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Fried Chicken: A Love Story

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Virginia and Meme – photo credit Terry Allen

I’ve been cooking as a professional for a little over 15 years, but my passion actually started when I wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter in my grandmother’s country kitchen. I called her Meme and she was the light of my life. My mother now lives in her home, the simple country house my grandfather hand-built over 60 years ago. The kitchen hasn’t really changed much. There never has been enough space for everything. The light still hums. Her recipes still are posted on the inside of the cabinet, some written directly on the wood. Her worn wooden-handled turning fork still hangs from the cabinet and her skillets and pans still hang on nails behind the door propped open with the same antique solid cast iron pressing iron.

Early Years

She and I spent hours together in the kitchen. There are photos of me as young as 3 years old standing on a stool “helping”. I remember we’d roll out the biscuits and she’d let me make a handprint with the scraps of dough. The tiny fingers on my handprint biscuit would cook very dark in the heat of the oven, taking on a slightly bitter almost nutty taste. I know that’s where my love for cooking took root, working at her side on her linoleum countertop in the gentle breeze of the oscillating fan.

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Old-Fashioned Southern Cooking

Oh, she could cook. Her pound cake was legendary. She’d wake in the early morning before the heat of the day and prepare fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned butterbeans, creamed corn, okra and tomatoes. Fried chicken would be my hands-down choice for my last supper if I were “on the way to the chair”. Meme knew how much I loved it and spoiled me. When I lived far away and flew home to visit, it didn’t matter what time of the day or night I arrived—2:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m.—she would be at the stove frying chicken to welcome me home. I was undeniably spoiled absolutely, positively rotten.

The Last Word

My grandfather adored her and called her his better half. She would literally make the man take his shirt off so she could wash it. That never made a lick of sense to me. She wasn’t exactly a twinkling eyed docile grandmother. She was formidable – a veritable force of nature. Before I was born, I was told she got tired of driving into town to go to church. Not going to church wasn’t an option. So, she had my grandfather donate the land and build a little country church.She would start on something and wouldn’t stop until her will was met. He’d mumble quietly under his breath, “Lawd, have mercy” but he would have moved a mountain range for her. My grandfather with his blue eyes twinkling said he always got the “last word”, and they were, “Yes, beloved.”

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RV Life

For as long as I can remember, they had a motor home, a camper. They drove as far South as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the far end of the Alaska Highway. I was able to take several long trips with them when I was young. She had an even smaller kitchen, but she would still fry me chicken and we would stop at farmstands for fresh produce. Dede and I would hike and walk in the woods often bringing her buckets of wild berries and she would make cobbler.

Once the three of us drove north, through Detroit into Canada, east to Nova Scotia, and caught the ferry to Newfoundland. Not a small trip. To familiarize you with the roads of Newfoundland, imagine a squiggly horseshoe starting on one end of the island that zigzags and meanders to the other side. We were about halfway across the island when Meme looked at my Grandfather and said, “Sam, pull over in that gas station and turn around, I’m ready to go home.” He did, and we did.

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Cancer

The very last time I saw my grandmother was on Mother’s Day. She had a sore throat, went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer. She was 91 and quickly conceded defeat when she heard that ugly word. I thought my heart would break. I never knew anything could hurt so badly – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was living in New York and would fly home at least every other weekend to see her. When I returned to that simple country kitchen, our tables were turned, and I cooked for her. It was not fried chicken that I prepared, but soft, rich custards and creamy desserts that she loved.

The very cruel irony is that the cause of death listed on Meme’s death certificate is actually starvation, not cancer. The tumor prevented her from swallowing. A feeding tube would have been an inviolate injustice. Years later and there’s still hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. To this day, the smell of chicken frying reaches into my soul. I often wish I could show her a copy of my cookbook and I so wish I could be in the kitchen with her just one more time.

Happy Mother’s Day, Meme.
Love you always.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Virginia Willis

 

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Please note that this post may contain affiliate links. (That means I make a commission if you use my affiliate link to buy the product.)

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has made chocolate chip cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and beguiled celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, and Julie Chrisley with her cooking -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Virginia is a chef instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen and author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network's Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of "Seven Food Writers You Need to Know." Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and follow her traveling exploits at www.virginiawillis.com.

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