Originally created 10/06/04

From okra to chicken, Southerners like it fried



CONWAY, Ark. - The most popular dish at Mama Dip's Kitchen in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the Southern fried chicken. At Dixie Restaurants in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma, the most popular main course rotates between chicken-fried steak and hand-battered chicken tenders.

So, if it's Southern, it must be fried, right?

Not exactly, says restaurant owner and cookbook author Mama Dip, whose real name is Mildred Edna Cotton Council. She points out that Southern food is about vegetables, too, including the greens, sweet potatoes and beans that aren't usually fried.

Still, at her restaurant and many other Southern eateries, the menus are much more likely to feature the likes of fried okra and fried catfish than steamed asparagus and grilled salmon.

Indeed, Council says the fried chicken, battered in nothing more than flour, salt and pepper and cooked in shortening, is what draws many people to her restaurant, known for its Southern country cooking.

The secret to good fried chicken, the 75-year-old Council believes, is simple: freshness and no extra spices to hide the poultry's taste. "We don't freeze our chicken. It never gets a chance to get old," says Council, interviewed by telephone recently. "You can't fry a chicken that someone killed in Georgia and then bring it to North Carolina and then let it sit in your refrigerator three or four days."

At Dixie Cafe in Conway in central Arkansas, diners enjoy a veritable smorgasbord of battered fried foods, from corn-on-the-cob to dill pickles, from chicken tenders to mushrooms and mozzarella sticks.

Rick Browne, author of "The Frequent Fryers Cookbook" (ReganBooks, 2003, $19.95), recalls laughing at the thought of fried pickles - "frickles," he calls them - "until I tried them."

"I put them in a little beer and mustard and then a little cornmeal and flour," he says. " A whole jar disappears in one-half of a football game."

Frank Battisto, president of the Little Rock-based Dixie Restaurants, says the chain's 23 Dixie and Delta cafes are "very popular with folks who bring their families in from the North."

"Most of them have never heard of fried okra," he says.

The menu at Mama Dip's Kitchen (the name of the restaurant and of her 1999 cookbook) offers diners such traditional Southern fare as fried catfish, fried pork chops, hushpuppies and fried green tomatoes.

Diners who aren't squeamish can even try plain or pan-fried chitlins, the small intestines of freshly slaughtered pigs, otherwise known as Kentucky oysters or wrinkled steak. Less adventuresome diners at Mama Dip's can opt for barbecued chicken, grilled beef liver or broiled fish.

Council's book (University of North Carolina Press, $24.95), while offering plenty of non-fried dishes, is full of such down-home recipes as fried chicken livers, fried squash and fried dog bread - savory patties that are a poor man's dream, for they require only cornmeal, water and oil or bacon grease.

The bread, also called hoecake, is great buttered and served alongside a pot of pinto beans, a "mess" of turnip greens and some raw onion. Our ancestors supposedly cooked their hoecake on a garden hoe, rubbed down with lard, in a roaring fire. Southern cooks have since replaced the fire and hoe with a stovetop iron skillet and spatula.

Council notes that people all over the country eat fried foods. Certainly there's a whole host of fried fair foods which you're just as likely to find at a food festival in Chicago as in the Deep South: onion blossoms, corn dogs, funnel cakes and fried ice cream among them.

However, the fried foods most Southerners eat or remember from their childhood are less glamorous.

There are the fried pies - half-moon shapes of dough our grandmothers stuffed with dried peaches, apples or chocolate. The fried catfish, battered and accompanied by a lemon wedge, hushpuppies and french fries. The fried green tomatoes, eaten for breakfast in some households. And there probably aren't many Southerners over 50 who haven't at least secretly enjoyed a fried bologna sandwich.

Southern fondness for fried food can be traced to the antebellum era, according to both Browne and food authority John T. Edge, who considers fried okra "one of the Supreme Being's greatest gifts to mankind."

"The presence of African-American cooks who were expert in frying in deep oil brought a taste for such dishes here," says Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.

In the past, Edge says, Southerners also fried foods because they had so much lard from the many pigs they had butchered and eaten. "That's no longer the case, but it in some ways set the love of fried foods in motion," he says.

Also, frying is fast. "In the summer, it's pretty hot down there," Browne said. "It's a quicker way to cook than some of the barbecues they used to have."

Browne, who sports a red-and-white checked shirt, a straw hat and a gray beard on the cover of his book, is no Southerner. Born in Canada, he used to live in Michigan and now calls Vancouver, Wash., home.

Browne's book offers readers recipes on everything from fried frogs' legs to Cajun deep-fried turkey, from deep-fried Twinkies to fried Oreo cookies. He even has a recipe for deep-fried Milky Way Bars, a dessert created in Scotland, he says. Browne also offers a recipe for fried corn-on-the-cob, but, unlike Dixie's, it's not battered.

Edge, who grew up in Georgia, thinks of fried foods "as a working man's food, a food to fuel one for the day's work ahead.

