There’s something about fried chicken that draws out a primal response. Pleasure. Passion. Voracity. We’ve seen it in the chicken sandwich wars that continue to rage on; the ways the big chains try to out-season and out-fry each other; the claims of “fame” every Southern neighborhood joint bestows upon their top-secret family recipes. I buy into all of it, and gladly. Marinated, brined, spiced, batter-dipped, and double-breaded—they’ve all got their virtues and memorable notes.
And yet, cliché as it is, especially as I say it here from Atlanta, I’ve never had anything quite like my grandma’s fried chicken.
It tasted like her personality. Loud. Bold. Brash. And unapologetically so. She was a force in her day, formidably commanding and stern, but equally ready to erupt into good-humored, raspy laughter at the silliness of young children with the love of her life, my venerated granddaddy.
Chinese without being Chinese, Southern-style and American without truly being either, her fried chicken was a crossroads of cultures sealed together under a gloriously crackling brown exterior, craggy with crunch. It took techniques from—but was nothing at all like—the curry-laced, robustly flavored chicken wings my father made for the family restaurant. Made at home with some frequency, it wasn’t considered as special as when my parents would treat us to a bucket of Roy Rogers, a “real American” splurge for their meager budget.
Rather, hers was vaguely Asian, with a rice wine-laced aroma. It had bites of ginger that would pop out at me, catching my young tongue, a surprise every time. These flavor pinches were like an acerbic admonition to slow down a little—it made me appreciate the nuance of flavor in the overnight marinade, the lovingly floured pieces hand-fried on a coil stove in my grandparents’ wallpapered kitchen.
I wish I had.
I spent a lot of my early childhood in that kitchen. While my parents worked at their restaurant, my cousin and I spent our weekends firmly underfoot at my grandparents’ house. I’d watch raptly as my grandma whipped eggs into submission and nimbly wrapped dumplings with no more than chopsticks. She'd let us splash around the big leafy greens she’d soak in the sink, sandy from her garden. But most of all, I eagerly anticipated each piece of chicken she’d lift out of a pot of shimmering oil, glistening and golden betwixt her expertly wielded chopsticks.
"Chinese without being Chinese, Southern-style and American without truly being either, her fried chicken was a crossroads of cultures sealed together under a gloriously crackling brown exterior, craggy with crunch."
I think about her every time I have bone-in fried chicken. How I used to crunch up in a hard wooden chair, squirming with impatience waiting–never long enough–for the first drumstick to cool on the paper towel-lined plate. I remember the way its fragrant steam would tickle my nose when I broke through that fried layer, peppery and sharp. Eating them with my mom, who never minded how filthy I was getting as I picked each piece apart in my little hands; never gave me grief about having to scrub my greasy fingers and the outfit that inevitably became a napkin; and uncomplainingly ate the bruised and gluey pieces I wouldn’t. She loved the gelatinous tendon, gnawing on the bone for the marrow.
I remember all of this … but I wish I had paid more attention.
Sometime between childhood and adulthood, my grandparents moved back to their hometown in Fuzhou, China to enjoy their too-short retirement together. Meanwhile, I moved to New Orleans, another fried chicken paradise. So much time was lost before we found each other in the same time zone, much less state, once again. And one of those things was her fried chicken recipe.
“Grandma, what did you put in your fried chicken?” I asked her a few years after she came back to the U.S.
“My fried chicken? Oh, this and that; nothing special,” she responded, bemused. “Why?”
“I want to make it. I really, really liked your fried chicken, Grandma; I remember the happiness of the flavor,” I answered lamely in my now elementary Fuzhouhua—another cultural casualty of time passed. I struggled with the nuance as I struggle now to encapsulate a collection of moments.
“I don’t know … oyster sauce, fish sauce, probably sesame oil.” She listed a few other ingredients, words I no longer understood, things she couldn’t point out over the phone. “I don’t remember anymore!” she laughed ruefully.
“But what about ginger? There was a lot of ginger, right?” I prodded.
“Oh, yes, there was! So much ginger, I used to fry it with the big chunks right on it,” she recalled. “Next time you come home, I’ll try to make it for you,” she promised.
She was as good as her word, but sadly, the chicken wasn’t.
“Is this close? Is this like it?” she’d ask with each batch. Every time, I had to shake my head with regret, a twinge in my heart at our mutual disappointment. As a great home cook, it was always good, but it just wasn’t it. And it wasn’t my taste memory failing me—something vital was missing, something deep. It was as if as she mellowed with age, so did her cooking; the flavors softened, its vivacity muted.
Over time, we stopped talking about it. We stopped trying. Unspoken, we resigned ourselves to the fact that her amazing fried chicken wasn’t meant to be a family recipe. We regretted that no one wrote it down, that it was so top secret that only she knew how to create. That none of us could share this as our family grew through love and marriage. That this snapshot of fused Chinese and American culture was one we could never pull out again, to relive fondly.
"It was as if as she mellowed with age, so did her cooking; the flavors softened, its vivacity muted."
There are some things in this world so wonderful, they are meant to be gifts only for a time, to be remembered solely for the joy of the moment but never to exist again. A lost treasure, adrift in a forlorn sea of our memories.