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The Fowl of the South
   Everything (well, almost everything) you need to know about real fried chicken

By Angela Gillaspie

In just about every Southern restaurant, cafeteria, buffet, and deli, not to forget the potluck suppers and covered-dish dinners, you'll find at least two heaping mounds of fried chicken. There's a reason for this: It's a Southern thang. If you're a person from up North, I'll try to explain this behavior to you.

    Down here, food sustains us in both body and spirit. We work for food, we eat to work, and we know deep down in our hearts that there will always be work and food. We are raised on love, faith, and fried chicken.

    Live chickens used to be as commonplace on the Southern landscape as the dusty tractors and half-naked children giggling and hanging from the apple trees. The sawing of the cicadas accompanied the sound of Momma popping crowder peas out of their shells while the chickens cluck-cluck-clucked and fussed over a bug near the corn crib. A warm breeze tickled the corn and brought the smell of freshly cut grass and the earthy scent of the henhouse to us as we set off to do our daily chores.

    On Saturday night, Daddy would select a fat hen, wring its neck, burn off the feathers, and hand it over to Momma to dress. After church on Sunday, Momma would fry the hen to a golden brown, and placed it in the center of the table surrounded by mashed potatoes, sawmill gravy, biscuits, deviled eggs, and a seasonal vegetable or two. The preacher, attired in his carefully pressed gray linen suit with the sweat stains under the arms, would occasionally show up just in time to join family members reverently circling around the table. Clasping hands, the preacher led us in an uplifting prayer of thanks. After the "Amens," we would sit down and hungrily eyed the centerpiece of golden fried love.

    The preacher always got first dibs on the chicken, followed by Daddy, then Momma and then the kids got to choose from what was left. No one talked, but got down to the business of consuming the meal. Smacking, grunting, and the tapping of metal on porcelain were the only sounds heard. The last piece of chicken was akin to the golden prize, which was always out of reach to the children. If a child dared to reach for it, Momma was quick to slap the hand down and apologize to the preacher as she offered the last piece to him. With wide eyes, the kids watched the preacher eat the last piece of chicken as if it was the last morsel of food on God's green earth.

    After the meal, the leg bone was handed down to a teething child. The hound would follow the bone-carrying child all over the house and yard looking for an opportunity to snatch the bone. Many baby boomers cut their teeth on a chicken bone. I imagine that there are some of you reading this right now that would be horrified to know that you shared a bone with the family dog.

    Nowadays, fried chicken is usually purchased from a fast food restaurant. Why is this so? Speaking for myself, I thought that making something as beautiful as fried chicken must be terribly time-consuming and difficult.

    Fried chicken is really beautiful -- just look at that gorgeous golden-brown covering and luscious tender meat! In addition to this, you just can't get commercial fried chicken that has the same wonderful taste as homemade. Fried chicken is a food of love and when the chicken is cooked on an assembly line, the individual attention to detail is missed.

    As a semi-scientific study, I decided to make my very own fried chicken. I carefully measured, simmered, and then served this main course. When my family gathered around the table, I anxiously watched for their reaction. It was deemed a juicy, succulent, and tasty success! Amazingly, fried chicken is easy to make. The secret is to sear the chicken first, and then cook it long enough for the meat to get tender.

    What is the most popular piece of fried chicken? I took an informal poll of my friends and family and found that: 50 percent chose the breast, 24 percent chose a leg, a remarkable 12 percent chose the thigh, 7 percent chose the wing, 3 percent chose the innards, and 3 percent chose the back.

    When I was rounding up my survey information, my friend Joe told me, "[I like the breast because] It's more efficient to eat. Now that I'm old, I often make choices based on which takes the least effort (laziness). The breast is the largest piece, except for the back, which is eliminated by reason one (greed). I prefer the taste of white over dark meat (discerning). And in real life, I am a "chest nut," so I like the name of the piece (perverted)."

    In analyzing the responses, I've come up with a psychological profile that describes what type of person you are depending on which piece of chicken you choose.

