My Mother is a Chicken

by Mark Brown

12/10/2012

My mother’s brothers married odd birds. Frances was a wild-eyed zany with a voice like a trapped cat and a way of haranguing young boys that kept me on edge. She stood tall and broad, like a dark, autumn oak, all limbs and dry leaves.

“Duck,” real name of Ida Mae, spoke softly, kept a shiny kitchen of fluorescent lighting and tight linoleum. Duck stuck close to the ground, ruffled few feathers, seldom rattled the cage.

And Nita, Hack’s wife, the one he brought back from Germany along with the contraband sword he tucked away in blue velvet. Nita would juggle oranges against the living room wall, would wail at our dour young faces and sob wildly at things that barely warranted attention. The family smiled at her in jubilant horror, as we might have ironic images of the war from which she’d eloped.

All our people fried chicken, not all of them well, but all of them good people.

Frances tended to burn hers at the edges, I think through a combination of fear—of the undone breast and its buried tender—and considerable loathing. By the look on her face, she couldn’t have much enjoyed cooking. The table she set for us, laid out with something less than aplomb, creaked from heavy bowls of limp beans, soggy fried potatoes, and beaten-down squash, not to mention the main event, the oil-charred chicken with the mealy exterior tasting of paste and carbon. Crust it never had a chance to be.

Not long after Howard, her husband and Barney’s eldest, died, Frances returned to her native West Virginia. Poor Frances, screaming at her boy, my pale cousin Mickey of the slamming screen door, the junkyard of Hot Wheels, the folded poster of Raquel Welch circa One Million Years B.C. Mick was among the impediments to her setting a good spread.

Duck’s husband, Charles, is Barney’s youngest son. He farmed turkeys, raising them in twin pens until Cargill and others altered that landscape. Hack, born Haskell, died in Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood. We visited them once, watched the veterans drink beer in a VFW hall, slipping quarters into a dated jukebox.

My mother, Bonna, moved to Tulsa. Her sister, Mary, to Alaska, Puerto Rico, and other military bases before coming home.

The land of all their upbringing is steeped in fertility, flanked by branches of the Canadian River, whose waters percolate beneath rows of corn, peanut plants, and cow ponds full of frying fish that compete for table space with banty roosters.

The land of my mother’s family triangulated Pittsburg County from Scipio in the north to Savanna in the South, then east to Hartshorne. A land of imprisonment for some—in the shadow of “Big Mac,” the state penitentiary at McAlester—and opportunity for others. A land of milk and honey, of sorghum and sow. And of fowl.

* * *

In 1911, William Procter and James Gamble outsmarted lard and came up with white gold. Crisco, “the first solidified shortening product made entirely of vegetable oil, was the result of hydrogenation, a new process that produced shortening that would stay in solid form year-round, regardless of temperature,” reads the Web site. Crisco and bacon drippings both, say Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison in Texas Home Cooking are indispensable to creating a recipe of “East Texas Fried Chicken.” Bacon drippings being a kissing cousin of lard.

* * *

Barnett Asbury Poole entered this land from Lockesburg,

Arkansas, near DeQueen in 1928. It was not a clean break. For years afterward, Faunds Pool (Barney seems to have added the “E”) and another of his sons, Carl and/or Norman, would make the drive from Lockesburg to Barney’s place west of McAlester.

“They’d pull up into the drive and fall out of the car just drunk,” my mother told me. “The Cobb side of the family was quiet. But that Poole side, they enjoyed life.”

Barney took no pleasure from a cup, none that I ever saw. He did have a taste for plug tobacco. And for all the fat of the land: fruit laid up in cans, mealy fish fries, pan gravies, and rind bacons. Chickens roamed his yard, pecking head down until wrung not by Barney but by Ella, his first of three brides.

“Oh, two or three times a week, at least,” my mother recalled. They ate roosters, the smaller the better.

Ella would open the gate of the coop, wielding a homemade rod of thin, sturdy wire with a hook curled manually into the tip of it. With a darting flick of the wrist she’d ankle the rooster and, with her free hand, latch onto his neck. Then a sure and sturdy twist, a draining of the geekish blood, and a long, arduous plucking.

“And when she got to the pinfeathers, she’d burn those off with a match,” my mom recalled. “Then, she’d give that chicken a good scaldin’. ” By this, my mother means a ferocious hot water bath in a deep, clean sink.

