Good Fried Chicken
Seinfeld, NBC, 1989-1998
From Oxford American:
It is nine at night on my last day in the South before my great-aunt Nancy and I start making fried chicken. The whole thing came about this way: Suddenly, after eating Nancy’s cake for cousin Judy’s birthday, I was filled with unaccountable remembrance of how, years ago, almost as a kind of ritual, my grandmother used to tell me that if I wanted to make good fried chicken I should ask Nancy. “You mean Alice,” Nancy corrects when I ask her to tell me about chicken. “Everyone knows Alice’s was the best.”
Maybe they do in some parts. Nancy and Alice and Grandma were sisters. But I never knew Alice well, and she’s been dead a long time, and from what I remember, she might not have been the sort of person I’d approach on a whim to ask how to make fried chicken. But I do remember my grandmother telling me to ask Nancy. And so now, two years after my grandmother’s death, I’m here with Nancy in her fluorescent-lit ranch bungalow on Vickrey Chapel Road on my last day in Greensboro.
I’m headed back to California tomorrow. I have lived in California and Brooklyn and Boston, but except for a summer right after graduate school, I have never lived in the South. I am only a Southerner by means of having three of my four grandparents, and many aunts and uncles and cousins, rooted in the stretch between Richmond, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina; by way of hearing family accents and cadences and stories. I am only a Southerner by way of blood and lore. And Nancy, my grandmother’s baby sister, is the only one of six siblings well enough to hold the legends of her generation. She’s also the last one who can whip up perfect pimento cheese or a mouthwatering strawberry pie. In asking her to teach me some cooking, I’ve surprised myself by wanting some of her South in me, the way I surprise myself by finding a drawl with these cousins, by saying ya’ll and laughing on the porch with them, by the way I hanker for ham biscuits as soon as I am in their presence. I’ve surprised myself by suddenly having a real earnest deep and truthful desire to know the ways of chicken frying.
As this request wells up within me, it feels at once ancestral and strange. I don’t actually eat fried chicken, certainly not store- or restaurant-bought fried chicken. I live in California, for heaven’s sake. I live in Berkeley. I eat lean grilled proteins with a side of organic asparagus; wild-caught black cod with quinoa; tofu with soba noodles. When I don’t want to cook, I go out for salmon and crab sushi wrapped in Meyer lemon. But frying a chicken seems like an ancestral art, like knowing how to make a pie crust or a green tomato chutney, both of which I pride myself on knowing how to do. Here in my great-aunt’s house, here in Greensboro, I want to heed my grandmother’s injunction.