Friday, October 14, 2011

Mrs. Johnson's fried chicken recipe, and a slightly ribald tale about the Marines

Three posts ago, I ended my apology to a community theater actress with the promise of Mrs. Johnson’s fried chicken recipe. I won’t go into why the young thespian deserves a mea culpa from me; you can read the post if you’re interested. But I'll briefly offer some Mrs. Johnson anecdotes as an appetizer before sharing her smack-your-lips-double-time fried chicken formula.

In 1981, I rented a spare bedroom in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., from Mrs. H.C. Johnson. After accepting a job as a reporter at the local newspaper, I needed a place in town to stay for a month or two. Mrs. Johnson, to whom I’d been connected by her daughter, had never rented her spare bedroom before, which became obvious quickly.

During our first meeting, I asked her how much rent she wanted. She thought for a moment and hesitantly suggested $25.00. “A week?” I asked.

“Gracious no,” she replied. “A month.”

Astonished, I explained that $25 a month was way too low. This was perhaps the only time in my life when I attempted to negotiate to pay more money for something. Mrs. Johnson declined my offer and said $25 a month would suit her just fine.

Mrs. Johnson in the kitchen (1981)
I soon realized it wasn’t money Mrs. Johnson wanted; it was companionship. When I ventured into her pink-tile bathroom, looking for a place to store my toiletries, I discovered her late husband’s shaving cream and razor still in the medicine cabinet. I never touched them during my stay; neither did she.

I had a few reservations about living in Mrs. Johnson’s home, to be honest. The first was that she wouldn’t allow me to keep alcohol in the house. The second was that her home lacked central air conditioning, there was no window unit in my room, and it was nearly June.

In a rare wise move, I decided to ignore my reservations and move in. It was an investment that continues to pay dividends.

And Banana Pudding, to Boot

Almost right away, Mrs. Johnson cooked dinners for me, without my asking. Our first meal together was fried chicken, the best I’d ever had then and still among the best—moist, flavorful, not greasy, nice crunchy skin. She served it with homemade mashed potatoes, buttermilk biscuits from scratch, green beans, and—are you sitting down, fellow Southerners?—banana pudding. It was simple, delicious, Southern home cooking at its finest. Should I be condemned to the electric chair for crimes against nature, this would be the last meal I’d request. All I’d add would be a simple cocktail (a mojito with organic blueberries and an aged rum, perhaps) and, oh why not?, a mound of tater tots.

Over the course of the next two months, Mrs. Johnson and I enjoyed many meals together. She started each with a prayer. I can’t remember it in full, but it was always the same, and in it she asked the Lord to give us “grateful hearts for these and all thy blessings.” I was 23, and though the blessing was sincerely and humbly delivered, I didn’t fully appreciate it.

The Few, The Proud, The Murine

A quiet, reverent woman with a shy smile, Mrs. Johnson once told me an ever-so-slightly ribald tale. In her younger days, she worked as a clerk in a drug store, which if memory serves, her father owned. One day, a woman walked up to the counter where Mrs. Johnson was stationed with a co-worker. “May I help you?,” Mrs. Johnson inquired.

“Yep’m, I want me a Marine,” the customer replied.

Mrs. Johnson asked for clarification. “Yep’m, I want me a Marine,” came the unhelpful response.

At this point, Mrs. Johnson and her co-worker struggled to suppress their laughter. They ducked behind the counter, took deep breaths, and composed themselves.

Mrs. Johnson emerged and asked once more for further detail. The customer said it was a syringe she wanted. At last, Mrs. Johnson concluded that the woman wanted a bottle of Murine ear wax removal solution, which came with a syringe applicator.

When the customer departed, Mrs. Johnson turned to her colleague. “I knew the Marines were good,” she said, “but I didn’t know they were that good.”

