Nothing makes a home-cooked meal like Southern fried chicken

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

The questions start almost as soon as the oil warms up in Yolanda Morgan’s kitchen at the Natchez Children’s Home.

“Is it done yet?” “What time is lunch?” Is there a fresh batch?”

Morgan, Natchez Children’s Home Food Service Manager, is used to the routine as lunchtime approaches on much anticipated fried chicken day.

But it isn’t the 3- and 4-year-olds that are nosing around the dining room, waiting for the buffet to fill up. It is the teachers, the office staff, the maintenance crew and volunteers that are standing, plate in hand, at the front of the lunch line.

“I announce every day that lunch is ready, but on fried chicken day that announcement is pointless,” Morgan said. “Everyone already knows it is ready. As soon as they start smelling it, they start coming in.”

Morgan said the response to fried chicken is unlike the response to any other dish she prepares at the Children’s Home, but she isn’t surprised.

“Fried chicken is just one of those foods that everyone likes, that everyone has a memory about,” she said.

Morgan prepares and serves meals for the Children’s Home preschoolers, residents and staff on a daily basis, but she said a different feel is in the air when fried chicken day rolls around.

“I can only do it about once a month because we have a menu that we have to follow,” Morgan said. “I think the people here would like it if I could do fried chicken every week.

“The adults are like kids on fried chicken days.”

Natchez Children’s Home Director Nancy Hungerford said when fried chicken is on the buffet a larger than normal lunch group tends to show up.

“We have a lot of volunteers that come in to do projects with us,” Hungerford said. “If they are here at lunchtime, we always feed them. Once they are here on fried chicken day, they are calling to find out when fried chicken is served again.”

Fried for family

For Adams County resident Ethel Sanderson, fried chicken was one of the first dishes she learned to cook for family and friends. She said if she was going to learn to cook, fried chicken was one of the dishes she wanted to master.

“It is just a good dish to serve a crowd,” Sanderson said. “No matter how many people show up, it is easy to make enough to feed them all.”

Sanderson said as a child fried chicken was a favorite meal to eat because of crispy breading and the tender meat.

“It was really the best of both worlds,” she said. “I think that is why so many people still like it.”

Morgan, too, associates fried chicken with family. She learned her crowd-pleasing recipe and technique from her great-grandfather when she was just 9 years old. She remembers standing in the kitchen, watching as her great-grandfather seasoned, breaded and fried chicken pieces for the traditional Sunday dinner.

The secret she said is seasoning the chicken pieces overnight with the exact spice blend that her great-grandfather used.

“(My great-grandfather) was a wise old man,” she said. “Not only in the kitchen, where he was a great cook of more than chicken, but just in life. I copy more than his fried chicken recipe.”

After the chicken has marinated overnight, Morgan seasons her flour with garlic powder, salt, pepper, paprika and a mixture of other spices. The chicken pieces are breaded and dropped into pre-heated oil. Then, Morgan said, all that’s left to do is wait.

“Each batch takes 10 minutes,” she said. “I’ve been doing this so long I’ve got a clock in my head that goes off in 10 minutes.”

But just in case her clock is a little off one day, Morgan said all she has to do it watch the leg pieces to know when the entire batch it done.

“(The legs) take the longest to cook, but they start to float when they are done,” she said. “The little end pieces start poking out, kind of like they are raising their hand saying ‘Pick me, pick me.’”

Morgan said what she learned to be the most important tool in the kitchen can’t be found in the refrigerator or freezer and isn’t tucked away in a cabinet or drawer.

“You’ve got to have a passion for whatever you are cooking,” she said. “People can taste the love you put into food as much as they can the seasonings.

“That’s what sets fried chicken apart, because it was a food cooked for special occasions and when you eat it now, you remember those times.”

Fried for sale

When Bingo Starr took over as chef at The Carriage House Restaurant in 2009 there was one thing that was off limits for his culinary creativity.

Starr knew better than to change the restaurant’s famous fried chicken recipe. He doesn’t even want to think what life would be like if he tinkered with the “crispy, greasy goodness.”

“I wouldn’t touch it, wouldn’t be part of it all,” Starr said of the idea of revamping the recipe.

Starr said while Carriage House fried chicken is widely regarded as “the best around,” fried chicken in general is one of those dishes that transcends social, economic and racial barriers like few other things can.

“It may sound cliché but fried chicken is comfort food,” the New Orleans native said. “For me, fried chicken was Sunday dinner with the Saints game on.

“My grandmother made the milk gravy with the drippings, you know the stuff that could almost kill you (because) it is so good. Those are the type of memories I have of fried chicken.”

The Carriage House recipe has been basically the same for 40 years, and Starr said there isn’t much to it.

The key is in the chicken and fresh, trimmed chicken pieces are the only way to go. Next, Starr said, is bath time as the chicken pieces spend the night in cold water.

“I don’t know what it does to the chicken, but it does something good,” he said.

Next, to warm up, the chicken soaks in a mixture of hot sauce, salt and water.

Then a good coating of seasoned flour is applied and its time for the hot oil.

“Like we say in New Orleans, more simple, more better,” Starr said. “It is when you start adding things, that you start messing up fried chicken.”

But as simple as the recipe is, Starr said there is one thing that sets Carriage House chicken apart.

“It helps when you have two people that have been cooking it this way for 40 years,” he said. “They are the only people that touch the chicken.”

Whether it’s the simple recipe or the experienced cooks, the Rev. Steve Pearson said its works. Pearson of Natchez eats Carriage House fried chicken weekly at the Thursday Kiwanis Club meetings, but his fondness for the bird goes back further than his club membership.

“I like it because my mother fed it to me as a baby,” Pearson said. “Mama always cooked fried chicken on Sundays.”

He favors legs, but is a fan of all things chicken.

“I’ve never met a chicken I didn’t like,” he said. “It’s a southern thing.”

Pearson said the chicken at The Carriage House is “a very close second” to his mother’s.

Fried chicken is on the menu every day at The Carriage House, even the Sunday brunch buffet that changes from week to week.

“You couldn’t make me take it off the menu,” Starr said.