by Kristi Willis
When I was a little girl, my mouth would start to water as soon as I heard the sound of my grandmother’s cast-iron skillet hit the burner. That signal meant one thing: It was time to make fried chicken.
On Sundays, my grandparents took turns in the kitchen. My grandfather Clay would make waffles for the grandkids and then turn over the kitchen to my grandmother Billy and her sister Rosie. The sisters would chat and laugh as they prepared the family dinner, maneuvering around each other in the modest kitchen.
Billy would put the skillet on the burner and spoon in Crisco until the bottom of the pitch-black pan was coated white. Rosie scooped flour and spices into a paper sack, then gingerly pulled the chicken out of its buttermilk soak, plopped it in the bag and gave it a good shake to coat it.
I watched from the kitchen table while I snapped beans or shelled peas—wanting to be part of the action, but knowing not to get underfoot. Every now and then, Grandmother Billy or Aunt Rosie would come over to check on me and slyly slip me an oatmeal raisin cookie, thinking the other didn’t see.
When the first piece of chicken hit the hot grease, I would pause and listen to the crackle of the batter as it started to form its crisp skin. When I got older, they would let me peer over the top of the frying pan, from a safe distance, and I could see the chicken as it slowly turned golden brown.
When the meal was served, my sister and I would beg for the drumsticks, and then impatiently wait for the prayer to end so that we could dig in. The first bite was always the best—crunchy skin and spicy juices followed by tender, moist chicken. It was heaven—and to this day, I’ve never had any chicken quite like it.
Fried chicken was our official celebration food; birthdays, anniversaries and visiting family all earned the highest honor with a fried chicken dinner accompanied by mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables from the garden. If you were really lucky, Grandmother made an angel food cake for dessert.
My grandmother passed when I was nine and Aunt Rosie made fried chicken for the family—a tradition she continued whenever she visited. She would lay down the platter in front of us, pat my grandfather or dad on the back and say, “This is from Billy.”
When Rosie passed, I was afraid I’d never taste that chicken again. I tried to find it in restaurants, but was always disappointed. The chicken would be good, but not exactly right. If it had the right crunch, it might not be moist enough; if it was moist, it wasn’t crunchy. Some chicken was too spicy and some not spicy enough. My efforts to recapture the perfect chicken of my childhood had me feeling a bit like Goldilocks.
I decided the only answer was to learn to make it myself. After all, I have one of my grandmother’s cast-iron skillets and I’m a pretty good cook. The problem was, there was no recipe—either my grandmother never wrote it down, or through a series of family shuffles, the recipe was lost.
I started interviewing family members for the secret—slowly piecing the recipe together from spotty and conflicting stories. My Aunt Pat swears that the key is coating the chicken in the paper bag and being sure to cover the chicken for part of the cooking so that it cooks through and stays moist. My mom insists that the buttermilk soak is critical, as is using a cast-iron skillet.
Watching the sisters cook together in a kitchen filled with love and laughter taught me the joy of sharing the kitchen with others. I think of them every time I put my cast-iron pan on the stove or bite into a piece of fried chicken. Even if I never get the recipe exactly right, I know they would have been proud that I tried.