Properly done, our fried chicken was never too greasy, always crisp on the outside and moist within, spiced to perfection.

By John Egerton
September 26, 2018

What makes fried chicken so special in the South–the real importance of it, the immortality of Southern fried chicken–is all tied up in tradition and memories.

For instance, I can describe to you all the ways I learned to love fried chicken as a boy. I can call them up through every one of my senses. There was the sound of it frying in the skillet, the smell of it on the platter, the golden-brown sight of it, the crispy touch, the indescribably delicious taste of it. And more.

In the early forties, practically every family I knew in my small-town Kentucky youth raised chickens for eggs and meat, both staples of the Southern diet. In those war years, before I reached the age of 10, I was well acquainted with the clipped-wing fleet of hens, roosters, and pullets that thrived on cracked corn and table scraps in a fenced area just outside our back door. When you grow up seeing eggs laid to be hatched or cooked, and pullets dispatched by a hatchet blow or the swift snap of a wrist, you develop a more direct understanding of the food chain than you do from a take-out tub.

One of my chores was plucking the feathers. My mother cut up the chicken and refrigerated the pieces in salted water. When the time came, she patted the chilled pieces dry, dredged them in flour, and fried them in the highest quality of hog lard, melted to the depth of an inch or so in a capacious black iron skillet. But as familiar as fried chicken was to us, it was not your everyday fare; it was special. You served it to company, to the minister, to out-of-town guests. It was for family reunions and summer wedding parties and church dinners. It was funeral food, a personally delivered platter that bespoke sympathy, sorrow, and respect.

And nobody–nobody–ever hinted that it might be hazardous to your health. On the contrary, we considered it a vivid symbol of wellness and contentment and even prosperity. Properly done, our fried chicken was never too greasy, always crisp on the outside and moist within, spiced to perfection. And as sure as Sunday, it was complemented with a bird's-nest of mashed potatoes and a brimming pond of rich brown gravy.

The occasions of our feasting on a plentitude of pullets were numerous enough to run together now in my recollection, almost as if this was an event that happened every Sunday of my young life. As soon as Sunday school was over, I would keep an eye out for Mom, just to make sure she was headed to our home next door.

There, in the kitchen, humming to herself, she would finish the green beans, potatoes, and yeast rolls, and bake a pie or a cobbler. Finally, when the time was right, she would begin to lay the floured chicken pieces into the hot lard. Meanwhile, midway through the church service, my brother and I would begin squirming on the back bench.

Sometimes, in a state of near delirium, I imagined that I could actually smell that chicken cooking in our house. Once when my Sunday school teacher groped for a way to explain the meaning of eternity, I suggested that it felt like the endless wait for a pully bone and all the other wonderful things that accompanied my mother's Sunday dinner.

I was fortunate enough to end up with the big, deep, heavy cast-iron skillet and lid that produced all those poultry masterpieces a half-century ago. To this day we still recognize it at our house as the one and only vessel for serious chicken frying. There is reassuring comfort in the knowledge that this utensil will never wear out, never lose flavor, never fail. It is an heirloom worth its weight in silver or gold, and as much to be treasured as a fine old piece of furniture and as prized as a precious memory.