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.
Even though I mean my request sincerely, I expect everyone to say no. Judy and Linda are busy managing Great-Aunt Nancy’s energy and reminding her to use her walker, and we’re only here a short while, and we’re out of time, really. What’s left of our month in the South is all about going up to the land that my grandmother and Nancy and all of us descendants somehow own—land in the mountains they are all from, land my great-grandfather, a Methodist preacher, grew up on, and by some grace held or bought again even though, as they say, “he didn’t have two dimes to scrape together.” But cousin Judy, whose ridiculously good birthday poundcake Great-Aunt Nancy just made for all the cousins who assembled, understands my request immediately. “Yes. You should learn to make chicken from Mama,” she tells me. “And you should take notes.”
After talk behind closed doors, Judy vetoes the idea of Nancy cooking an entire chicken dinner on account of the fact that if Nancy makes fried chicken for all of us she will also want to make the side dishes, which would be too much for an octogenarian with a walker and daily doses of morphine for her back. But now here at nine o’clock—after the drive home from the family land up in Ashe County (where my Appalachian ancestors scrabbled out a living, where my grandmother’s grandmother gathered herbs, where Judy now has a small cabin); after dinner in a Thai restaurant in a strip mall in Greensboro; after I’ve promised the family I’ll pack early in the morning; after my parents take my toddler home to bed—Nancy washes her hands and pulls out chicken she salted the night before. She’s used a mysterious and seemingly indefinable amount of salt. “Oh, a little more than a teaspoon, but not much,” she says, gesturing like she’s salting an invisible wing or thigh. “You know, just like that.”
The chicken has been in an aluminum bowl all night with saran wrap on it. “Four hours, overnight, doesn’t matter,” she says. She gets out the battered yellow Farberware electric skillet and plugs it in, reaching into the drawer for a butter knife she’ll prop beneath one of the old skillet’s legs to keep it from wobbling. “Well, I guess that’s one secret,” she says solemnly. “I use a butter knife to keep the skillet level.”
I have never once used or even considered owning an electric skillet.
While I watch, Nancy turns her skillet up to around 350°, sort of massaging the side. It is heating as she pulls the Crisco from under the sink.
I have also never once used or even considered using Crisco.
Still, I ask Nancy how much Crisco she uses, and she says, oh, a soup spoon, maybe two. She opens the blue can and lobs what looks like a whole tennis ball of the white stuff in. She does it again. The two balls melt quickly. As the fat becomes liquid she surveys the skillet somewhat sadly. She adds a third scoop “for good measure.”
“I’m going to leave it here in case I need a little more,” she says, tenderly patting the lid on the Crisco. “You could use oil,” she says, “but Alice taught me, and I sure like to do it the way Alice did.”
How long have you been making chicken? I ask her.
Since 1951, when I married, she tells me. “I was twenty. I didn’t like school or any of that.”
The Crisco is heating, hot. Nancy talks leisurely, reaching down into the cupboard where there’s a pink plastic canister of flour. Leaning against the formica counter next to the cow-shaped salt and pepper shakers, and the jar of lemon drops, I’m scratching notes in the notebook I compulsively carry. Nancy takes the flour and puts it in a bowl, and rolls the chicken in the flour. The flour has nothing in it; the recipe is only salted chicken covered in flour. No eggs, no spices. I am overwhelmed by the simplicity of what I am seeing. My task now seems impossible: How can I learn to make something so miraculous out of something so impossibly simple? The oil is wet now but not smoking. Nancy taps the pan with a knife. There are several tenders and two boneless breasts, and the pieces sizzle happily in the pan.
“This won’t be good,” Nancy warns me. “This isn’t going to be a good demonstration. I just don’t know how it will turn out. All the pieces should be the same size.” She taps the pan again and gently rolls in a generous fourth tennis ball of Crisco.
“I wish the pieces were even,” she says, looking somewhat mournfully at the mix of chicken she just happened to have in her freezer when I asked her to do this for me two days ago. She arches her eyebrows at me sweetly. “But you can’t have everything, not when you start at the spur of the moment.”
I want to hug Nancy. I feel terribly fond of her, suddenly. My grandmother used to scold me, sweetly, just the same way. Each of those sisters also used to apologize for the weather, for the mess, for the food. They’d start serving a cake or pie by saying “It’s just a flop,” a phrase used to dismiss anything just cooked by them, particularly and especially when it was extremely good.
