The Cuisine Scene/Brenda's Bistro
Brenda Hill

The Southern Way

Although some people may think otherwise, the South is actually part of the United States. Granted, the speech, geography, and customs may differ from other parts of the country, but in Louisiana where I grew up, we had the same values as everyone else. We just expressed them a little differently.

We ‘carried’ someone to the store, and instead of someone getting angry, they had a hissy. We’d explain someone’s bout with nerves as, “Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."

Instead of prairies, we had a sea of cotton fields with fluffy white bolls that resembled rows of cotton candy. Instead of mountain ranges, our swamps and bayous were dark mysterious wetlands with moss-laden cypress trees, marsh grasses, vines, and palmettos. While green and beautiful, the bayous could be deadly to those less careful. Alligators, cottonmouths, copperheads and turtles made their homes in the marshland as well as snowy egrets, herons, pelicans and many other birds.

We had fish or chicken frys and family and friends brought hot or cold dishes for the outdoor feast. Tables under shady live oaks held mounds of fried chicken, pots of black-eyed peas, corn on the cob, sliced fresh red tomatoes as well as a batch of fried green tomatoes, sautéed dandelion greens, hot buttered cornbread, potato chip cookies, and Mississippi mud cake. We bit into wedges of chilled watermelon, the juices running down our chins as we spit seeds into the lawn. When I was a pre-teen, the game was to see who could spit the farthest, but when I became a teenager, I was suddnely too dignified to participate in anything so crass as spitting seeds. 

While I was in high school, the Kennedys entered the White House and Mrs. Kennedy’s sophistication caused the girls to abandon ponytails and poodle skirts for sleek bouffant hairdos and A-line skirts.

While most things have changed over the years, I was thrilled to discover that not every custom has been abandoned. On a visit to my aunt and cousins in Louisiana, the family tradition of outdoor get-togethers continued. I indulged in all my favorite childhood foods, and while some things grow better in memory, Southern fried chicken and some of the other dishes were as good or even better than I remembered.

For those of you who do not have friends or relatives in the South, I’ll share my fried chicken method since I don’t follow a recipe. I think you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to prepare.

Our Family’s Southern Fried Chicken:

Chicken cut up into pieces *
Salt & Pepper
Heavy skillet, preferably iron

* It doesn’t matter if you have three pieces of chicken or three-dozen. The process is the same.

Some people mistakenly think good fried chicken is a complicated process where you start by soaking the chicken in milk or buttermilk, pat it dry, then start the dipping procedure by rolling each piece a couple of times in flour or a seasoned bread crumb mixture, roll again in a batter of milk and eggs and finally, a last dredge through the flour. Just thinking about it is exhausting. And unnecessary. Besides, I don’t like it. I never had Southern fried chicken prepared like that until I left the South. To my way of thinking, the only thing all that batter accomplishes is crisp batter. I want crispy chicken skin, and in order for that to happen, the grease has to reach it. So, here’s my advice:

Take your chicken pieces, rinse thoroughly under cold water, and instead of patting them dry, immediately roll each piece in flour. If some pieces dry, wet them again before rolling in flour.

My grandmother would fill a small paper bag about half full of flour seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, and she'd place the chicken piece inside, shake it until covered and place it in a pan of hot grease. To this day, no one fries chicken that tastes as good as hers. Of course she used bacon grease, a staple in the South, and oh, what a good flavor.

Today I keep a small can of bacon grease in the fridge because I don’t use it as often as my grandmother and I don’t want it to spoil. Most of the time I fry the chicken in canola or sunflower oil, but sometimes, to get that special flavor, I’ll add a spoon or two of bacon grease.

When you flour your chicken, flour one piece at a time, and use a bowl with high sides so you won’t have flour all over the kitchen. I know flouring each piece takes a little longer, but that way the flour coats the piece evenly, and when you place it into the skillet, it browns evenly.

Very important: make sure the grease is hot. Otherwise, if the chicken sits in cold grease, it’ll absorb more grease. You don’t want the oil smoking, just hot enough for the chicken to sizzle as soon as you place it into the skillet. And don’t have the flame too high because you don’t want burnt chicken. So first, I set the skillet over the burner and wait a couple of moments, add the grease, then thoroughly flour a piece of chicken. Then, with the flour still on my hand, I rub my fingers together over the grease, and if the tiny drops of flour that drops into the grease sizzle, then it’s time. I quickly flour the rest and place them into the skillet, making sure the pieces do not touch. Even if I have to do several batches, I find they crisp better if they are separated. Salt and pepper each piece.

Now your skillet is very important as well. We old-time Southerners use iron skillets. Nothing like them for distributing heat evenly, because you don’t want the pieces in the middle burning while the outside pieces barely cook. We use iron skillets for chicken and corn bread, but if you don’t have one, just use a good, thick skillet. If I’m using my iron skillet for cornbread, I’ll fry chicken in the old 11” electric skillet I inherited from my mother. It’s at least fifty years old and heavy enough to fell an elephant. If you’re not sure about your skillet, you can test it by opening a can of soup, pouring it into the skillet and heating it to boiling. Water will do as well, but the soup is thicker. If the water or soup on the outer perimeter boils evenly with the middle, then you have a good, even-heat distribution skillet.

I like deep-fried chicken, but my favorite is cooked in a skillet. I use enough grease to cover the bottom half of the large pieces. After you’ve fried chicken several times, you’ll be able to tell about when to turn them over, but if you’re just starting out, let the chicken fry for about ten or more minutes, uncovered, except for one of those splatter tops. Or place a regular lid about three-quarters across the skillet. If you cover the chicken entirely, chances are it’ll steam and get mushy and you don’t want that. After the bottom half is good and brown, turn each piece with tongs, as you don’t want to puncture the chicken and let the juices run, then salt and pepper them again and let them brown. When both sides are golden brown, remove from heat. I hold each piece a second or two over the skillet to let it drain, then place on a platter covered with paper towels. I’ve heard a metal drain pan is better, so one day I may try that. Then, repeat the process to fry the next batch. I’ve also heard some people place their first platter in the over to keep it warm, but not me. I don’t want to jeopardize the crunch.

Some people like to add some seasonings such as paprika, or garlic salt, or even pepper flakes, but the way I fry it, I don’t need the color and I like the natural flavor. But every person has a different taste, so try the different flavors. It’s fun to experiment, and when you hit the right combination for your family, you might start your own tradition.

Next time, if you like, I’ll share some of my other recipes, such as Mississippi mud cake, potato chip cookies, which are delicate and delicious. And how about fried green tomatoes? They’re similar to fried zucchini, but with a slight tart taste.

Till then, bon appétit, y’all.