I don’t often watch Martha Stewart. My distrust of her goes way back to a problematic article she wrote years ago about her rose garden. I’m also not a fan of her calculated, often pretentious, cooking style. I’ve never made my own crackers and I wouldn’t put caviar on them if I did, so I figure the show is a waste of my time. And that valium voice of hers is like chalk on a blackboard to my ears. But just as I was about to hit the channel button on my remote this weekend I heard her announce that she was going to show us how to fry chicken. Oh my goodness! I represent the fifth generation of a chicken-frying southern family, so I just had to hear what the Yankee icon had to say about our menu mainstay.
I watched in wonder as she explained her careful preparations. First of all, she warned everyone to wear closed shoes and an apron for safety. Then she explained that she had soaked the chicken at least two hours in water, patted it dry and separated the dark meat from the light. She had a heavy cast iron pan with a lid which she had purchased used so it would already be seasoned. She had plenty of oil, including some at room temperature that had been set aside in case she needed to lower the temperature of the cooking chicken. And of course she had a thermometer so she would know that! After coating the chicken, one piece at a time, with precisely the right amount of batter and getting the oil to the perfect temperature by testing it with a bread crumb and then the thermometer, she carefully dropped only four pieces of dark meat into the oil, while explaining in that vapid voice that the pieces must not touch each other. Then she covered the pan with the lid and cooked them for exactly ten minutes. Then she turned them over and cooked the other side exactly ten minutes. Any more, she explained and oil would soak into the chicken. Any less and the chicken would not be fully cooked. And she made sure the pieces were done by testing them with an instant-read thermometer. She placed the golden brown chicken pieces on a pan, to be kept warm in a 200 degree oven, smiled at the camera, and then proceeded to cook four pieces of white meat with the same military meticulousness.
I sat there in a daze for a few minutes. Then I thanked the Lord for letting me grow up in a family where the cooks were a little less intimidating. If Martha had been my grandmother I would never have learned to cook. I would never have felt competent or confident enough to even walk into the kitchen! And yes, all you unbelievers, I CAN cook and did so for years. I now choose NOT to cook unless I must. We’ve had that discussion…
Other than the apron and the cast iron pan, there isn’t much in the above scenario that matches my grandmother’s procedure for frying chicken. She might have soaked the chicken in water overnight since she usually killed it the day before she needed it. I can’t remember. I do remember a huge pile of seasoned flour on the counter top and a bowl of buttermilk that she soaked the pieces in before rolling several of them in the coating. I do recall the huge bucket of lard she used for most of her frying, including chicken. She usually had two pans of chicken frying at the same time and yes, she let the pieces touch each other! I never saw her use a thermometer or a timer, but her chicken was always cooked perfectly, at least to our country taste buds. And she always had at least four other things cooking at the same time- bread and potatoes in the oven, okra frying, beans in a pot. There wasn’t time for meticulousness.
I felt welcome in grandmother’s kitchen and in my mother’s as well. I started helping them when I still had to stand on a chair to do so. I learned to cut vegetables, clean chickens, and mix up a batch of biscuits before I could read a recipe. Cooking was an experience, a privilege, and later a daily chore. And it was usually enjoyable! It was never a performance or a test of my ability to understand math or science. If I made a mistake it was explained and excused as part of learning. I can only imagine that Martha might have taken a very different approach and smacked my hand with a spatula for burning something!
I know Martha has many fans and I’m sure there are women all over America who are successfully frying chicken by using her exacting methods. But if I get an urge to eat meat again you can bet I’ll use Gran’s recipe and just “wing it”.