One of my earliest memories of my grandmother was of her gripping the handle of her gigantic cast iron skillet, almost as big as she was, and flipping a batch of corn bread high into the air with that easy way Southerners have of doing such things.
She babied that beloved cast iron skillet; it never saw a drop of soap in my entire life, simply a rinse under scalding hot water and then a rubbing of oil, which she smeared on with a soggy paper towel. That cast iron skillet was the secret behind so much of my grandma’s good, old-fashioned Southern cooking.
Her cornbread, white and dense on the inside, crispy brown from melted bacon drippings on the outside, never ever sweet, was utterly addictive. Especially when crumbled into her hours-long, vinegary collard greens. Or, like her paper thin, pan-fried pork chops, dusted in nothing more than a bit of flour and seared, again, in a big spoonful of bacon grease, which always sat in a Mason jar on the counter near the stove.
Us kids were in awe of all of grandma’s meals, in wonderment of the cold bowl of raw jalapeños always set on the table and how there was always homemade bread of some sort; doughy-white, buttery Parker House rolls or her famous, fluffy buttermilk biscuits she whipped up in less time than it would have taken to run to the store and buy. The whole thing was very unlike my mother’s ‘fancy’ continental food so popular at the time.
Nothing was more amazing to us kids than watching, and hopefully helping, grandma prepare a batch of her crunchy, crispy, wonderfully greasy pan fried chicken. I wish now that I had her recipe, but do believe that one probably ever existed. More than likely, she just watched wide-eyed like me, as her gramma made it. Into a big brown paper bag — the sort left from the gathering of groceries that day — would go a mixture of flour, salt, a few grindings of black pepper, and what she always called a ‘just a smidge’ of cayenne.
A few pieces of chicken would take their turn being shaken in that bag, the job us kids always bickered over most. The flour-coated chicken would then be gently plunked into that monstrous skillet where a few inches of glistening Crisco had melted and was shimmering with heat. And, that was it. Often, that chicken was made in the cool of a Florida Sunday morning, torturing us as we swam all day, sitting out on the countertop looking so yummy as we ran in and out of the frigid air conditioned house grabbing handfuls of Fig Newton’s from her bunny cookie jar, always hollering, “Is it suppertime yet?!”
Grandma’s fried chicken is easily one of my most cherished taste memories. It was always incredibly juicy, generously salted, the skin crackling and golden. Even as kids we knew it was something special, something delicious. No supermarket deli chicken or KFC ever came close to grandma’s version. A sticky jar of honey graced the table whenever fried chicken was served. We were taught at a very young age how to use one of those fun wooden honey spoons, twirling the honey around and around until it ceased to drip. I fought my cousins for the drumsticks and then dunked them in an outrageous amount of honey, gobbling obnoxiously like it was my last meal or something. That salty-fatty-greasy chicken and super sweet, syrupy honey combination will always remind me of grandma.
I couldn’t be happier that Southern fried chicken has finally made its way west. Good fried chicken has never been easier to find this side of the Mason Dixon. Fancy restaurants are even doing their version of the diner dish, using sophisticated methods such as brining or sous vide cooking, and often swapping simple chicken for more interesting game birds. A few local spots offer some pretty tasty fried chicken — hello Fremont Diner! — but in exciting news, one fledgling company is now offering their ‘authentic Southern cuisine’ to us bacon-hungry Wine Country residents. Drums & Crumbs is a new catering company and soon-to-be food truck specializing in fried chicken, biscuits, and other true Southern delicacies; all whipped up by co-owners Rachel Hundley and Arthur Chang. The two born and bred Southerners spent most of their careers toiling away in the corporate jungle back east; from suits and ties to denim and gingham. It certainly takes a whole lot of passion to leave a secure career and start your own business doing something so completely different, turning your absolute love of something, in this fried chicken, into your whole life. They’re obviously my kind of people.
I was thrilled to swap stories of our shared Deep South upbringing over a picnic this week of heaping platters of crisp fried chicken and golden-topped biscuits. An old-fashioned peach cobbler for dessert, just like the good Southerners we are. The chicken was much like grandma’s, each piece encased in a thin, floured crust, seasoned simply and fried until golden, the meat inside wonderfully juicy. The fluffy biscuits reminded me of diner breakfasts back home, typically split and doused with a white gravy speckled with spicy bits of ground sausage patty. Rachel’s peach cobbler, baked in a charming fluted dish, could have been served at any one of the dozens of church potlucks I attended during my most Southern North Carolina years.
It is funny when I meet fellow Southerners. There is this unspoken sort of understanding when it comes to food, to meals. That mostly, a good meal is about the family and friends you have around the table with you and the ingredients you start out with; fresh corn, in-season peaches, and anything — anything! — is always better fried. Or, served with bacon. I am counting the days until the Drums & Crumbs team gets their food truck. If their Kickstarter campaign is a success, it won’t be long! A fried chicken truck? Grandma would be really proud.
Find more information about what events in and around Sonoma you can sample Drums & Crumbs’ fun Southern fare or for information about hiring them for your next event on their website at drumsandcrumbs.com or by emailing [email protected]
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at [email protected]