I spent nearly 95 percent of my childhood afternoons close to my grandmother's kitchen. It was a perennially pristine room devoid of cookbooks and electronic appliances, and it became my first introduction to culinary perfection as its stoves and ovens churned out everything from oblong peach turnovers and vegetables prepared straight from the backyard garden to unreproducible dishes such as "hash," a meat stew indigenous to the Deep South.
Unlike my grandmother, I can hardly cook anything at all, at least not without consulting one of my 22 cookbooks or plugging in one of a half-dozen electronic devices.
Because my grandmother never used them, I believe that the best cooks do not refer to recipes. Soul food is personal. And dishes such as my grandmother's hash are like lost art, with little hope for recovery. So I've accepted the fact that I'll never be a real cook – except when it comes to one dish: my grandmother's double-battered fried chicken.
Dinner time broke up the period between television watching and homework and signaled that my mother would be coming to pick me up soon.
The meals were not leisurely, but I managed sometimes to watch my grandmother prepare my favorite meal, fried chicken accompanied by one of the 21st century's most maligned side dishes: mashed potatoes.
My weekly fried chicken consumption ended when, as a teenager, I convinced myself of the meal's perils.
My insistence on eating only grilled, white chicken breasts forced my grandmother to employ the only portable cooking device I'd ever seen her use: an electric grill that she'd received as a gift from one of her daughters-in-law and that had always remained hidden from view by a dishrag.
"Eating like this hasn't killed me," she'd say about her fried chicken. And it didn't. She enjoyed a long life, reaching into her eighth decade.
Only once did I openly insist that she teach me how to prepare one of her specialties – homemade biscuits that became a culinary miracle each summer when paired with her pear preserves.
"It's too hard," she had said as she sighed in refusal. "We didn't have no choice but to make our own bread."
There's definitely a trick to cooking fried chicken correctly. Many an "upscale" soul food restaurant has served up horribly dry, throat-cutting versions. I can only lower my head whenever I see bus loads of European tourists heading into some sit-down Harlem soul-food restaurants in search of "authentic" Southern cooking.
Still, at its best, fried chicken conjures up summer picnic baskets filled with cold leftover wings, and at its worst, tacky images of Colonel Sanders.
I'm not clear how or why, but I've retained my memory of my grandmother's technique for perfectly moist Southern-fried chicken. "Flour, egg, flour, fry" is a four-word device I developed to remember the order in which to prepare the poultry.
So this year, on a May afternoon before the summer heat could stifle my desire to fry even an egg, I purchased all the ingredients necessary to repeat my once-favored dinner.
Calling upon my grandmother's words to "take pains and pay attention" while cooking, I unwrapped two chicken wings and two bone-in breasts as if they were priceless glass figurines.
I arranged the egg, flour, and a simple spice rub (seasoned salt, pepper, and regular salt) in such an orderly, assembly-style fashion that Henry Ford would have nodded his head in approval.
I was on a mission, but despite the fact that fried chicken is the only recipe I have etched in my mind, I remained unsure of the outcome. Living alone gives one little incentive to cook, so the thought of ruining a batch of chicken led me to use an appliance that would've made my grandmother shudder: a deep fryer.
I meticulously prepared the uncooked chicken pieces – rubbing them with the seasonings, dipping them in a bag of flour, then into a beaten egg, and finally back into flour – remembering to shake in a dash of paprika for browning, and dropped two pieces into the deep fryer before I realized there was no room for the others.
So I'd have to cook the remaining pieces the way my grandmother did, in a pan with a lid, standing over it to ensure a positive outcome – not hitting a button and plopping down on the couch while waiting for a buzzer to sound.
It would be a test, I told myself. Two chicken pieces and a pan full of piping hot grease would decide if I could once and for all say I'd learned at least one domestic skill my grandmother had so effortlessly possessed.
The deep fryer batch finished before my pan-fried pieces. They looked good. At least I hadn't ruined an entire grocery run.
But my pan-fried pieces, to my surprise, held up to the test. In fact, they were better. They were moister, with the crumbly, brown skin falling off of it the way it did when I ate it growing up. Mmmm.