As Michael had expressly asked for fried chicken, it was an easy enough thing to decide to start this whole process with that. Besides, I thought, how hard can fried chicken be? I'd not only seen it made so many times, I've eaten it (yesterday he asked for leg of lamb next, and I laughed and said, "My Michael, we don't have leg of lamb money right now" nor have I ever actually eaten a lamb, so that's getting put off for a while), watched it made on TV and in movies, and read books in which it is prepared. I feel like fried chicken, particularly in the south, should be something that is so deep in our gut consciousness that we all probably know how to make it. If you gave a southern baby a cast iron skillet, some flour, some milk, and a chicken part, that baby would eventually churn out something crispy and delicious. Right? Easy peasy.
Last Tuesday I decided that the time had come and I was real excited about it. As the day wore on, however, I started to get a little nervous. I imagined that I would soak the chicken in buttermilk. People do that, right? But for how long? And how hot does the oil need to be? And how much oil? I was at work at the cafe and so I went to my friend and chef, Taylor, and said, "So, I'm thinking about making fried chicken tonight". I believe she laughed. She's known me a long time. She answered my questions about the oil (hot enough so that water pops) and the buttermilk (yes, people do that) and gave me some pointers. She told me to use self-rising flour to make a crispier breading, and that maybe I should just get a mix, because they sell delicious ones with the instructions on the back and it's so easy. Ha ha! I thought. Only suckers and children use mixes! I have fried chicken in my soul! So after work I went to the grocery store.
I bought: self-rising flour, cornmeal (because Michael had said he prefers a cornmeal crust, like fish), buttermilk, butter, collards, and potatoes. (Eggs, oil, spices, milk, we have those at home already. Especially spices because we looted the restaurant where we worked when it closed down. We also have an excellent liquor cabinet.) Also beer. I figured I might need some beer at some point during this process. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I can pick out some damn collard greens for sure. I even ran into a gentleman named James who owns a Caribbean restaurant here in town. He said, "What's for supper tonight?" and I, coy, turned my eyes down and said, "Oh, you know, fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes." "Somebody lives in a happy home!" he said, and walked away.
Then, with all my collard green confidence and my potato pompousness, I rocked over to the poultry section. And stood. Do you know how many different kinds of chicken bits there are in the poultry section? Like a million. That was something I hadn't thought to ask Taylor. I mean, wing, breast, thigh, drumstick- that's pretty much what comes in an eight-price box. So..... yeah. Chicken. It's so very naked. I thought it would speak to me. It told me nothing. If anything it said, "Cold, I'm so cold....." in a tiny voice. Whatevs, I thought. I grabbed a package of skin-on, bone-in, organic (I haven't become a completely loose woman) chicken breasts, because everybody likes breasts! I know I do!
I got home and put on my collard greens. At this point I knew we wouldn't be eating until 9 or 10, because collard greens take a hell of a long time to cook. No worries, we'd be like Europeans. Really trashy Europeans. Then I unwrapped my chicken breasts. Alright. Ok. So. Am I supposed to rinse this like I do fish? I wondered. I figured it couldn't hurt, so I rinsed them and patted them dry. There seemed to be a lot of extra skin and flappy things, and then some blobby bloody stuff that seemed unnecessary and so I flopped them onto a cutting board and sliced that stuff off. Some of the ribs were sticking out a bit much so I hacked those off too. That was fun. I felt like a caveman wife, except that cavemen didn't have cleavers, so maybe I felt like a Viking lady. Whatever, hacking through bone is very satisfying. Then into a bowl of buttermilk they went and I read a book for a while.
