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What Southern Folks Eat - The little things that last

Stephanie Hill-Frazier Special to The Star
The Star

It happens to everyone from time to time; you’re walking along, minding your own business, when you hear a song, and are immediately transported backward in time to a place when that song had some special meaning for you. It can happen with a scent, too, or even a visual of some sort.

I was just talking to a friend about this today, because it’s such a universal thing among us humans. We were reminiscing about the good old days of music (that would be the 1980s, if you’re wondering) and how excellent certain bands like the Eagles and Journey were, for example. There are songs from those years when I was in high school that just snatch me backward through the decades like an abrupt time machine.

When I hear “I Can’t Tell You Why” by the Eagles, for example, I am immediately on Mexico Beach in the early ‘80s near Toucan’s, back when there were pool tables downstairs. That song was blaring over the speakers as my friends and I walked by one summer night. We weren’t old enough to go in, so we stopped and sat down on the sand just outside, and watched people shoot pool while we listened to the song and those that followed. It was such a fun beach night, and I love remembering it each time the song plays on my radio.

When I hear a song called “Tainted Love” by a band called Soft Cell, I am transported to the Port St. Joe High School drivers’ Ed car, sitting in the driver’s seat alongside Mr. Gunter as my classmates sang along to the tune in the back seat. He was kind enough to allow us to listen to WPFM when we drove, as long as we drove well. I remember driving that straight, beautiful stretch of 30A, lined with tall, skinny pine trees, as we laughed and learned and tried not to cause Mr. Gunter to hit the brake over on the passenger side floor. I guess he was learning patience as we were learning to drive, God bless him.

Scents can similarly transport us, of course. I wrote once about how my sister and I visited Charleston, South Carolina, and when we walked out onto the pier over the harbor, our noses were greeted with the scent of salty, briny water. We looked at each other and said almost in unison, “It smells like home!” We felt the same as we sat down to eat dinner and enjoyed an appetizer of boiled peanuts, the smell of which took us back to the days our dad would come home from work with a paper bag full of them from a man alongside some Gulf or Franklin County roadway. Such happy memories, all triggered by simple, salty smells.

These thoughts remind me that so many things which eventually make up our happiest memories are small things: a special love song, the scent of mom’s chicken sizzling in a cast iron skillet, or the sound of waves on the beach. This year, I plan to make sure to create more of those kinds of things for people I care about, and worry less about things like pleasing people, over-spending money, or being overly busy. Those kinds of stressful things are not at all what happy memories are made of, so I plan to try not to get caught up in too much of it in the new year.

In 2020, even though there is political strain and discord … even though there is too much crime … even though there is still hurricane recovery to be done … let’s not let those hardships completely blind us to the smaller, yet wonderful things that also exist. There are lots of them to notice. The big, blue eyes of a kiddo in your family that are just the color of the sky above your favorite beach, maybe. The way a gull’s cry overhead reminds you of the last time you were at the beach with your mom. The scent of a perfume wafting by on a stranger that makes it seem your grandmother has just walked into the room. Notice that stuff, and be grateful.

Not only is it wonderful to experience those things, but it’s also a great privilege to be able to leave those kinds of beautiful impressions on the people around you. Making a simple weekly spaghetti dinner for your family may seem trivial now, but one day it could be one of the favorite things they remember about you. Baking a special kind of cookie each time your grandchildren come over will mean they always associate that delicious scent with you, even when they’re grandparents, themselves. Work toward planting those happy memories; love the people in your life with words and deeds of kindness.

As we do that, we teach those younger than we are how to love others, too. The world is doing a fine job of teaching them to be angry; you don’t need to add to that. Teach them, instead, to neutralize the bad with the acts of kindness that they do, one little shared cookie, song, or bedtime story at a time.

I realize that one of the ways my own mom showed our family she loved us was when she cooked for us. Mom was such a great cook, so we were blessed to enjoy the fruits of her labors of love. She made one thing in particular that is now one of my favorite sensory memories of her, and that was her fried chicken. I only remember her making it on Sundays after church, and it was perfectly delicious. Sherrin and I had some fried chicken at a restaurant in downtown Pensacola once that tasted and smelled so much like hers that we almost wept over it. It’s not just the food, it’s the memories, you know?

Here’s a nice recipe that’s somewhat similar to hers. She kept it simple, with salt, pepper, garlic powder and the like, mixed into the flour. This goes a tad further, but it turns out well with practice. If there’s someone you want to demo a little kindness to who might love it, give it a try!

Southern Fried Chicken

Chicken, cut up into pieces (I often just get a package of drumsticks or thighs, as they are uniform so they’ll cook at the same speed.)

Step one: Place chicken pieces into a very large bowl. Cover with buttermilk to which you’ve added 4 tablespoons or so of Louisiana Hot Sauce, or similar.

Allow to brine in the buttermilk for an hour or longer. This makes the meat more tender and juicy. You can make your own buttermilk if you have none by adding a tablespoon or two of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of whole milk, and stirring in. Let it thicken before using.)

Canola oil to fill a dutch oven or cast iron skillet 2 or 3 inches deep (or whatever method you prefer; some of you may have an electric fryer, deep fryer, etc. which is great. I just use a big chef pan.)

For breading:

3 cups plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons dried cayenne pepper (or less if you aren’t a fan)

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 to 2 teaspoons salt (you may or may not want to add more salt, to taste, next time.)

Whisk all breading ingredients together in another large bowl. Add six tablespoons of buttermilk to the mixture and use your fingers to mix it into the flour until it is incorporated throughout flour and all looks crumbly.

Place chicken pieces, one at a time, into flour mixture. Don’t just roll it around in there, but actually press the flour mixture into the chicken. It will stick and be a nice, thick coating on the chicken.

Then, follow these directions from America’s Test Kitchen’s website:

Heat oil in large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with 11-inch diameter over medium-high heat until it reaches 375 degrees.

Place chicken pieces, skin-side down, in oil, cover, and fry until deep golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove lid after four minutes and lift chicken pieces to check for even browning; rearrange if some pieces are browning faster than others. (At this point, oil should be about 300 degrees. Adjust burner, if necessary, to regulate temperature of oil.)

Turn chicken pieces over and continue to fry, uncovered, until chicken pieces are deep golden brown on second side, 6 to 8 minutes longer. (At this point, to keep chicken from browning too quickly, adjust burner to maintain oil temperature of about 315 degrees.)

Using tongs, transfer chicken to plate lined with paper towels; let stand for five minutes to drain. Serve with whatever scrumptious sides you and your family will enjoy. Mama always made mashed potatoes and gravy or rice and gravy, but always gravy. We’re Southerners, after all.

I hope that you’re encouraged this week to make some memories, do some cooking, and have some fun with your loved ones. It really does matter as the years go by.

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.

She is married and has three young adult sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com or contact her at steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.