After two months, I moved into a small apartment a few blocks away. I continued to have lunches and dinners with Mrs. Johnson, and I kept in touch with her until the end of her life. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but when she passed away in 1992, I went into a church, lit a candle, and gave thanks for our relationship. Mrs. Johnson had given me a grateful heart, after all.

Mrs. Johnson’s Fried Chicken Recipe

1. You need an electric skillet, preferably Teflon-coated. Mrs. Johnson swore by her electric skillet because the temperature is consistent throughout the pan and you can control it more easily.

2. You need a bunch of paper grocery bags, to put the chicken pieces on after removing them from the skillet. Thick paper bags are ideal because they absorb the grease well. 

3. Mrs. Johnson would soak a whole fryer chicken in salted water overnight in the refrigerator. Don’t go crazy with the salt; a few pinches should do it.

4. When it came time to cook, Mrs. Johnson would cut the chicken into small pieces and pat them dry. Smaller pieces tend to retain their moisture and don’t get as greasy as bigger pieces. If you’re just cooking breasts, cut the breasts into two or three small pieces. And if you want to be a tad health-conscious, remove the skin from the breasts and thighs. I promise, you won’t even miss it. 

5. Coat each piece of chicken in flour and seasoning. Mrs. Johnson didn’t use much beyond a little salt, pepper, and paprika. To paraphrase the late great Cajun chef Justin Wilson, I’ve gotten a little smart-alecky and substituted some seasonings. I prefer garlic salt, lemon pepper, and Greek Spices from Old Towne restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Child, trust me on this: Old Towne’s spice mixture is so good, you’ll want to sprinkle it on your toothbrush. In addition to chicken, it’s excellent on potatoes, steaks, veal, and lamb. You can call and order a bottle to be shipped to you; 843-723-8170.

6. Turn the electric skillet to 350 degrees. Add enough Crisco to the skillet so that there’s about an inch of melted shortening. A little is all you need. 

7. When the oil is hot but not smoking, start adding your pieces to the skillet. I’ve never really timed the frying, and I don’t believe Mrs. Johnson paid too much mind to the clock, either. But after, say, 10 minutes, pick up a piece with tongs (to avoid piercing it) and look at the side that’s been face down in the skillet. If the color is a rich golden brown, turn it over. Avoid turning the chicken more than once.

8. If you like seasoning, gently add a little more during the cooking process, once per side.

9. When both sides are golden brown, remove the piece and place it on a paper bag. Let it cool for a few minutes and move it to another dry spot on the bag.

10. Light the candles, pour the wine, pile up the plates with chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and biscuits, turn on Diana Krall or Pink Martini, and chow down. Don’t forget the banana pudding.

11. Should there be leftover chicken, don’t wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator. You’ll only make it greasy and cold. Just store the chicken on a plate overnight, in a cupboard (unless you have a bug problem.) This step has often raised eyebrows, but I’ve been doing this for years and never had a problem. Plus, you’d be surprised and delighted by how delicious a piece of room-temperature fried chicken is for breakfast. 

ADDENDA:

A reader of this blog, Cali, posted the following comment. I wanted to make sure everyone who reads the recipe sees it. It's great advice:

"As a former chef, fried chicken is easy, but GOOD fried chicken isn't so easy. A big part of what makes this one (or any fried chicken) so good is that she used shortening to fry the chicken, not vegetable oil. And now that most shortenings are trans-fat-free, it's not even going to hurt your arteries, much. The small pieces make a difference, too. You can cook them at a higher temperature which allows them to brown quickly, seal in the juices and get them out quickly so they stay juicy. One thing, if you season the chicken and then dredge it in flour, your chicken will be tastier as your seasoning will stay on the chicken and not be thrown away in the excess flour.

If you want to really go over the top and you have a place where you can buy freshly rendered lard, try it with lard. That makes for some really tasty fried chicken. Just avoid that stuff in the little box or plastic tub at the grocery store. It's hydrogenated and really not good for you.

