The night Julia Child came to dinner
Southern fried chicken served as the centerpiece. And Julia helped herself to seconds.
Anyone who grew up in the South has some kind of fried chicken memory. Or maybe no particular, specific single event at all, because fried chicken is so ubiquitous. But it is one of the many food topics a true Southerner can weave a yarn around. Fried chicken a simple weekend supper, first choice for a picnic or dinner on the ground, someone’s favorite special occasion meal. Fried Chicken is served at big, noisy, sloppy family gatherings, packed into the car for road trips, served at summer camp, or for small Sunday after church lunches. That’s where I ate most of my fried chicken growing up.Skip to next paragraph
The Runaway Spoon
Perre Magness has studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France has broadened her own culinary skill and palate. The kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.
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Julia Child had dinner at my house when I was a kid. You may be wondering how this fits into a story about fried chicken, so here it goes. Julia and Paul Child were in Memphis raising funds for Planned Parenthood and my parents were selected to host a dinner party for the Childs and select guests (that is to say potential donors). People were scrambling for the opportunity to participate – to wash Julia’s plate, or serve Paul a drink.
The various committee members met to discuss plans and to decide, what exactly does one serve Julia Child at party? Ideas about hiring the chefs from the best restaurant in town to prepare a gourmet meal, or caterers to cook a menu made up of the fanciest ingredients available in Memphis were discussed. But my mom put out that maybe Julia gets that all the time, so why don’t we serve her something unique, that she might only be served in Memphis. So a caterer who specialized in Southern family weddings was brought in to prepare the classic Southern meal – collards, grits, biscuits and fried chicken. All the influential muckety-mucks invited to write checks filled their plates over and over again, thrilled to be served their favorite foods rather than the precious, overblown “gourmet” stuff they expected. Both Julia and Paul were noticed returning to the buffet for seconds. I must have been eight or nine, but I remember her, so tall and jovial. I still use the signed copy of The French Cook my mother gave me then.
Nowadays, like many things, most people have given up on frying their own chicken. There are so many places to buy it ready-fried, and some of them are not half-bad. From the Colonel to local joints, to grocery stores and even Wal-Mart, more often than not if you get fried chicken, it came from someplace else. I have it on authority that many a hostess has carefully arranged fried chicken on a nice napkin in a lovely basket then thrown the bucket in the neighbor’s garbage can. People will drive miles for a famous chicken joint, or pick it up just around the corner. The big iron skillet of chicken bubbling away in hot grease is just a memory for many people, something a grandmother or beloved housekeeper used to do. At the mention of frying chicken now, I hear people groan or sigh – it’s so messy, frying makes the house smell, all that grease all over the range. Yes, grease splatters. Yes, the smell of that grease tends to linger, but homemade, cooked-with-love fried chicken is such a special, special offering that everyone should have the opportunity to dig into a juicy, crispy piece at least once. It may not make you abandon the bought chicken forever, but it will create your own Fried Chicken memory.
I have watched and read and practiced and learned over the years to become a pretty good chicken fryer. I have my not so good batches every once in awhile, but that hasn’t put me off. It’s a fine meal that is always appreciated.
So here are my tips for some chicken fried love.
First, you must marinate the chicken in buttermilk so the meat is moist and tender.