Menu: Local Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Cornbread, Boiled Corn with Lime Butter, Green Salad, Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwiches with French Vanilla Ice Cream, Sangria
Local ingredients: French Label Rouge chicken (Pollo Real), salad greens, radishes, honey
A few years ago I stumbled upon a diary I had penned at the end of high school. If you want to feel utterly embarrassed for yourself, read a diary that you penned at the end of high school. Tucked in its folds was a list I had created during my senior year, something akin to a young adult’s version of a “bucket list:”
I WANT (underlined in squiggles)
To be happy
To fall in love with someone who appreciates me
To sing all of my life
To be a professional actor
To go to a college that will make me happy
To have a ½ bathtub for a couch
To spend Thanksgiving in New York
To have atleast one expensive dress once
To have a Christmas tree full of tin ornaments
Reading through this list now, I am struck by both the enormity and the quietness of the things my 17-year-old self thought might make her happy as she raced toward adulthood. Since I wrote those words half a lifetime ago, I’ve discovered that it’s usually too difficult to go directly after the big fish (who doesn’t, after all, want “to be happy?”). Often, you make your way towards the big things through the small things.
When I started this project to bring my family back to the table through weekly dinners nearly six months ago, a single iconic vision came to mind. It involved a heaping platter of crispy fried chicken. I didn’t grow up in the south, and I don’t recall my mother ever once making fried chicken. I can only imagine that this dream materialized from watching way too many movies that featured a sprawling family sitting down for supper under an ancient shade tree after church, a tableau that couldn’t have been further from my reality. (We were a three-person family from the suburbs of Seattle that rarely attended church services). But much like the esoteric dream of having a sheared-off bathtub for a couch, there was something ineffable that led me to believe that serving fried chicken to my family was going to make me immensely happy.
My friend, Tim, gifted me a copy of Ad Hoc, a beautiful cookbook of family-style recipes from Thomas Keller of The French Laundry fame, for my birthday a few weeks ago. As I flipped through the book my eyes immediately landed upon a photo of Buttermilk Fried Chicken. Although the recipe called for two steps that immediately intimidated me – cutting a whole chicken into pieces and then frying them – I was so enamored with the idea of fried chicken being intimately connected to The Sunday Dinner that I placed my fears aside and began planning a menu.
Preparing the chicken turned into a three-day affair. A Saturday visit to the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market yielded a beautiful three-pound French Label Rouge chicken from Pollo Real, a rare treat. On Sunday I invested in a pair of poultry shears, and after Abra went to bed Maikael and I wrestled the whole chicken to the kitchen counter and began cutting it into pieces. Having never done this before it took us a solid 30 minutes of making nervous, tentative cuts and pouring over the accompanying instruction photos, but in the end it was gratifying to have become familiar with the chicken in a whole new way and conquer a fear in the process. Then I prepared the brine, a slew of fresh herbs, lemons, and the better part of a box of kosher salt, placing the chicken in the salty bath for an overnight soak.
On Memorial Day afternoon, Tim arrived with the side dishes, drinks, and dessert: corn bread, ears of corn to roast on the grill, sangria and homemade French vanilla ice cream sandwiched between fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. He also brought jewel-like bowls of raspberries and blueberries to snack on, which Abra promptly devoured as the adults sipped sangria on the patio. While Tim threw the corn on the grill I heated a giant Dutch oven filled with oil and battered the chicken; when the oil heated to temperature I took a deep breath and began the process of frying a few pieces at a time. It was a time-consuming process, but not difficult, and like so many things in life I wondered what I had been afraid of all these years. The gas sputtered out on the grill, so we quickly rallied and plunged the corn in boiling water, a fine vehicle for the lime-flecked butter that Tim had prepared.
It was a stunning, halcyon evening, the blue sky stretched overhead like an unblemished canvas, and Tim and Maikael scrambled to get the patio table set while I finished the chicken. I stacked the perfectly golden pieces on a round platter, beaming with pride at the culmination of three days of work. I settled in at the table, piled high with good, fresh food, and bit into the piping-hot chicken, the light, crispy coating giving way to perfectly juicy, fragrant meat, the brine having rendered an herby bouquet. I’m not sure if it was three days of work and anticipation, but it was the best fried chicken I’d ever tasted. “This is how fried chicken should taste,” I boldly declared, and every dish that followed was equally stunning, so much so that I could barely wipe the grin off my face.
I paused for a moment, taking in the scene, and was overcome with an unexpected wave of happiness. Maikael and Tim were laughing. Abra was babbling contentedly in her booster seat. In that fleeting moment everything seemed right with the world. Despite my best efforts to keep my expectations in check at the start of this project, this is exactly how I had always imagined The Sunday Dinner unfolding. Although it wasn’t the movie version, I had somehow managed to create my own, unique kind of a fried chicken supper, one built around family and friends, good food, lively conversation, and laughter. It’s taken me half a lifetime to figure out what a naïve teenager seemed to intuitively know: these small, humble moments add up to one, big happy life.
Elizabeth Grant Thomas writes regularly at her site, elizabethgrantthomas.com, and can be found here every other Tuesday chronicling her family’s journey “back to the table.”