My friend and I had lunch at Pannie-George’s Restaurant last week. He was in line ahead of me and said without hesitation, “I will have three thighs”. I was impressed because I usually limit my own order to just two thighs (when my wife is not with me).
As we sat at the table savoring the taste of the flavorful, dark meat, I asked him if he had ever had a chicken thigh without the part of the back commonly found on restaurant cuts these days. My friend replied that indeed he had. When I asked him what he called them, his reply was simply “Thighs”. I looked dumbfounded wondering aloud how you could distinguish between the modern cut and the old-fashion cut that was simply the bone above the knee. It is a “short thigh”, I practically shouted in the crowded dining room.
My mother and our beloved cook, “Maymar”, both knew how to cook fried chicken back in those days. They bought the chicken whole and cut it up themselves. It was always cooked on a cast iron skillet using peanut oil with an occasional dollop of bacon grease for added flavor. Two chickens usually sufficed for the five of us.
My brother and I loved short thighs. My sister wanted the pulley bone or wishbone as my cousins out west called them. It was the premium cut. We always made wishes as we broke the pulley bone after it had been cleaned down to the bone. I am not sure how many of those wishes came true, but surely some of them did.
My Dad usually ate the breasts and depending on how hungry the boys were, my Mom ate the backs and wings. Raise your hand if your mother ate the backs and scrawny wings back then. Mother always said it was her favorite piece of the chicken. I know better now.
Pauline’s City Café in Cottonwood had some awesome fried chicken, but you had to be there before noon, more like 11:30, to have a chance at any white meat. The short thighs were gone shortly after. Pulley bones were saved for special customers, like my baby sister.
Then one day, they were gone. I am not sure exactly when these special pieces disappeared, but it was about the time grocery stores started selling pre-cut chicken in their display cabinets. I cannot blame mothers everywhere for making the change, but poultry processors had quickly learned the most efficient way to cut a chicken, and it was not with a pulley bone or a short thigh.
Chickens were bred to have bigger breasts and bigger wings. Wings became so popular that restaurant chains popped up selling nothing else. Who even knows where chicken tenders and nuggets came from. The chicken sandwiches we sold at Hardee’s eventually had breasts so big that they had to change the name to the “Big Chicken Breast Sandwich”. Those marketing folks can be really clever when naming products.
However, I never forgot my love for the meat and three places of my youth. Lois’ Restaurant in Donalsonville had a long run and served “broasted” chicken, though I was never quite sure what that was.
Even six decades later, retired and living in Auburn, I still make road trips seeking the best small town cafes and restaurants with good meats and vegetables. My favorites were rice and gravy along with green beans cooked with bacon. Squash and field peas and, well, the list could go on forever. Just leave off the boiled okra and rutabagas.
In my three years since retiring to Auburn, I quickly found Pannie-George and Susie K’s in Auburn and Opelika. I discovered Walter’s Gas and Grill in Society Hill and Elmer’s in Notasulga, along with numerous other out-of-the way places that still cook the old fashioned way.
On a recent trip though Montgomery, Mary Lou and I ate at Martin’s Restaurant, which has been around as long as I have been eating chicken. Mary Lou, who does a much better job at avoiding fried chicken than I do, exclaimed that they had pulley bones on their menu, her own personal favorite. Then, to our joint amazement, we noticed they had a “Pulley Bone Plate”. Never in my entire life have I seen a menu where you could order a plate of pulley bones.
The food of our youth embeds itself in our memory. We can remember the smell and taste and even the sounds of our favorite dishes cooking. It was a joy to know that in at least one place in the world, you can still order a plate of pulley bones. Now if I can just find a spot that offers a platter of short thighs, I will be happy.
Dan Ponder can be reached at email@example.com