Frying chicken, I have learned the hard way, is not a birthright. The technique, unlike the chin, does not seem to have been passed down. Much as I attempt to channel the innate touch—what the apostle Paul called that knowledge which passes all understanding—my effort fails to produce the kind of success I have tasted time and again at the Poole tables, memorably at his but more often at hers.

What I picture as I dredge the pieces of thigh and breast for a bath in hot oil is two kitchens: My mother’s, which over the years was really three kitchens that have somehow become one through the act of cooking and the art of consistency. Three stovetops each within five miles of one another as we moved from Sheridan Terrace onto Shadow Mountain and beyond.

As I said, two kitchens: my mother’s, one, and her momma’s and daddy’s, two.

* * *

Hers was a cook’s kitchen, hectic at the holidays but busy anytime, echoing the sounds of a southern-bred cook, and each sound accompanied by its own signature smell. I reserve the more ethereal “aroma” for air fresheners. A kitchen like ours produces smells. Besides, in my mother’s house, we ate aromatics—chunks of carrots and onions, and celery studding chunky beef stews—rather than simply flavoring stock with them. Southern cooks do not coerce carrots, they cook and eat them. Garlic, that most aromatic of all, did not find fashion in my mouth until I began to feed myself, picking it up in books and spreading it all through the house, or houses, generally.

I understand that fried chicken requires a tight, crisp crust—an alchemy of oil and flour and skin—insulating a moist, meaty flesh, and that a perfectly fried bird might look like a fly ball wedged into an oily brown mitt. I see it better than I cook it.

I stare into the skillet and its roiling oil in the moment before I test its readiness with a pinch of flour. You can peer deeply into a blackened skillet of hot fat, into an almost bottomless pit, as I imagine LaBrea to be, or hell and its cauldron of souls. I hold the breaded meat over the oil and guide it into the skillet delicately, like a sapper anticipating an explosion. Then I watch, and the longer and deeper I peer the more hypnotized I get, until I succumb to a paralyzing trance during which time I am able to conjure things past, present and incidental. Mere seconds pass, but they represent the tainted hours and lost years spent over skillets and sinks and near empty bottles of wine in an attempt to get chicken right.

Proust needed a tea cake to find his way back in time but that is too dainty for me.

Anymore, fried chicken is likely to mean boneless convenience-store tenders draining on paper towels set beneath the orange glow of hood warmers. Their bonelessness I take as a testament to commerce and culinary climes. It is a noxious fume, that of stale ClearFry being ventilated into a parking lot heavy with the metallic tinge of gas being pumped.

Though tenders make tidy road food, fried chicken down on the farm still veers toward the basic eight-piece ensemble, bones attached. It survives relatively unscathed in this Oklahoma of vanishing youth and diminishing wealth, where methheads and Methodists populate the hamlet’s lone diner to down cups of bottomless coffee for a buck.

When folks die, we fry. Fried chicken offers crunchy respite at the alcohol-free wakes of Red Bed Plains tradition, sitting up brown and strong in a wide sea of soft, spoonable dishes. The strength of such ritual is enough to fortify an entire host of family and friends, and offers comfort amid the silent pining. The sag on the funeral table is formidable, and one is tempted to trace fried chicken and all its trimmings back to the feasts of early saints, their disciples and lesser followers clinging to hope at the end of a drumstick sticky with fried skin, the salt stabilizing the unsure earth, the pepper providing a speck of savory irony.

A chicken, fit to be fried, is a delicious martyr.

* * *

In its entirety, Fried Chicken a la Rufus Estes, from Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus, looks like this: Cut up two chickens. Put a quarter a pound of butter, mixed with a spoonful of flour, into a saucepan with pepper, salt, little vinegar, parsley, green onions, carrots and turnips, and heat. Steep the chicken in this marinade three hours, having dried the pieces and floured them. Fry a good brown. Garnish with fried parsley.

* * *

My own fried chicken looks right enough but lacks depth. I think I cook it too fast and furiously. I once tried frying it in two inches of oil and spent an entire roll of paper towels mopping up my mistake. When I fry it now, I set up a cordon.

