One night right after we met, we had a date to go to Memphis for dinner. By four o’clock it had begun to snow, and was really falling fast. I called him and asked if he’d settle for fried chicken by the fireplace---a question on a par with asking a kid if he’d like candy. He ate it and was much impressed with my culinary talent.
I didn’t tell him until much later that Caro fried that chicken, while I primped for the evening.
Well, I TAUGHT her.
Her own Grandmother---my first Mother-in-Law---taught me to fry chicken---black skillet (she parted with one of her own slow-cured, crusty-bottomed ones in the name of love and authenticity), Crisco from a can, flour, salt and pepper. S&P and a little can of sage, like a captive, mentholated dustbunny in a can---were the ONLY condiments in her quite considerable kitchen cabinets---if you don't count the cinnamon which she saved for sweet potato pie and baked apples.
And she was a GLORIOUS cook. Her chicken was a model, the essence, the very paragon of fried chicken, to be held up as the zenith to which we could all aspire. Her biscuits and cornbread (also black skillet) were tender, crusty marvels of breadhood.
And her desserts!!! She had a way with piecrust and cake batter that would make Betty Crocker hand over her apron. My soul still longs for the long-lost recipe (confiscated by a VERY quick, very sneaky SIL the day before the funeral) for her famous caramel cake---a tendercrumb, buttery, meltingly delicious golden poundcake with a poured icing which, coincidentally, had been cooked ditto black skillet. She could take the last smitch of flour in the bag, the crumbs of sugar left in the bowl, and the paper off a Parkay stick, and turn out a dessert fit for royalty.
One of the funny memories of her wonderful chicken dinners is that the chicken was the STAR, and the rest just add-ons. That platter of golden-brown, crusty delight would be set down before family and company alike, accompanied by the most featherlight rolls, a can of Schoolday English peas, and a can of Pride of Illinois corn---each heated in a little pot just long enough to melt the butter.
I cannot fathom to this day the two Sacred Mysteries of my cooking forebears---Mammaw’s Magical Teapot and Maw’s ability to heat ONE CAN EACH of two things, put them in bowls, and serve a family of five and assorted guests generously. (And don't forget the drained pineapple rings, topped with a coronary-busting tablespoon of Blue Plate and a big pinch of hoopcheese).
The chicken and the dessert---that's what you came for.
So I learned, those days of Delta heat and no A/C, in that kitchen with one window over the sink, 10 square feet of counter space, and a shiny yellow dinette set butt-bumping you every time you moved toward the stove. I sharpened the knife, washed the carcass, cut it into fourteen pieces, (count 'em---2 legs, 2 thighs, pulley bone, two breasts, stripped of two small sections of boneless meat, neck, back-cut-in-two, 2 wings). I don’t count the liver and gizzard---you never count them when you’re figuring pieces to go around. If they don’t get lost on the platter, somebody will have scarfed them up before the tea’s on the table.
I soaked, I carefully measured quantities and seasonings, I shook that big brown sack. I heated the pan of shortening til it "browned a cube of bread" and laid in the carefully floured pieces (always the dark meat first, legs turned to fit against each other "saves space," with the bony tent of of the back in the same pan, liver tucked carefully beneath---livers have a way of choosing their moment, and will blow skyhigh at the exact minute you take off the lid if you don't capture them under that handy ribcage).
White meat came next, and was lidded, turned, uncovered, crispened, and set on a great mattress of "Scotch towls" to drain. It was wonderful chicken, tender and crisp and salty and just right. And I still cook it just like that, same skillet, same method, in a place faraway and a time so different.
We’ve graduated from the can of big ole mooshy peas to a bowlful of tiny tender frozen ones, microwaved under Saran for three minutes, and still a lovely emerald, with the whiff of green gardens when the covering’s whisked off.
Occasionally I DO open a can of that thick, sweeter-than-sweet corn and cook it like pudding in a tiny skillet with butter. And again, we occasionally have a Pineapple Salad, ditto Blue Plate and some extra-sharp Kraft. It’s like going Home.
Chris gets out of the car, comes into the house grinning. "I smelled fried chicken all the way out into the yard!!"