The delectable smell of frying chicken got me out of bed early every Fourth of July. Well, that and the M-80 firecracker (made to simulate artillery fire) my mild-mannered grandmother threw outside first thing in the morning. The Fourth was a big deal. My family hosted an annual picnic for at least a hundred friends, relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends, etc. It was a potluck picnic but my mother and grandmother were taking no chances there wouldn’t be enough food. Besides, everybody knew they were the best cooks. Sure, there’d be Aunt Mary’s tasty Zu-Beefy casserole and her excellent potato salad. But there were sure to be a few dubious dishes from less talented cooks. So Mom and Nana prepared pans of macaroni and cheese, dozens of devilled eggs, a giant pot of long-simmered green beans with bacon and onion, baked beans, slaw and pies. And of course, big platters of fried chicken.
As soon as light dawned, Mom started frying. She’d set up a worktable outside our back door, plug in a couple of electric skillets and get to work. Next door, Nana might be frying more chicken, chopping onions and bacon for the green beans or making pies. At least one would be her favorite, a simple custard pie. If the season was right, my grandfather, Papa, might be out in the field pulling the first-of-the-season corn. If not, he could be helping Nana snap beans or involved in myriad other tasks. My dad, having manicured the lawns the day before, would be stringing lights in trees, tacking up bunting and setting out picnic tables and chairs.
And me? I was everybody’s all-purpose helper and runner of messages and supplies. But my primary purpose (as far as I was concerned) was to get everything ready for my thrill ride. As an only child in the country with no near neighbors, the Fourth of July was the one day a year when hordes of kids were around. I’d been driving our riding lawn tractor/mower since I could reach the pedals. It had an attachable wagon for hauling stuff. I’d load it up body-to-body with kids and take them, screaming excitedly, for a fast ride over bumpy fields and lanes. Seems pretty tame now, but back then even the farm kids loved it and I was in charge.
The festivities supposedly commenced at noon, but a few regulars always came early. I thought then (and still do) it was rude to come when we were frantically trying to finish preparations but the first guests were always Aunt Maddie and Uncle Walter, whom I loved dearly.
At noon, the morning’s hustle-bustle instantly evaporated. We did little more than greet guests and set out the food. When all – or almost all – had come, Uncle Walter gave the blessing and feasting began.
Afterwards, perishables were put away but would reappear throughout the day. Papa and his buddies would start a card game; everyone else settled in for the afternoon. I was forbidden to start my thrill rides for a couple hours; afterwards their frequency depended on demand and my patience.
At some point in the afternoon, the big, wooden ice cream maker made its appearance. In later years its hand-crank would be replaced by a motor, which was less work but also less fun. We were ice cream purists: vanilla was the only option. Berries, chocolate syrup, etc. could be toppings, but the only the simplicity of freshly churned yellow top cream, eggs, sugar and vanilla could truly showcase phenomenal ice cream.
As the day wore on anticipation grew, and not just for the kids. Even now, whenever I watch midsummer skies grow darker, I inevitably note the time when it’s dark enough. Dark enough, that is, to begin setting off fireworks. Having our own fireworks was deeply ingrained into my family’s DNA. Nana’s father sold fireworks at his saloon-turned-store after Prohibition but he inevitably lost money on them. The neighborhood children knew that he’d not only ignite any leftovers but also let them help.
Those giant fireworks displays? We’d see several off in the distance. But I associated them more with the then-nightly shows at the State Fair. But nothing compares to fireworks up close and personal. Yes, I know they can be dangerous. But my childhood’s Fourth of July fireworks – some quite large – were strictly adult-supervised; as far as I remember, no one was ever hurt. The evening ended with sparklers – also strictly supervised – making magical twinkling designs as we twirled and swirled.
Mom and Nana’s fried chicken was simply dredged in seasoned flour and pan-fried – and absolutely delicious, primarily because of the quality of the chicken itself (raised either by us or farmer friends) and the frying medium: lard. Until recently, lard has gotten a bad rap but experts now know that unhydrogenated (aka not chemically altered) lard not only isn’t harmful, it even has health benefits. And it adds incomparable texture and flavor to fried chicken. As Pete Wells stated in his December 2005 article in Food and Wine magazine, “Lard, The New Health Food”: “After hanging out in your mouth for a minute, a lard-fried crust becomes soft and creamy, as voluptuous as a Rubens nude but not as heavy…. Lard is the most elegant fat I’ve ever met.”
Lard is available in most grocery stores but it’s almost always the creepy hydrogenated/chemically altered version that’s unrefrigerated and packed in one-pound boxes similar to butter. Good lard – unhydrogenated aka open kettle-rendered lard – can be found locally at Humphrey’s Market, 1821 S. 15th St., 544-7518, and at Stan Schutte’s stand at the Old State Capitol Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays. It’s best to call Schutte at 895-3652 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to make sure he’s brought some to the market.
I “guild the lily” of my ancestral fried chicken by soaking it in the buttermilk, onion, garlic and herb brine below. Either way, taking the time to source good lard will provide a payoff of the best fried chicken ever.
My fried chicken
• 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 lb. chicken pieces, either a whole chicken cut up or all one part (such as wings) or a combination
• 2 c. buttermilk
• 2 T. kosher or sea salt (do not use regular table salt for brining)
• 2 c. onion, sliced thinly or chopped, or 1 T. minced garlic, or half of each
• 1/4 c. minced fresh sage, rosemary, marjoram, or thyme singly or in combination, optional
• 2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1 T. freshly ground black pepper or to taste
• Unhydrogenated lard, preferred, or vegetable oil, such as canola, or a combination for frying.
Put the buttermilk, salt, onion and/or garlic (and herbs) into a large resealable plastic bag. Close the bag and gently shake until the salt dissolves. Add the chicken pieces, squish out as much air as possible, seal and refrigerate the chicken for 4 hours, turning occasionally.
Place the flour and pepper in a large paper bag, fold over the top and shake to combine.
In a large deep pan or skillet, add the lard to a depth of 1 ½- to 2-inches. Make sure the pan is at least twice as deep as the oil. Heat to 375 F.
Add chicken pieces (it’s best to do white meat and dark meat in separate batches) to the bag, close and shake to coat the chicken. Tap each piece against the inside of the bag, shaking off excess flour. Lower carefully into the hot fat.
Put as many pieces of chicken into the pan as will fit comfortably; do not crowd them.
Fry the chicken, turning as needed, until the juices run clear when pierced with the tip of a knife. White meat should take about 10–12 minutes; dark meat about 15–20 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.