Of course, you could render your own lard if you are feeling really ambitious, but it's pretty involved. However, you do get some lovely cracklin's as a bonus! (Lard also makes awesome pie crust and biscuits! Banana cream pie instead of pudding, anyone?)"



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12 comments:

  1. Oh wow! I have been waiting for this recipe :) And love your comment about the Greek Spices from Old Towne. That's some amazing stuff - it takes any food to a higher level. Love it!
    By the way, any chance you have the banana pudding recipe?
    What a wonderful lady and I love your stories about her. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  2. No alcohol and no A/C? That must have been some awesome fried chicken....

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  3. Banana pudding (for days when it's too hot to turn on the stove, you only have half an hour, and you don't mind cheating):

    2 small boxes Jello instant vanilla pudding (no, NOT banana; trust me on this)
    1 small can Carnation sweetened condensed milk
    4 cups milk
    12-16 oz Cool Whip (depends on your taste)

    Mix all this together until it turns into pudding. You'll know.

    Slice up about 3 bananas into rounds. Cover the bottom of a trifle bowl with a single layer of Nilla Wafers, followed by a single layer of bananas. Cover with pudding. Continue in layers until you run out of everything. You can sprinkle the top with leftover Nilla Wafers. Just make sure you don't leave any bananas exposed cause they'll turn brown. Refrigerate for a couple hours and then serve.

    I do not allege that this recipe is better than the kind that my Grandmama made on the stove then topped with meringue. But it'll do in a pinch, and if you're serving it to non-Southerners, they'll never know the difference.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Negotiating to pay more money...How bizarre. I wish everyone would negotiate that way. How much for that? I'll pay you double, make that tripple!
    http://www.comicdaverusso.blogspot.com

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  5. Thank you for the fried chicken recipe, especially because fried chicken is a recurrent theme in your blogs! ;)

    Mrs. Johnson sounds like she was quite a woman; what a special relationship.

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  6. I think Mrs. Johnson is truly a heroine for all times.

    I'm thinking she would be very proud of you.

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  7. What a wonderful memory, so glad you shared it with us. As well as that recipe. I haven't had friend chicken in years! I can't believe it only coated with flour and seasonings, surely it's harder than that??? Maybe it's the paper bags that make the dish? I'll have to try that and see.

    ReplyDelete
  8. As a former chef, fried chicken is easy, but GOOD fried chicken isn't so easy. A big part of what makes this one (or any fried chicken) so good is that she used shortening to fry the chicken, not vegetable oil. And now that most shortenings are trans-fat-free, it's not even going to hurt your arteries, much. The small pieces make a difference, too. You can cook them at a higher temperature which allows them to brown quickly, seal in the juices and get them out quickly so they stay juicy. One thing, if you season the chicken and then dredge it in flour, your chicken will be tastier as your seasoning will stay on the chicken and not be thrown away in the excess flour.

    If you want to really go over the top and you have a place where you can buy freshly rendered lard, try it with lard. That makes for some really tasty fried chicken. Just avoid that stuff in the little box or plastic tub at the grocery store. It's hydrogenated and really not good for you.

    Of course, you could render your own lard if you are feeling really ambitious, but it's pretty involved. However, you do get some lovely cracklin's as a bonus! (Lard also makes awesome pie crust and biscuits! Banana cream pie instead of pudding, anyone?)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for the fried chicken recipe!!!! I am Australian and seen southern fried chicken many a time on tv and wanted to experience it. hopefully I can recreate it and do the recipe justice!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Ahhh...I understand now. She's not comming after you. Excellent fried chicken recipe - I'm going home and trying that.

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  11. It is obvious the gifts Mrs. Johnson gave you are much more than fried chicken recipes. How rich you are to have known her. How wonderful to read about what an impact she still has in your life today.

    Being a southern cook myself, I agree 100% with her marinading the bird in a brine, it is the first step IMHO you must take for the perfect fried chicken.

    Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete