I don’t make fried chicken all that often, despite the begging and pleading of my daughter who is pretty well convinced that we should eat it all the time. It’s one of those meals that takes a lot of time – and has to be started at least a day in advance to be worth the trouble at all. These days, asking me to plan anything a day in advance is like asking me to read you the King James bible in Cantonese – not gonna happen for oh-so-many reasons.
But I do love fried chicken, and it contains so many metaphors for my life in general, that I just can’t resist the urge, now and then. For me, I look at fried chicken the same way that I suspect all those lapsed Catholics look at Easter mass – a time to sit and reflect and the whys and hows of what I intend to remember in my life, but instead take for granted while I get lost in the whos and whats. But a few times a year, I take the time.
I’m taking the time tonight.
I have the time because I made some hard decisions to stop spending my time doing things that were futile and didn’t serve me. Everything from trying to control both markets and relationships that were beyond my control, to aimless socializing that was doing more to remind me how empty most connections are rather than providing that full soul-belly I was looking for. It’s time to go to the church of food, family and self.
The things that I love about fried chicken are pretty connected to the things that I love about myself, and that I want to teach my daughter. I can eat it when I want to because I am so careful with my diet and exercise most of the time. When I want to eat crap, I can.
BUT, fried chicken, how I do it anyway, isn’t bad.
First, there’s the chicken. It’s a great opportunity to walk down to Bob’s and buy exactly the parts that I want (drumsticks and thighs) and have a quick chat about how the world of locally-raised and sustainable meat farming is going. The chicken we’ll eat tonight came from more than 100 miles from our house, it was bought whole and then cut at the butcher shop. I like that.
Of course, I had to buy it yesterday, because it needs a good 24 hours to soak in buttermilk (and onions, garlic, parsley, salt and bay leaves) before it can be made. This is a vital step. Not only does it make the meat fall-off-the-bone tender and so full of rich flavor that you’d swear it was anything BUT boring old chicken, it makes it possible for me to eat. I don’t do well with chicken (actually, lots of people don’t) and even my allergist told me to avoid it, so I usually do. However, by soaking it in real buttermilk for 24 hours, the enzymes in the active cultures actually break down (pre-digest, if you want to sound gross) the proteins in the chicken that make me react so badly to it.
So, I reach for that magic jar of cultured buttermilk in my fridge. It’s always there, because I am always throwing the last of our raw-milk into it, to be cultured, when our new milk arrives each Thursday. It’s something we all take for granted, but whenever I reach for the buttermilk, I am reminded how lucky we are to have a local farm from which we can get raw milk. And the profound changes we saw in our health (and happiness) when we decided that this low-fat, dead-food revolution that swept our country was the problem, not the solution. We gave it a hearty “fuck you” years ago and dove whole-hog into all the whole food – unpasteurized, unradiated, full of fat – that we could find.
Food should be alive. We are organic beings, we need organic fuel. All that synthetic and dead food-like-stuff that people consume would be better used in cars, it seems to me. It’s much more closely related to giant machines and factories than it is to my body and the earth. No thank you.
So the free-range, local chicken will soak in the home-cultured buttermilk that was made from the raw milk of local cows for about 36 hours.
Sometime today I will take the end of a loaf of sourdough bread that I made and put it in the food processor until it is so fine it may as well be flour. The bread is also homemade, with a real sourdough starter and each loaf is “soured” for about 24 hours before baking. Same thing as the chicken – it’s the only way that I can really eat wheat. This is ancient wisdom, and many people who can’t eat wheat could eat REAL sourdough bread. But no one bothers, it’s too time consuming……
Okay, let’s just say the chicken is ready, and has been all soaked and breaded and even looking at it, drying on the rack before frying, you can taste it. I can.
Now it’s time to make biscuits. All the seasoned buttermilk that the chicken soaked in is now used to make biscuits – which are made, of course, with eggs from the chickens in our backyard, and real lard. Lard that I render from the fat I get at Bob’s also. I’m not gonna lecture anyone on the magic of lard and butter – but they’re a hell of a lot better for you than the petroleum-based or mechanically compounded pseudo-fats that people gobble up. And the biscuits….. lordy lordy lordy. Now, I’m kind of a biscuit nazi. The deal with lard and butter is that they have very high melting points, so the gluten structures in the flour will get hard and hold their shape around the fat blobs, which will eventually melt away and leave big flaky air pockets. So the longer they hold their shape, the more solid the flaky structures around the eventual air pockets will be. Biscuits get shaped, then put back in the fridge to get really cold again – I want every second I can have to get maximum flake.
By this time, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the chicken is gonna get fried in lard. Anything else is an abomination. Lard can get so hot that when you put the chicken in, it literally seals it up, so very little soaks in. It doesn’t have to stay in all that long. I usually give it about 4 minutes on each side, until it’s exactly a nice brown, then put it on a cooling rack in a baking sheet, and put it in the oven to cook some more. But the seal of the crunchy sourdough breading is solid and the chicken inside – having been soaked in buttermilk for more than a day – is so juicy that, like so many good things, it squirts when you put it in your mouth.
However, my favorite thing about the cooking process is the giant cast-iron pan that used to be my grandmothers. That thing has 100 years of home-cooked meals living in its soul, and I swear you can taste each and every one of them in this chicken. Standing over it, I remember my childhood on their farm, her velvety cheeks and the miraculous way that this 85-pound woman could rule the unruly masses with her iron skillet. My grandma Celia (after whom I named my daughter) was an amazing being who survived more in her life than anyone I know. And was still soft to the touch, inside and out. To feed my little Celia old-fashioned fried chicken from my Grandma Celia’s skillet is some kind of faith-inspiring act that settles my soul and calms my spirit.
Wait, we can’t forget the coleslaw. Nothing too fancy about this, shredded up cabbage and carrots. But the vinegar – I love vinegar. I have jars of it fermenting in my pantry. Personally, I like the ½ red ½ white vinegar for slaw. And I think that today, I will take the extra step of making homemade mayo – which is really just egg yolks, vinegar and a nice oil, all emulsified until it turns into mayo.
Yes, it’s one of those meals that people say you shouldn’t eat often. And we don’t. But the truth is, there’s nothing bad for your body in it. And it is 100% good for your soul.
The whole process somehow connects me more to my family, my heritage, my body and my values than most things do. Every step of it is an illustration of just how much I have managed to get local, natural, sustainable…. To carry with me the best things of ancient and nourishing traditions of generations that came before me. That I value real and fulfilling more than fast and easy.
And I need those reminders right now. I am really, really hungry!