Fried chicken. I could write a book. Like most southern men my age, it is intertwined in who I am. I cannot remember the first fried chicken I ever had, but I remember things from Mrs. Kelly’s Kindergarten when I was four years old. My first chicken must have been some time before then.
I can still see the fried chicken bubbling in the grease in a cast iron skillet. Gravy would soon follow, often on homemade mashed potatoes. Of course, everything was homemade back in those days. Instant potatoes had not made their debut in the groceries stores and there was no pre-cut chicken. My mother could cut up a chicken in a matter of seconds, though it always took two birds for our family.
Some of my earliest arguments with my siblings were about which pieces of chicken we were going to get on our plate. The pulley bone was the absolute favorite of everyone sitting at the table. The problem was there was only one pulley bone per chicken. Our baby sister often got dibs on breaking the pulley bone, though she might dispute that recollection.
My brother and I loved the short thighs. I love them to this day, though they are extremely hard to find. My mother would put the backs on her plate, as her kids grabbed and devoured the choice pieces.
When is the last time you saw a chicken back in a grocery store? Or a short thigh? Or a pulley bone? Sometimes the world changes and not for the better.
Pauline’s City Café in Cottonwood, Alabama, where I grew up, had some of the best chicken in the world. I can still smell it and taste it. If you were not there by 11:00 a.m., then the white meat would likely be all gone. Perhaps, that is how I learned to love short thighs.
Years later, long after I was a franchisee, Hardee’s Restaurants bought the Roy Rogers Restaurant chain. With that deal came the Roy Rogers Fresh Fried Chicken which was put on the Hardee’s menu. It was a homerun for our restaurants in the Deep South. The chicken was fresh, not frozen, and hand battered.
It was so good that no mother or wife would consider going to the trouble of cutting up a chicken and putting it in a cast iron skillet. Why? Because an eight-piece chicken could be bought all over town for only $4.99. Going through a drive thru to pick up chicken was a quick, easy, and cheap way to feed your family.
Cholesterol and weight gain eventually caused me to cut back from my favorite meat. I gave up chicken except for the wings. I figured chicken wings were smaller and the white meat was lower in fat. I might have to cut back on fried chicken, but I could never give it up completely. Moderation rather than exclusion.
A year or so ago, I discovered Walter’s Gas & Grill. It is hard to describe this place to someone that did not grow up in the rural south. It is a picture post card of the rural stores of my youth. It is a curiosity to those who visit from the north, but it is a trip back to your childhood for someone born in the 1950s like me.
I made the 20-mile trip from Auburn to downtown Society Hill. The place was so rustic and isolated, I was about to drive away before going inside the first time I visited. Then I caught a quick whiff of something in the air. My sense of smell triggered a memory from my childhood. It was like walking into Mama’s kitchen. Fried chicken was in the grease. I went back in.
I have returned a half dozen times. I have taken friends who likely have never experienced anything like Walter’s Gas and Grill. Even more amazing, I have run into friends from my college days already sitting at the community tables when I entered. Friends from 50 years ago. It is a small world.
Dr. Cory Smith at Auburn United Methodist Church more than once has mentioned some random phrase in his sermons that led me to write an article. Last Sunday, he did it again.
While painting a mental picture, he described eating fried chicken so good that it was “dancing in the grease”. I immediately reached into my pocket and wrote the phrase down on a notecard as 60 years of fried chicken recollections flew through my memory. I am sure Dr. Smith had hoped I would take home a grander and more meaningful message from his lesson.
“Dancing in the grease”. What an incredible description of the food that defined my childhood and still takes me back there when I splurge. Visiting Walter’s Gas and Grill is not a visit to an old restaurant as much as it is a trip back to my youth.
You can learn to eat healthy. I love salads and vegetables. I have learned to eat hummus, low-fat milk and dozens of other things that did not even exist when I was a child. But I cannot completely forgo fried chicken. It is just too much to ask of a child of the south.
As I think of the many places I have ordered, tasted, and enjoyed southern fried chicken in my life, I will no longer look for that perfect description. The chicken was so good it was “dancing in the grease”. For anyone who has ever savored that perfectly cooked piece of fried chicken, enough said.
Dan Ponder can be reached at email@example.com