When Granny married my grandfather, she was a widow with children and he was a widower with children as well, some of whom were almost as old as she. Their union added two more to the brood—my father and his sister, Ruth. With his children, her children, and their children crowding their four-room house and the Great Depression growling at their door, Granny always had too many mouths to feed and never enough food with which to do it.
But no one seemed to mind the daily pot of dried beans so long as they could look forward to her fried chicken on Sunday. Portions were small, so there were always plenty of biscuits, rice or potatoes (usually her signature hot potato salad), and gravy to stretch the meal as far as it would do. But Granny’s singular gift for making the most meager of meals taste really good made even biscuits and gravy seem like a feast.
Granny kept right on cooking those big Sunday dinners until shortly before she died. She was plain-spoken and not very demonstrative woman, but as we sat around her kitchen table on those lazy Sunday afternoons, she didn’t have to tell us she loved us; we could taste it.
Granny Fowler’s Sunday Fried Chicken
This recipe looks long and involved, but mainly because there are instructions for cutting up the chicken: it’s pretty straightforward to do and only requires of you a little patience. Fried chicken is not something you put on the stove and walk away from.
The reason for the instructions on cutting up the chicken is because you should always buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself. Yes, it means messing with raw chicken, but unless the butcher at your market is a very old-school Southern cook, store-cut chickens are never done correctly. It takes a novice about five minutes, tops: I can usually do it in less than two minutes, so it’s not difficult or time consuming and the results will be definitely worth it.
I think I recall Granny sometimes serving rice with her fried chicken, but even then it was almost always accompanied by her hot potato salad: it was nothing more than boiled potatoes mashed smooth with mayonnaise and a little cream and laced with finely chopped fresh green onions or, if she didn’t have them, yellow onion.
1 small frying chicken weighing no more than 3 pounds, but preferably less
About 1¾-2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons for the gravy
Lard or vegetable oil, for frying
Whole black pepper in a mill
2 cups whole milk
1. Cut up the chicken as follows: Lay the chicken flat on its back and bend back a leg. Under its skin you’ll see the line where the thigh muscles join the hip. Cut through this line, bend back the leg, and cut through the hip joint. Lay it flat on the work surface, outer side down and look for the line in the muscle that is the joint between the thigh and drumstick. Cut through it with a sharp knife. Repeat with the other leg. The wings are attached with a ball joint similar to our shoulder. Cut through the joint and remove the wings. The rib cage has joints along both sides: cut through them with kitchen shears or a knife and bend back the breast until the joints at the shoulder are exposed and cut through them with a sharp knife. You can set aside the back for the stockpot, but Granny would’ve chopped it in half crosswise and fried that, too. Now, lay the breast skin-side up on the board and feel for The hard knot at the top of the breast, which is the tip of the wishbone. Cut through this with a sharp knife and carefully cut along the edge of the top of the ribs until the wishbone and the meat attached to it is separated. Cut through the joints on each leg of the wishbone or snip them with shears. Now turn the breast over and chop it in half at the keel bone, then cut each breast in half crosswise. It’s now ready to fry.
2. Granny would stop the sink and put the chicken parts into it, then liberally shake salt straight from the box over it, cover it with cold water, and go to bed. The “safe” way is to make the brine first, put the chicken in it, and refrigerate it overnight. Put 4 cups cold water in a large bowl and add a very small handful of salt. Stir until the salt dissolves and add the chicken. The liquid should completely cover it. Cover and refrigerate overnight or for 6-8 hours. Let it sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour before frying.
3. Meanwhile spread the flour on a large plate or wide, deep bowl. Fit a wire cooling rack into a rimmed baking sheet. Put at least ½-inch of fat in a deep, well-seasoned cast iron skillet that’s at least 12-inches in diameter and is fitted with a lid. Turn on the heat to medium and let it heat until it is hot but not yet smoking, 375° F. on a frying thermometer. Drain the chicken and pat it dry. Liberally season it with salt and pepper. Raise the heat under the pan to medium high. Lightly roll the drumsticks in flour, shake off the excess and slip them into the pan. Repeat with the thighs, then the wings. Finish with the breast pieces, adding the smallest ones last.
4. Let it fry until it’s lightly browned on the bottom, about 4 minutes, turn, and brown the second side. Reduce the heat to medium-low (325 degrees) and then carefully spoon all but about 1/8 inch of the fat into a heatproof container. Make a space at the center and standing clear, carefully pour in about ¼ cup of water. Immediately cover the pan and cook, turning the chicken once more, until it’s cooked through, about 20 minutes longer.
5. Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium high, and if needed, add a little of the fat back to the pan. Cook, turning once more until the chicken is crisp, about 2-5 minutes longer. Reduce the heat to medium low and lift each piece of chicken, beginning with the breast pieces, and let it drain over the pan, then transfer it to the prepared wire rack. Let it drain for a couple of minutes before transferring it to a serving platter.
6. Spoon or pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat, return the pan to the heat, and sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of flour. Using a flat whisk or wooden spoon, stir until its smooth and lightly browned. Slowly whisk or stir in the milk, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any cooking residue. Bring it to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens. Reduce the heat to low, season it well with salt and pepper, and let it simmer 4-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and pour the gravy into a heated sauce boat.