    Breast. You are a go-getter that wants the best. You are successful in sales because you have conned all of your kids into thinking that the leg is the prime part of the chicken.

    Back. You are a mediator because you choose this piece to make the others at the table happy (and quiet). You have dishpan hands, have no privacy, and find yourself standing in a room with absolutely no idea why you are there. You are a parent.

    Thigh. You are a scientific person and the meat and tendons on this piece are what attracts you. You delicately dissect this piece before eating and analyze each layer while relating to everyone at the table useless trivia about the chicken's blood flow and muscle tone. You like to clip and file your nails a lot, especially at church.

    Leg. If you are a child, chances are that an adult tricked you into choosing this piece. You are a well-behaved child, and you obey your parents. If you are an adult, you are a kid at heart that likes to play with your food. You own an extensive whoopee cushion collection and watch the movie "Airplane!" every chance you get.

    Wing. The tender, white meat on this small appendage appeals to you because you like to eat a lot without anyone noticing how much you have eaten. If you are a woman, you have a tendency to be shy, and prefer big fluffy hair to flat hair. If you are a man, you tend to belch a lot and you always leave greasy fingerprints on the salt shaker.

    Innards. You are the rugged outdoorsy and adventurous type. You eat the skin on the potato, buy Cheerios in bulk, and clean your ears with your keys. You are a pack rat and you are constantly on the prowl at garage sales and flea markets for a bargain.

    Hopefully, I've explained a Southerner's love of fried chicken. If you still wonder how we can eat something that is so greasy, then you haven't had properly prepared fried chicken. I suggest you fry up your own batch and then you'll see why all generations find it so delicious.


    How to cut up a chicken:

    All you need is a sharp knife, a good cutting surface, and little respect for the chicken's body.
1. On a dry cutting surface, set the dry chicken down. Wet surfaces can be slippery, and you don't want to cut the wrong thing -- like your finger.
2. Pull the guts out and cut apart the liver, heart, and other organs.
3. Start with the leg/thigh assembly. Grab the thigh, and move it around until you can feel where the hip joint connects the carcass. Pull the thigh slightly away from the carcass, and cut through until the knife hits the joint. Pull the leg and thigh back until the joint pops out of its socket. Slice through the tissue of the joint, and free the thigh from the carcass.
4. Holding the leg in one hand and the thigh in the other, bend the leg back until the leg pops out of the thigh joint, and then slice through the meat to free the leg from the thigh.
5. Cut the wings away in the same manner as the thighs.
6. Position the chicken on the cutting board with the neck down and rear end towards the ceiling. Cut down through the ribs and shoulders, freeing the breasts.
7. Lay the breasts skin side down, and cut in half along the breastbone (pulley bone). My Granny Whaley used to halve the breast pieces, cutting perpendicular to the breastbone. This made more pieces for all of her twelve kids, plus it cut down on frying time. (If you have kids, don't cut the pulley bone in two, save it for the kids to fight over.)
8. The back is usually left as is to either fry with the other chicken parts or to freeze to use for making stock.
    Angela's Fried Chicken
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon or so of paprika
Salt and pepper
1 broiler/fryer chicken, cut up
2 eggs, slightly beaten
    Heat oil (1/4-inch deep) in large skillet or electric frying pan over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, beat two eggs with some water and salt to create an egg bath. In another bowl, mix together flour, salt, pepper, and paprika.

    After rinsing the chicken with tap water, dip it in the egg bath and then dredge it in the flour mixture.

    Quickly brown the chicken (a few pieces a time) in the oil. After the all the pieces are browned, reduce heat, and layer the chicken, skin side down in the skillet in the following order: breasts, thighs, drumsticks, backs and wings. Cover tightly; simmer, turning once or twice until flesh is no longer pink, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the skillet cannot be tightly covered, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water. After chicken has simmered 24 minutes or so, uncover it to crisp it up. Remove chicken from skillet, drain it on paper towels, and then serve.
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