We stood in line on the sidewalk for an hour. “It’s worth it”, everyone said. The kitchen exhaust teased us with aromas of things savory and spicy. An hour is longer than I usually want to wait for a table at a restaurant, but it was a pleasant springtime evening in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, and the crowd was cheerful.
Every few minutes the line moved forward by two, four or six as earlier diners exited. They looked full and happy. We asked them again and they verified, “yes, it’s worth the wait.”
Willie Mae’s Scotch House doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a place with good food. It began as a tavern and barbershop, morphed into a restaurant, and became not just known, but reknown for Willie Mae’s fried chicken.
It’s a low-key place: just a simple,wood-frame building that matches the surrounding houses. There’s no neon on the sign, so it’s easy to miss. The front door is right on the corner and there’s no parking lot so you might have to walk a block or two. But don’t let the humble presentation fool you, the restaurant won a James Beard award for the way it represents the regional culture and cuisine.
We have a small celebration when it’s our turn to be seated and we follow the host to our table. It’s noisy and crowded inside. The decor is attractively basic: hardwood floors, unremarkable restaurant-grade tables and chairs, some pictures of the establishment’s history on the walls.
There are other things on the menu than fried chicken, but I’m not sure if anyone ever bothers with them. I ordered - like everyone else - the three-piece dinner, and only used the menu to choose my sides: brussels sprouts and greens. And then we waited again, because they don’t fry ahead.
Fried chicken is a world food - there are Asian versions and African versions and European versions, and there’s Willie Mae’s version which is her take on the classic Southern, American version, and that’s what we’re really talking about when we say “fried chicken”.
The American South claims fried chicken as its own, but as I Google the history, I keep running into a racial association as well as the regional one. I hesitate to mention it because some people are sensitive to the subject.
Some say that fried chicken developed from slaves in the southern states melding the spices of their native Africa with a cooking technique popular among their Scottish-heritage owners. Through the media of the day, fried chicken became a piece of a stereotype of black people that also included unflattering and untrue characterizations, and the bits of nonsense that bigotry was built around.
Today, some African-Americans disdain fried chicken because of that stereotype, or because it is “slave food” or “poverty food” - something their people ate when they had no other choice. Some flat-out refuse to eat it, and will resent that I brought it up again.
But others will celebrate fried chicken as one of the many contributions to American culture which have come from the black community. Fried chicken is a wonderful thing and I want to give credit where credit is due - to the blacks, the Scots, the rich plantation owners, the dirt poor farmers, the hillbillies, and to anyone else who was involved in creating fried chicken as we know it.
The server brings our dinner and it does not disappoint. The sprouts and greens and cornbread are good, but the fried chicken is the star. Crunchy and oily on the outside, piping hot and juicy on the inside. I go full-caveman and use my hands to lift the pieces to my face and take whole bites directly out of them, and then I use my teeth and my fingers to pick the bones clean.
I can taste the salt and the pepper and the garlic and the hint of cayenne. It’s rich and savory and there’s enough spice in the seasoning that I start to sweat a little, and pretty soon I’m oily on the outside, too. Grease and little crispy bits are smeared all over my cheeks, and my hands are too slippery to pick up a fork. It’s a mess, but a glorious one. The server smiles and brings more napkins without being asked.
Willie Mae’s three-piece dinner is a full-sized meal, still, when the server asks about dessert, I consider ordering a few more drumsticks. The chicken is good enough that I want to keep on eating. But there are others still waiting outside on the sidewalk, and the rest of my party is ready to go. We exit into the evening, and it’s our turn to reassure the crowd, “yes, it’s worth the wait.”
Willie Mae - or actually her great-granddaughter, now - makes damn fine fried chicken, but she hardly has a monopoly on it. On another night in New Orleans when we needed a quick and convenient meal, the gas station next door to our hotel threw fifteen pieces into the fryer, and sent us home with a box of fried chicken so good it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Countless fast food places make good fried chicken. Countless sit-down restaurants make good fried chicken. McDonalds fries Chicken McNuggets and I’m not too proud to admit that I love them, and I’ll bet you do, too. A white guy from Kentucky made such good fried chicken that he took it global, and you can get his KFC in Nairobi, Bethlehem and Bangkok. Whatever else you may say about his mass-produced product, it’s delicious, and his 11 herbs and spices have become the standard by which we judge all others. I’ve been to his original restaurant, too.
Gas stations make fried chicken and grammas make fried chicken. Truck stops make fried chicken and diners make fried chicken. Fancy-pants celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay fry chicken and so does Rosey at Rosey’s Diner in Escanaba, Michigan. Canadians fry chicken when they aren’t frying walleye. You can get fried chicken from north to south and from coast to coast and beyond. Everybody makes fried chicken.
In more than fifty years of living, I’ve enjoyed countless meals of fried chicken, but have never prepared it, myself. Not pieces, not nuggets, and definitely not a whole bird - I have never fried chicken in the American Southern style.
Honestly, I hardly know where to start. I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout fryin’ no chickin, and the process is intimidating. There’s the seasoning and the coating and I don’t understand the sequence of things. There’s the marinade, or “brine”, but “brine” always seems like the wrong word because it’s buttermilk, not salt water. And, is a cast-iron skillet better than a deep-fryer? What kind of oil should I use, and how hot should it be? . . . so many questions that it’s easier to just go buy my chicken from someone else who has already proven themselves worthy of frying it.
To do it right seems to require an understanding of history and tradition and technique, and I should have found a mentor years ago to guide me and encourage me and correct my mistakes. Chicken frying belongs on that list of things you should start young, before fears develop, along with snow skiing and mountain biking and oyster eating. I wonder if I have waited too late in life to begin frying chicken.
And then I watched a Youtube video. In sixteen minutes, I became an expert.
Sam the Cooking Guy walked me through the process. I like Sam’s videos because he swears like me, makes mistakes like me, and loves food enough that he occasionally is rendered speechless and misty-eyed by brown gravy like me.
Sam took the mystery out of the buttermilk soak and he brought order to the flour dipping. He told me to double-coat for extra-crispy. He told me what my oil temperature should be and warned me not to do too many pieces at the same time. He built my confidence. I can do this.
A week arrived that I would be alone in the house. MSL was gone for a conference, so I had full freedom to make messes and cause minor smoke damage, and enough time to get it all cleaned up before she got home. It would be OK if I wrecked the meal, because I was the only one eating.
I soaked the chicken in the buttermilk overnight just like Sam said to do. I set up the propane burner on the patio and got a big pot with a whole jug of oil in it. Everything took twice as long as it needed to, because I kept looking back at the video for reassurance that I was doing it right. The burner made a terrifying roar as I waited for the oil to get up to temp, and then suddenly it was way too hot and I had to wait some more for it to cool down. I wasted forty-five minutes chasing the needle around the thermometer. It was getting dark by the time I dropped the first piece of meat into the fryer. I was frying blind. By stopwatch and flashlight I fried my chicken.
I fried eight pieces of chicken that night - two batches of four - all thighs because I like dark meat. I had such high hopes, and in the end, it was . . . okay. The chicken was just OK. I let it get too hot and I left it in too long. I didn’t season it quite right.
It wasn’t stellar fried chicken, but it was recognizable as fried chicken and it was edible, and the real victory was overcoming my fear of the process. I now know I can do it - I just need to learn to do it better. I need to pay more attention to the oil temp and I need to boost the seasoning in the buttermilk.
Willie Mae probably didn’t nail it on her first attempt, either. I’ll fry again. I’ll make the adjustments, and I’ll fry again. So far, it’s been fifty-two years, and I’ll keep frying until it’s worth the wait.