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John Brock: Thanksgiving turkey will never replace honored Southern-fried chicken

  • Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It’s Turkey-time again and marketing of the big bird has taken on monstrous proportions as the honored guest at our Thanksgiving meal. But in my humble culinary opinion, nothing will ever replace Southern-fried chicken as the meal of choice south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But even this delicacy from Dixie has taken on new methods of raising and preparation for the dinner table.

Fried chicken just ain’t what it used to be. The production of today’s birds involves an almost test-tube-like process aided by measures of anti-biotic and other chemicals. They just don’t taste as good as they used to.

It saddens me to say but no one ever again will enjoy the pleasure of eating true Southern Fried chicken. In fact, it has been years since the last diner set down to the delicacy of fried chicken like grandmother used to raise and cook.

If my grandmother’s fried chicken was available today, it could bring peace to the Middle East. It was truly “finger-licking” good.

Modern diet habits and aversion to fat chimed the death knell of this “authentic” Southern delicacy more than a generation ago. Gone are the days of back-yard chickens fried in deep pork lard.

In my Dad’s day and part of mine, chicken was a staple. My grandmother tended her chickens like they were her children. They ran loose and knew when to gather at the back door as my grandmother came down the steps with an apron full of feed to supplement the little critters’ yard scratching. That night’s supper came unsuspectingly to its demise.

Healthy diet habits and population caught up with the back-yard bird and the home-grown supply was no longer able to meet market demands. Thus, “factory” produced birds replaced the back-yard version.

Archeologists tell us that the chicken has been a staple of human consumption since early mankind. I suppose they have found wish-bones (known as “pulley-bones” in the Southland) in the trash heaps of human antiquity.

Fried chicken even played a part in the War for Southern Independence. It seems that an old country-boy rebel was preparing a foraged chicken for supper in pork lard when some splattered onto his bare chest. Hot pork grease sticks to flesh like napalm and he let out a zombie-from-hell scream that frightened the Yankee troops in the nearby camp away from tomorrow’s battle. Thusly, was born the legendary ‘Rebel Yell.”

There is also a rumor that one federal trooper happened upon some Southern soldiers preparing a pan full of fried chicken. Being hospitable folks like all Southerners, the rebels invited the Yankee to sit down for a meal. He was so overtaken with the taste of fat-fried chicken that he let out a shriek of delight that became known as the ‘Yankee Whimper” and defected to the Southern forces. Makes a good story anyway.

Before WWII, most chickens, if not available in the backyard, were purchased live from the local grocery store. The chicken’s feet were tied together and the bird stuffed head first into a paper bag. A string was tied around the top of the bag and the critter’s feet. Holes were punched in the bag to allow for breathing air. Chickens were transported really fresh to the home.

When I was just a lad, it was my duty to “prepare” the chicken for frying. This meant, of course, killing the little booger. Early on, I had to engage in the rationale that a chicken was “supper” and not a fine feathered friend. There were various methods of choice for the bird’s demise: cutting the head off with a hatchet; wringing the bird’s neck by holding onto the head and twirling the bird around vigorously but my preferred mode of operation was to place the critter’s head on the ground securely held by a stiff board with my feet planted on each side. A sharp pull separated the chicken from its head. My method seemed more humane to me at the moment.

The chicken then would be scalded with hot water and the feathers removed before gutting the fowl. It was cut into pieces and immediately plopped into hot lard and fried to a golden crisp seasoned with an ample amount of salt. Every Southern Mama was extremely proud of her product and not without good cause.

You could always count on bountiful plates of fried chicken at family reunions, funerals and church “dinner-on-the grounds” occasions. You had to be careful, however, and I always migrated to my mother’s or grandma’s version of the Southern delicacy. I loved gizzards and once got hold of chicken fried by an aunt. I bit into the gizzard and was rewarded with a mouthful of sand and grit which had facilitated the bird’s digestive process. Never again was I ever attracted to anything that particular aunt prepared.

Enjoy all of the turkey you desire this Thanksgiving season. For my taste, however, I’ll stick with old-fashion, Southern-fried chicken! But I will continue to check the gizzard before biting into it.

John Brock is a retired college professor and newspaper editor/publisher who lives in Georgetown County and can be reached by mail at this newspaper or via E-mail at: brock@johnbrock.com.

Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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