Tomorrow is Father’s Day and while I often brag about my mother and all of the wonderful cooking she did and the many things she taught me, I was lucky enough to have two talented influences in our home’s kitchen. Poor mom got stuck with the day-to-day slog in the kitchen, making sure we were fed nutritious meals, while dad got to provide special guest appearances. He had (and still has) a set repertoire of dishes: chilli, weinerschnitzel, chicken stack ups, German potato salad, and anything on the grill outside. From him I learned to painer anglaise (as I came to know it in culinary school), a fancy French term for breading something first in flour, then egg, then seasoned breadcrumbs. And I still make my fried eggs and bacon like he does for a weekend treat. But more than the food he made, I think it’s he who instilled in me the cultural adventure that food could be. He will and has tried everything on his many travels and when we’d go out to eat as children he’d encourage me and my sisters to try offal, caviar, oysters, calamari, anything that a kid from Midwest America might not ordinarily try. When he’d return from a trip he’d share stories about the exotic foods he’d eaten and what was good and what was not so much. I couldn’t wait to strike out on my own and eat my way through the world like he had.
One of my favorite meals that he used to fix us is his grandmother’s recipe for fried chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes and what he calls, Chatham green beans (meaning they’re cooked to death). I am lucky enough to have memories of my great grandma Ethel, a school teacher from Chatham, Illinois, just outside Springfield. She lived in a house her father had built, that smelt like old lady and violet perfume. My sisters and I used to play hide and seek in the creaky old attic, spying on the grownups downstairs through iron grates in the floors that allowed heat to travel from room to room. Well into her 90s she maintained an orderly and large vegetable garden next to her home, filled with tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans among other things that thrive in the humid heat of an Illinois summer. When we visited we ate at picnic tables outside, watermelon seed spitting contests while cicadas hummed and fireflies danced in purple evening light.
My father claims he remembers his grandmother once heading outside to chop the head off of one of her chickens that was to become Sunday lunch (much more humane than wringing its neck, she told him). I can’t say I ever witnessed this, but I do remember the smell of frying oil and her two deep cast-iron skillets on the stove with golden chicken bubbling away. My dad tells stories about spending every Sunday after church watching this woman who was so dear to him cook with ease for those she loved. He then brought that gift of a special meal to us. In our family recipe book, where he put down on paper what’s been in his head all these years, he writes, “In my memory the windows were always open with a soft, summer breeze fluttering the curtains. It’s Sunday, after church, of course, before which an apple pie had been baked for me.”
And while I could pimp up his recipe, have the chicken soak in buttermilk or add all sorts of spice, I’m going to share it like he does because it’s perfect the way it is and the taste of it brings me back to a time when things were much simpler and we had our family around us each summer. I miss those days and will scarf up this meal in memory of them. Must be served with mashed potatoes and green beans, and I like a plate of sliced tomatoes with a simple vinaigrette to freshen things up.
One whole chicken, jointed
Frying oil (he likes peanut, I used sunflower)
Flour, salt, pepper, and paprika to dredge it in
Whole milk for gravy
Mix together the flour and seasonings, using more salt and pepper than you think advisable because the chicken relies on this for its flavor. Dredge the chicken in the mixture and shake off any excess. Now heat at least a half inch of oil in your largest, heaviest pan with a lid. When the oil is shimmering hot, carefully place the chicken in it (my dad writes here that ‘tongs are a good idea’). Brown the chicken well on each side and then cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Watch the chicken carefully so as not to burn but it needs a good 20-25 minutes of cooking time. Remove the lid and allow to crisp up and cook another five minutes. Remove it from the pan and keep warm in a low oven.
Now for the gravy. Pour off all but about 1/4 cup of the oil from your pan and add about 1/4 cup of the flour left over from the chicken dredging to create a roux. Stir the flour well and let it cook for a couple of minutes, scraping off the bits stuck to the pan. Now add the milk, just a little at a time until the gravy is the consistency you want. Remember, you can always add more, hard to take it out. Taste for seasoning and add more if you’d like.