My mother will fry chicken whenever I ask her, and I know not to push it. Chicken in her hands has a flavor that is hers and hers alone, as if my mother were a chicken in a past life, scratching her way across the coop yard, her proud breast thrust out, the gentle folds of her neck wagging in the strut, her tail feathers flagging the lone, lucky cock o’ the walk, and her legs—meaty at the joint, sinewy and strong as they taper to earth—provoking the farmer’s wife to her dutiful wring and pluck.

Fried chicken is soul food and so you’ll find it in riches the further southeast you go. In Oklahoma, it survives as the stepchild of culinary displacement. Lacking a food of our own, we adopt fried chicken.

The South has a soul, but Oklahoma has no soul. A soul needs a closet where old ghosts can steep and ripen, and the plains of Oklahoma are too outback for that. In the days of Depression and dust, Oklahoma lost a good many of its sons and daughters to diaspora, the winds of despair spreading the Okies west, their distended bellies swelling in the fertile valley.

What remains of Oklahoma, in lieu of a soul, is a stamina, a legacy of waiting and weathering. Storms swirl around us, natives and settlers alike, and we accept them as part of our condition. We are conditioned by them, be they tortured cycles of endemic poverty, marital hit-and-miss, or tornadoes that roar out of desolate Texas each spring. The twisters scoot into the trough of Oklahoma and lay waste before moving on.

Sometime in the last couple of decades, the diner’s appetite for legs and wings dwindled, with wings going mostly to Buffalo and legs reserved for restaurant logos. Our taste for dark meat was consumed by the newfangled breast. The “pick of the chick” became a boneless breast. Grilled.

In the ’70s, the chicken sandwich straddled up next to the burger and took a heavy chunk out of the fried chicken market. The boneless breast ushered in the Reagan era, with its Hollywood health- consciousness and retraction of anything traditional. “Fried” became the riot act of the dietary witch trials, skin stripped off before the flesh hit the fire. Bones dismissed in the drawing and quartering never made the pyre. Fake breasts—on a woman or a soft white bun—set the new standard of living and dining. “Rubber tits,” I’ve heard them called, those boneless, sauced chicken slabs fed to us at awards ceremonies and charity benefits.

Barney died before his old Arkansas became the front of the boneless assault. Pork was yet to seize on the genius of being second, so chicken had the white meat market to itself. Back then, when you stopped at the AQ Chicken House in Springdale, you stopped for a fried chicken dinner whatever the hour. Today, sandwiches take up a full page of the menu. Fried as a hallmark has all but died.

Nor had the captains of industry emerged. Don Tyson was yet to have a president’s ear. Bo Pilgrim, the pride of Pittsburg (this one in Texas) even in bankruptcy, had yet to erect his 20,000-square foot “Cluckingham Palace,” a monument to all things without a backbone. A chicken was still a bird, with a beak. It was covered in feathers, not plastic. It did not look like an air-hockey puck.

It still had pluck.

* * *

Fried chicken finds a way. Like the stones that crop up all over Ireland no matter how deep and often the farmer digs, fried chicken surfaces inevitably on the menus of southern restaurants with any measurable staying power. In a migrant town called Krebs, near McAlester in Oklahoma, it found an unlikely home alongside mom-and-pop marinara.

McAlester is named for J.J. McAlester, a man who built his mansion mining coal. Charles Portis saw fit to write him into True Grit, so formidable was he. While J.J. built the house, Italian labor built the legacy. They also built Krebs, a tiny hamlet best known for its eateries, of which Giacomo’s, Roseanna’s, Isle of Capri, and Pete’s Place remain.

Any roadside restaurant in rural Oklahoma that isn’t paying its rent by Tex-Mex or buffet Mandarin knows the one-two- three punch of “Steaks-Chicken-Seafood.” At such a place, the steak will be serviceable and perhaps even delicious. The seafood is more than likely fried shrimp. Which leaves chicken, fried of course, and this is always the safest bet. Enterprising menus will even fry up the livers (an order will include at least a dozen).

On Pete’s menu, below lamb fries, [1] is “Italian Fried Chicken.” Unchanged over several decades, it’s Italian in that Italians cooked it. The grandsons and great grandsons of Piegari, that is, with the legacy losing face as the years pass, the genes recede and the lore mutates.

* * *

Consistency at a KFC is a matter of science and strategy, organized and designed in some home office to allow a moderately trained line cook the least possible margin for error, which anymore must be and practically is zero. The Colonel fries more chicken for charity than my mother did during my tenure in her nest.

