“On fair day my mother would always get up at four o’clock in the morning to fry chicken to take along,” my grandmother mused as we drove along looking for the best parking deal. “She’d pack up a picnic and we’d sit on the hillside and eat.” During the Depression, she explained, outbreaks of food sickness at the fair were common and it was easier to kill a chicken in your backyard and fry it up than spend what little money there was on a hot dog that might make you sick. Today all food vendors at the fair are overseen by the Illinois Department of Public Health, whose inspectors are out at the fair daily checking refrigeration temperatures, sanitation procedures and making sure that food has been stored and cooked properly. Thankfully food-borne illnesses are not the problem they used to be.

We settled on a shaded yard and parked, then began the process of extracting children and strollers from the car. As we made our way under the timeless arches of the main gate, past the towering statue of Lincoln and Giant Slide, I took great pleasure in seeing my own nostalgia mirrored in my kids’ eyes. My grandmother’s people were Fair People, and when I was a kid it was not unusual for us to go every single day it was open.

Over the years the family traditions have evolved. We don’t go to the fair every day anymore and I definitely don’t get up at four in the morning to fry chicken, but I do still have a deep affection for the uniquely American, slightly gauche exhibition that is the Illinois State Fair. And while I don’t get too excited about deep-fried whatever on a stick, there are some fair foods that I certainly look forward to.

Our first stop on opening day is always a honey ice cream from the Illinois Beekeepers Association booth in the Illinois Building, before making our way over to the ethnic village for spicy Indian curry and Jamaican jerk chicken. Next on the list is Cullers French Fries, which has been cranking out freshly cut and fried spuds doused with malt vinegar since 1945. Following that we usually go milk the cow, and everyone both young and old gets a carton of chocolate milk, thick and high-fructose corn syrupy and delicious. From there we make our way to Conservation World to catch the lumberjack show and munch on Pioneer Kettle Corn, washed down with a jug of Bud’s homemade root beer.

After several hours of sweat and humanity and sugared-up children I’ve had enough and am ready to go, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. “I came to the fair for 10 hours every day when I was eight months pregnant with your mother and never got tired,” she reminds me. “We’ll come back again later this week,” I say. “And how about some fried chicken for supper tomorrow?”

“Well that’ll be fine,” she concedes with a smile.

Grandma’s fried chicken

This is not the crunchy, thick-battered buttermilk brined variety of fried chicken. That preparation, while delicious, does not travel well because the breading gets soggy and sad. This recipe, with its light dusting of flour is perfect in a picnic basket. Make sure to use a chicken no larger than four pounds. Larger pieces of chicken will take too long to cook all the way through and will become tough.

1 three- to four-pound chicken, cut into 8 or 10 pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
All-purpose flour
2 quarts unhydrogenated lard, preferred (available from Humphrey’s market or Triple S Farms), or canola/ peanut oil

Salt and pepper chicken pieces to taste at least 30 minutes before you plan to fry. If you have time, arrange the seasoned chicken on a rack on top of a baking sheet to catch any drips, then refrigerate, uncovered, overnight. This will allow the salt to permeate the meat and help dry out the skin, which makes for extra-crispy fried chicken.

When you’re ready to fry, heat a large, deep, preferably cast iron skillet over medium heat. If you have a portable burner I highly recommend doing this outside – it makes the whole process much less messy. Heat the oil to 350 degrees (check the temperature with a candy or frying thermometer).

Place a cup or so of flour in a paper bag, then add a few pieces of chicken and shake vigorously to coat. Place chicken pieces in the skillet and fry on medium heat until one side is golden brown. You want to maintain an oil temperature of 325 degrees while the chicken is frying. Turn the pieces over and brown the other side until the chicken is no longer pink inside and its juices run clear. Internal temperature should reach 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. Drain the chicken on paper towels. If your chicken pieces are on the larger side, consider finishing them in a 350-degree oven until they are cooked through. 

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