My mother had a photo album – with black pages and adhesive corners – filled with photos from her childhood. I loved to go through it, staring hard at the photographs to try and piece together a story about her life, and the photo above was a great favorite of mine because I found in it some vague resemblance between her face and my own (I don’t look much like either of my parents, but I never gave up trying).
Upon reflection, I think I may have lacked some of her poise. That’s me and my dad up on our roof in Brooklyn circa 1982.
However, I chose that photo of my mother not to illustrate that the only thing I inherited from her was her teeth, but to show that this is a woman who has always enjoyed a good piece of fried chicken. One of her favorite birthday treats was to go to KFC or Popeye’s for a messy meal of fried chicken that would end with scrunched up paper napkins strewn across the table and a tray stacked with bones. But the best fried chicken of all was her sister’s, and we used to try and make it at least once a year.
Fast forward to a few weeks back, when we culled two chickens. They were young, so much so that their skin was fragile and ripped if we weren’t gentle as we plucked. I began to think out loud about how nicely they would roast – we rarely roast our chickens, as we tend to kill them on the older side, when they’ve had an athletic, outdoorsy life that leaves them muscular (i.e. tough) and with unappealing, thick skin. “You could fry them,” Ali offered.
It was like fireworks going off in my head; I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d fried a chicken. From that point on, plucking was a breeze, gutting, butchering, all no problem – there was fried chicken in my future. Time to summon the Recipe.
The Recipe lives in this box. It’s from roughly the same time as that photo of me and my dad, hence the stickers.
Because the recipe is my aunt’s, it’s on the vague side. Probably every family has an ultimate culinary authority and in our family, it was definitely my aunt. And like most ultimate culinary authorities, she appeared to rely very little on recipes, at least where the dishes from my mother’s childhood were concerned. (Cookie recipes were very precise.) This is probably why her directions and measurements were so skimpy on the details – she really did just put a little bit of this and a little bit of that in. My favorite recipe of hers for pigs’ feet – a dish that I loved so much that she made it (along with her famous fried chicken) every time I went to visit her. They are cooked in black vinegar, and my uncle had to leave the house while they were on the stove because he couldn’t breathe from the fumes. Despite this, once they are well cooked, the dish is sweet, sticky, and gingery. Her recipe reads: pigs’ feet, sweet black vinegar, ginger, slab sugar.
Here is the recipe for her fried chicken. (Her name, by the way, wasn’t Ga – that’s “elder sister” in Cantonese. Her name was On-Ye but I never actually heard anyone call her that. I called her Auntie Ga – not logical, maybe, but it worked for us.)
Frying chicken is a pain, but my mom had a handy shortcut – she would fry the chicken until it was brown and crunchy on the outside and then finish cooking it in the oven (I use my instant read thermometer to figure out when they’re cooked inside). Also, a cast iron pan is a great help as it retains heat well and keeps the oil nice and hot provided that you do not put too many pieces of chicken in at once. And I like to fry chicken in schmaltz if I have it handy, although it feels slightly vindictive.
When we eat fried chicken, we also make coleslaw and there’s a recipe for that too. It goes like this: cabbage, mayo, cider vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar to taste. My mother always made it ahead of time so the flavors could meld and really get into the cabbage. Plus, she loved her coleslaw very cold. I never think that far ahead, so my compromise is risk my fingertips and use the mandoline to slice the cabbage nice and thin. I toss everything in a ziplock bag, squish it around, and stick it in the fridge until it’s time to eat. I go heavy on the pepper and vinegar, but that’s just me.
Everyone was hungry that night, so there was dead silence around the table as teeth tore into that fried chicken. I always think that the less talk there is around the table when the eating begins, the better the food must be, so I chalked it up as a success.