After a few hours (collards really do take a long time) I put on a pot of water and peeled potatoes. Now, mashed potatoes I can do in my sleep. If there is anything easier or more satisfying to a man, I would like to see it. Potatoes, butter, milk, salt, pepper, garlic, mash. Done and done. At Thanksgiving, Mama and I have always decided that we do not need mashed potatoes, what with the two different kinds of sweet potatoes, stuffing, rice, rolls and or bread and or biscuits, and casseroles out the yang, but more often than not that opinion was overruled and I would find myself in front of the Kitchenaid with my glasses full of steam 10 minutes prior to suppertime. Glarg. Anyway, mashed potatoes? I can do them. However, at this point I was starting to get nervous about the chicken. I was afraid I would somehow cause an oil fire and burn our house down (not that it's ours, we rent, but still we have some lovely things in here) or that I would under cook the chicken and kill my man, or even that I would overcook it and it would be inedible and he would try to eat it to spare my feelings and I would watch as he just chewed and chewed and said, "No! It's really good! I like it when it tastes like a shoe!" or something like that. (Shoe, the other other white meat.)(Shoe. It's what's for dinner.) This has gone on long enough so I'll spare you the details on how this happened, but the mashed potatoes turned out lumpy and gluey both. They were seasoned perfectly, though! Nobody likes BLAND gluey lumps!
Undaunted (ok, slightly daunted) I moved on to the main course. As the oil heated in the pan I prepared my breading. On one plate I had self-rising flour, and on another I had a flour/ cornmeal mixture, heavy on the cornmeal. (My instincts told me to not use only cornmeal on the second plate, and this is all about instincts! Guts! My southern ancestors reaching through my blood and bones and muscles to guide my hands!) I seasoned both with salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and probably some other stuff I can't remember, which is why I need to write these posts a lot sooner after actually making the meat. I whisked together some milk and two eggs with some tabasco thrown in, just because, well, why not? Why the hell not. I lit a cigarette. I pulled out my chicken.
The breasts were heavy with buttermilk, so with my hands I sluiced some off before I dredged the first one in the first flour plate. I dipped that into the egg-and-milk, and then onto the cornmeal plate. This is when I remembered frying 101 from ALL THE RESTAURANTS I EVER WORKED AT and that is you have one hand for wet and one for dry. My hands had more breading than the chicken. That's alright, that's alright, I told myself. I'm learning. I dropped the chicken into the hot oil with a slow stall that would please a pro. Not one drop of oil left the pan. That was the most skill I showed all night.
Now, because I wanted only the best for my first ever attempt at meatmaking, I bought some really nice, fat, full, juicy looking breasts. Breasts that would need a larger bikini top than I own. This, I realized, was a mistake. As my chicken grew darker and darker and the inside obviously not cooked all the way, I thought, Oh, this is why you never see fried chicken this big. Dur. So I switched on the oven to finish them in there. At this point, Michael was home and we cheated a little bit. Well, he did. He looked it up on his phone and he told me that if I wanted to keep the crispiness, I would want to bake them on a slotted draining pan, like what my Mama used to cook the meatloaf on. Why in hell would I have a goddamn slotted draining pan? I have a bundt pan, a torte pan, a wok, cookie trays, a pie plate, bread pans, muffin tins, cake pans star-shaped and otherwise, a few casseroles, various skillets, and two pizza rounds. Ah, but I also have cooling racks with folding legs! Ingenuity! Place one, legs folded down, on a cookie sheet and voila! Who's a meat-cooking bitch, now?
The second breast went a lot more smoothly as I knew what to expect. I did not, in other words, burn the breading. Or bread my hands. (I will mention here that I forgot to tell you I am afraid of chicken diseases and I washed my hands and the cutting board approximately 87 times during this whole experiment. Dish soap is my friend.) Lessons learned.
As the breasts were resting on yet another cooling rack, I smoked another cigarette and drank a beer. The kitchen was literally a hot mess. Flour coated my toes and my high-heeled flip-flops. (Euro trash! Fucking right.) Michael, to his credit, was not afraid. He told me I was the most beautiful and sweetest little woman, and "Is it ready yet?" "Yes," I said.
We filled his plate with chicken, greens, and potatoes. Mine had baked tofu, which I made somewhere in there, probably between boiling and mashing. As we tucked in, I tried to not watch him eat. I peeked a few times. (We were watching an episode of Miami Vice. We get all romantic up in here come suppertime.) Finally I said, "How is it, love?" He told me it was so good. He told me it was crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. Not quite as salty as he was used to (his one criticism) but really, really delicious. Was he lying? Who can say. All I know is he kissed me with his chicken mouth and promised to finish up the dishes. And he looks forward to my next effort. Even if it is not leg of lamb.