Instead I laugh a minute and then say, “Thank you so much, Aunt Nancy, for having me here.” I am filled with incredible gratitude.
“Don’t you write that down,” she says.
“I love being here,” I say, writing it anyway.
Now the air smells like sweet, warm grease. The chicken is cooking. We sit a while at the kitchen table and I ask her how she met her husband and she tells me about how she met him when she was fifteen, and even though they didn’t marry until she was twenty he was really the only one who ever kept her interest, how he bought her a birthday cake one year, when they were going together, and then he got back from some military training—and that was just it. I stop writing. I lose track of the thread. I get a sense of abiding love.
I’m also worried suddenly about the time.
I think sixteen minutes have passed. This chicken is frying longer than I would sauté a chicken on the stove, but then again I don’t know anything about frying. “Don’t you add anything but the salt and the flour?” I ask.
“Eventually I add a little pepper.”
“Oh later,” she says, getting up to inspect the chicken, which she calls golden but not golden enough. She checks it again a few minutes later. Not yet.
Somehow without my noticing she’s turned the heat down.
“Nancy!” I say.
I’ve been warned that I have to watch her at this point. She turns the chicken when it’s a sort of turmeric-tan, then she’s up on her tiptoes in the spice cabinet. Her walker’s on the side of the kitchen. I should be getting up on the stepstool for her. But she won’t let me. It’s hard to know with eighty-something Southern ladies what they’ll want.
“I hope I have paprika,” she says. “It won’t be any good without the paprika. I meant to go to the store.”
Nancy was the baby, ten years younger than my grandmother. My grandmother was thirteen when Nancy got hit by a car on a mountain road where they all grew up. Nancy was three and she fell into a coma. They didn’t know if she’d wake up, and it went on for weeks. Finally when she did wake up, she asked for her daddy, who was away at a revival meeting, and they all went to get him. The story is Nancy recovered when he got back. The story is that the doctor who helped save her was paid with a chicken.
By now Nancy has found the paprika in the top cabinet, which she still reaches extremely gracefully. She sprinkles it loosely, as she flips the breast pieces in the electric skillet. I notice that she’s already flipped the smaller pieces. At what, twenty-five minutes? Oh, drat: I’m not keeping a very good record.
Nancy sits down again and I want to ask about when she was hit by a car and did it happen on the land we have now, but that’s not what Nancy wants to talk about. What Nancy wants to talk about is how hard it is now that she can’t drive, how she rode today with a neighbor who had an “iffy” sense of things, who probably shouldn’t have been driving either. “I was afraid she’d hit somebody!” she says.
“You remind me of Grandma so much,” I say.
“I be like Mary? You know I’m nothing like Mary,” she says. “Mary was so smart.” My grandmother would have said something equally self-deprecating. Whatever she said would have been a flop.
I end up saying something I would have said to my grandmother, who read a lot of poetry: that people didn’t think that Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg were much alike when they were young, but I was talking to an editor friend who said he thinks in many ways the poetry is the same. I’m fumbling, but Nancy’s watching me, kindly. She doesn’t say anything.
“I guess it’s just time and a voice,” I say. “It’s an era. You’re sisters.” I know Aunt Nancy does’t read much poetry, but I’m bumbling along. What I want to say is I love you, Aunt Nancy, for letting me hear my grandmother’s voice again. I love you for just being you.
It’s 9:45 now. The temperature on the fryer is turned down low, maybe 250°, and Nancy has flipped the chicken and added pepper and paprika.
Nancy will be moving soon. Her late husband built this very ranch house from scratch, despite having a full-time job. He worked through nights and weekends to put the formica counters in and the handles on the wood cabinets I was just writing on. It’s getting to be a lot for Nancy to keep it all up. She’s almost ready to go, although she’s not quite ready yet. Some of the cousins also talk about how it might get to be time to sell that ancestral land in Ashe County, even though I pray we don’t. I want that land to go on being our land, even though I live so far away now, even though I am really only a Southerner when I am here, eating Nancy’s pimento cheese. I am just going to ask Nancy something else about my grandmother when she pulls the chicken out of the fryer and puts it on some paper towels right in front of me. She offers me some milk.
“Are you going to taste it?” she asks.
It is ten at night when I take a first bite. The notebook goes to the side. My mouth fills with juices. It is salty. It is crisp. It is indescribably delicious.
Kitchen image via Shutterstock