Finger Lickin' Good

Let's be honest with ourselves. More often the hot and tasty fried chicken we bite into has either gone cold, or was never tasty to begin with. Raise your hand if the last time you dug in the skin dissolved into a sludge of grit and oil.

If this were what fried chicken was supposed to taste like, no one in her right mind would make it, nor would anyone swoon over it, as Jane and Michael Stern did over what they called "the best fried chicken in the United States."

The chicken they describe, at Stroud's Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, sounds to me like the first fried chicken I ate. Was it really the first? Maybe not, but like my future encounters with avocados, cashews and bagels, I recall coming into contact with it and thinking, why haven't I been eating this all along? I was eight years old, and my mother and I were having Sunday lunch at the Beekman Arms, the oldest inn in America. I don't recall what made me order the fried chicken, only that I soon had before me a basket holding two pieces of chicken, a warm biscuit, and a ramekin of honey. What was the honey for?

"Whatever you want," said my mother, equivocating, I think, because she had no idea what it was for, never having made, or at least never having served me, fried chicken.

I picked up the first piece and bit through the skin, skin as thin as a tissue but crunchy, and then, what tasted like hot chicken water squirted into my mouth. Wow. I took another bite. I dipped it in honey. I told my mother, it was so delicious, we needed to eat this every day.

We did not. In fact, I did not again eat fried chicken until I was a thirteen, and tried Kentucky Fried Chicken - and loved it! Why hadn't I been eating this all along?

Thirty years later, I cannot say KFC is fried chicken's finest hour. That honor would go, first, to my best friend's mother, whose people are from Georgia, and who had me learn at her elbow what she considered to be "secret" of great fried chicken: Wesson oil. The seasoning could not be simpler, just flour, salt and pepper, thrown in a brown paper grocery bag in which you shake the chicken parts, and on which you later drain the fried chicken, rather than on a paper towel, whose weave traps air and thus "steams" the chicken, making the skin soggy. Oh, and salt, lots and lots of salt.

In this way, I fried some pretty good chicken, though it always took longer than I thought, sometimes 45 minutes for a pan of parts.

"You gotta use a cast iron pan," said my former sister-in-law, who had me cover the chicken while it was frying, which reduced the cooking time, and also, to turn the pieces with tongs. "The way you're doing it now, you're poking all the juices out with a fork," she said. Her tips made what was good fried chicken, pretty great.

Which got me thinking: how great could I go? I dug out a bunch of classic American cookbooks, looking for tips. My 1962 edition of the Joy of Cooking said... huh, it didn't say anything, as there was not one fried chicken recipe. The iconic New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne, himself a Southerner, had nine recipes for chicken livers, but none for fried chicken. Nika Hazelton's American Home Cookery recommended taking off the skin before frying, and Richard Perry's, The Good Home Cookbook, added ten spices to the flour, including ginger and cumin.

Perry also soaked in buttermilk; something I'd tried once and did not think worth the trouble.

"You don't soak it, you only coat it so the flour will stick," said Troy MacLarty, formerly of Chez Panisse and now chef of Lovely Hula Hands in Portland, Oregon. As for frying, his preference is peanut oil. "But you've got people with nut allergies, so, I use rice oil," he added, and that as far as great fried chicken, it's all in the technique.

Curious about that last part, I call Stroud's, and get manager Tammy Ruff on the line. I tell her, word is; her restaurant makes the best fried chicken in the country.

"That's what they tell us," says Ruff, who's been with Stroud's 17 years. So, how much chicken are they frying?

"Well, on Father's Day, we served 1300 chicken dinners," she says.

That's a lot of chicken. What's the secret?

"They fry in big cast iron skillets," says Ruff. "And we train them for a year, year and a half before they're allowed to cook."

A year and a half... do they burn a lot of chicken in that time? "I imagine they do," she says. As for oil, they use a combination of vegetable oils; as for the coating, it's no more than flour, salt and pepper.

Do the cook the chicken covered? "No, they do not," she says. "And I think that has something to do with the crispness."

Interesting. How about the chicken itself, anything special there?

"It's basically coming in fresh every day, so I'd say, freshness has something to do with it. But there's no secret, it's all in the technique," she says. "Are you coming to Kansas City anytime soon?"

Sigh. Not soon enough.

Until I Can Get to Stroud's Fried Chicken

1 chicken, cut into pieces

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

4 cups vegetable or peanut oil

Wash chicken parts and pat very dry

Place flour, salt and pepper in brown paper bag. Shake chicken parts and set on rack.

Pour oil into a large cast iron skillet; oil should be about 2-inches deep; and heat until a cube of bread browns quickly, about 370 degrees. Re-shake chicken pieces in flour, and place in pan; pieces should be crowded.

Cover pan, and fry until nicely browned and crisp on one side, about 20 minutes; turn pieces with tongs, and fry until the other side is browned.

Toss any remaining flour from bag, or use to make gravy.

With tongs, remove chicken pieces and lay on paper bag.

Sprinkle liberally with salt.