"I grew up relishing fried foods, whether it be fried catfish or fried pork rinds or fried chicken," he says. "I'm a 41-year-old child of the South. I love fried foods, but it's not something I eat everyday."

Edge considers the "belief that the South is a culinary hidey-hole where strange customs lurk" an exaggeration. The South is far from the only culture where fried foods flourish, he notes, citing others including Portugal, Japan and China.

Another misunderstanding, he says: If fried food is cooked properly, especially at the correct temperature, the food doesn't absorb much grease.

Council suggests using a whole fryer, cut up, or parts of your choice for her Country Fried Chicken. "It takes about 2 minutes over medium high heat for oil to get hot enough for frying. If it smokes or pops when the chicken touches it, the oil is too hot."

Country Fried Chicken

1 whole fryer chicken, cut up, or equivalent chicken parts

1½ cups self-rising flour

1 teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon salt

1½ cups shortening

In a bowl, mix 2 teaspoons salt with 2 cups water. Put in the chicken parts and let soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain.

Mix together the flour, pepper and salt, and batter the chicken by dipping the pieces in flour mixture until they are coated on all sides, shaking off excess flour.

In a skillet, over medium heat, let the shortening get hot. It should be at 350 F on a thermometer, or you can test it by taking a piece of chicken and letting the corner touch the shortening: If it begins to fry, the shortening is ready. If the shortening appears too hot, remove the skillet from the heat and let it cool a little.

Brown the chicken on all sides, reducing the heat if needed as it cooks. It takes about 20 minutes to fry chicken well-done. If you are afraid that the chicken is not done even though the batter is browned, put it in a baking pan and place it in the oven at 350 F for 15 minutes.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

(Recipe from "Mama Dip's Kitchen," 1999, $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paperback)

Here is Council's recipe for fried dog bread or patties. "When I was growing up, dog bread was served with greens and creek fish," she writes." "In the wintertime, when scraps from the dinner table got scarce, this bread was baked in a big, thick pone, then broken into pieces and mixed with milk for the hunting dogs."

Fried Dog Bread or Patties

1 cup plain cornmeal

1 cup water

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Stir the water into the cornmeal until well mixed. Heat the oil in a 6- to 8-inch skillet over medium heat just until hot. Pour in the cornmeal mixture and let cook until it appears to be brown. Lay a plate on top of the skillet and turn the bread out onto the plate. Slide the bread back into the skillet and turn the heat to low. Let cook for 10 to 12 minutes. Break into pieces and serve.

For patties, add a little water to the cornmeal mixture if necessary and spoon 2 tablespoonfuls of the mixture into the hot skillet for each patty. Let brown on both sides.

Makes about six 2-inch patties.

(Recipe from "Mama Dip's Kitchen," 1999, $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paperback)

Fried Okra

1 pound fresh okra

1 cup self-rising cornmeal

½ cup self-rising flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup vegetable oil

Rinse the okra and dry with a paper towel. Cut the pods into ½-inch pieces, removing the tops. In a bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour and salt. Add the okra pieces to the bowl, stirring to coat with the cornmeal mixture, and then let sit for a few minutes. Stir again. When the breading clings to the okra, shake the bowl - the excess breading will go to the bottom. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a frying pan large enough to allow the okra room to cook evenly. Spoon the okra out of the bowl and fry in the hot oil until browned all over, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the okra on paper towels before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

(Recipe from "Mama Dip's Kitchen," 1999, $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paperback)

This version is made in the oven, but many Southern cooks fry their green tomatoes on the stovetop.

Oven-Fried Green Tomatoes

½ stick butter or margarine

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

4 green tomatoes, sliced

1 cup self-rising flour

Preheat oven to 400 F. Melt the butter in a baking pan. Stir in the salt and pepper. Coat the sliced tomatoes with flour and place them in the pan. Bake on the lower rack of the oven for 8 minutes. Then turn the oven up to a broil to brown the tomato slices.

Makes about 6 servings.

(Recipe from "Mama Dip's Kitchen," 1999, $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paperback)

The following recipe for Frickles (Fried Pickles) comes from Browne's "The Frequent Fryers Cookbook." Browne suggests serving the pickles as an appetizer with an icy cold beer.

Frickles

1 cup flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons your favorite barbecue rub

¼ cup prepared yellow mustard

2 tablespoons beer

Medium jar (8 to 12 ounces) Dill pickle slices

Oil for frying

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350 F.

In a wide flat pan, combine the flour and cornmeal and season the mixture with the barbecue rub. In a small bowl make a slurry of mustard and beer.

Using your fingers, dip the pickle slices in the mustard mixture and then in the flour-cornmeal. Then, using tongs, slip individual pickle slices into the hot oil. Deep-fry until the batter is browned. The pickles will float to the top of the oil when done.

Remove them from the hot oil with tongs and drain them on paper towels on a shallow plate.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

(Recipe from "The Frequent Fryers Cookbook," by Rick Browne, 2003, Regan books, $24.95, $19.95 paperback)