of the year that I eat these black spotted legumes. Not that I don’t like black-eyed peas, it’s just I never think about having them until another new year rolls around.

While the black-eyed pea (they’re actually a bean, not a pea) was likely first domesticated in West Africa, it also has history in many Asian countries where it has been widely grown for thousands of years. Black-eyed peas were introduced to America by colonists of Virginia during the 17th century, although its cultivation as a food crop in that region did not become popular until after the American Revolution.

hoppin-john

Today this heat-loving, drought and disease tolerant crop is grown throughout the American South, including Texas, and is used in traditional soul food dishes such as “Hoppin’ John” and “Texas Caviar.” Of course, probably the most popular method of preparing black-eyed peas is boiling them in a big pot seasoned with pork jowls or fatback. Just how these legumes became one of the New Year’s Day good-luck foods can be associated with any of several legends.

I’m sure you have all heard the claim that the black-eyed pea is representative of coins, which may have come from an old Southern saying “peas for pennies, greens for dollars, and cornbread for gold,” because they certainly do not look any coins I’ve ever seen. The superstition is that in order for them to actually bring you luck, you must eat exactly 365 peas on New Year’s Day—no more, no less.

Then there’s the thought that since these peas swell when cooked, they represent increased prosperity in the new year.

growingpeas

Another reason black-eyed peas may have become a good luck symbol in the American South dates back to the Civil War. History tells us that Union troops typically plundered or destroyed all of the South’s food supplies when taking an area. But since Northerners at the time considered black-eyed peas fit only for livestock fodder, they spared this humble food. It therefore became a much needed Southern sustenance and symbol of good luck.

A popular variation to this story is that on January 1, 1863—the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective—black-eyed peas were one of the only foods southern slaves had available with which to celebrate. So from that day forward, peas were always eaten on New Year’s Day.

The good-luck traditions of eating black-eyed peas for New Year’s are not limited to the Southerners in this country. According to the Babylonian Talmud (339 CE) they are an established good luck symbol associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And although they being a part of this list may be the result of an early mistranslation of the Aramaic word rubiya, consuming them along with long melons, leeks, beets, spinach, and dates is a custom still followed by Sephardi and Israeli Jews. There are even those who claim it was Sephardic Jewish colonists that settled in Georgia in 1733 who introduced this custom to the American South.

So the question remains. Does making black-eyed peas part of your New Year’s Day celebration really ensure prosperity for the coming year? In answer to that question I would like to divulge one of my life experiences.

black-eyed peas

Some thirty years ago after meeting my lovely bride, I decided to introduce her and her family of Italian restaurateurs to a traditional Southern New Year’s Day meal. And if that alone were not enough, we ate the meal in the main dining room of their Brooklyn Italian restaurant during the middle of the afternoon while the place was open. Can you picture customers coming in to enjoy a plate of Veal Marsala or Chicken Cacciatore and finding the family, waiters and cooks eating black-eyed peas, collard greens (which a friend had to pick up in Harlem), ham, and cornbread? Along with a good laugh, some of my father-in-laws loyal customers even asked if they could try some of the humble but delicious Southern fare we were eating.

That year my wife’s family enjoyed one of the most profitable years in the restaurant’s sixty-year history. So much so that they were able to purchase a building in the neighborhood in which to expand their business. As for me personally? I became a part of the nicest family I’ve ever known. We now have two wonderful sons, three grandchildren, and I’ve continued to enjoy career growth and prosperity every year since.

Maybe our good fortune is the result of that New Year’s Day meal—perhaps not. But I certainly intend to continue enjoying black-eyed peas as part of my annual New Year’s tradition and anticipating all the blessings eating them brings.

Make Em: Texas Caviar, Hoppin John, Black-Eyed Pea Cakes.