I’d say once a month, tops, or 10 times a year. Times 18 years to arrive at less than 200 fries—200 or so chances in a lifetime to hone the art of the scald. In my mom’s kitchen, weeks passed between each order, time enough it could be reasoned for the subtleties of the cook’s craft to lose footing. You can cook anything decently on the first try if your heart’s in it and you source with care. But we’re talking fried chicken, not an easy flavor to send into orbit, however easy it might be to reach a state of readiness.

Cook anything 200 times and you should arrive at some kind of standard. But it isn’t the fried chicken I ate on the way out my mother’s door that I recall; rather, the brown birds of the wonder years, peaking at the height of adolescence, for me around 1977, the year we lost Presley—a fine fried chicken eater if ever a cock walked.

* * *

The problem with recipes is that you feel as though you have to follow them, and them is usually a list of specific ingredients and a series of steps. Stray from them at your own peril. My mother’s method for chicken does not require a recipe because, one, she has cooked it many times and, two, it really is quite simple. For a curious son, achingly so.

I hate to write it down now, when it’s remained silent all these years, but in lieu of frying decent chicken this is what I do. I write shit down. I call it “Ella’s and Bonna’s Fried Chicken” and it goes not something but precisely like this:

Cut up as small a chicken as you can find into several pieces. If the breasts are too large, cut them each in half. When you are ready to fry, rinse and pat dry the chicken and season lightly but thoroughly with salt and pepper. Season a deep dish of Gold Medal All- Purpose flour with more salt and pepper. Season it generally, imagining the 10 chicken pieces as you do so. Dredge the chicken in the flour and set aside on a fresh plate while you bring to hot a well-seasoned, cast-iron skillet of Crisco shortening. Check the oil for heat by dropping in a pinch of flour. (If it sizzles at all, the oil is ready.) When the oil is hot, re-dredge each piece in the seasoned flour—by now, the first coat will have absorbed and made a kind of wet paste applicant—and set gently into the skillet, skin-side down. Fry until the oil begins to crackle and then lower the heat a bit. Listen for a steady but firm sound, as you don’t want the oil too wild at this point. Cook until the underside begins to brown, sear and appear cooked, then flip it and cook a few more minutes until you have an even browning of the skin. Once this is achieved, pull the chicken from the pan with a set of tongs and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Stick the chicken in a warm oven until ready to serve. It can rest there for up to two hours without losing its moisture or crispiness.

* * *

I like my chicken, like myself, with the bones intact. Bones are evidence of life and it’s life, after all, that flavors a living thing. Meat hanging to bones is evidence of some plan, a design rendered by something beyond man to give him character and architecture. When I chew against a leg, thigh, or breast bone to extract the last of the meat (each piece demanding a slightly different approach, be it a joint or a rib cage), I push into the bone confident that it will push back. Bones give my teeth reason for being, gnawing, pressing reasons, and without them—bones, I mean—who knows how long before my teeth fall out of my head from all the boneless mush I am left to chew.

I have Barney to thank for all the lead and gold in my head, if my mother is to be believed. “You got your Mom’s chalky teeth,” she’ll say, and if I got it from her then she got it from him. Or from the woman he married. In truth, I could blame my grandmother on my cavities, on the pains that dart through my molars when I segue between hot and cold, but I never met this Ella. And even if it was her side, the Cobb side, that laid the DNA for my slow decay, Barney married into it and so the case rests with him, somewhere in a field on Tannehill Road not a mile off U.S. 75, with the 11-story Hotel Aldridge and the dilapidated state prison lording over the Canadian River valley flats.


Footnotes
1.First item on Pete’s online menu is a $25 plate of sheep’s testicles, fried in cracker crumbs and garnished with lemon wedges. Only three items—all of them steaks, and one of them a 30-ounce sirloin for two—price higher. “Slices of Lamb from Iceland” they are described, though they are as likely to come from New Zealand, in a box, from a cooperative. And based on the size—akin to one of the Silly Putty eggs—sheep is much more apt, if less delicate, description.


Excerpted from My Mother Is a Chicken: Essays on Eating and Drinking by Mark Brown, published by This Land Press. Mark Brown has published Argentfork, a food and drink quarterly, since 2004. He is managing editor of This Land.

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 23. Dec. 1, 2012.