The High and the Low: Good to the Bone
In praise of fried chicken—gristle and all
A few weeks ago my husband and I went out
with some friends, and the talk turned, as it so often does, to food. Specifically to the singular glories of fried chicken, which we all apparently wished we were eating instead of the grilled salmon that sat, rather reproachfully, on our plates. I can talk all day about chicken and was gearing up to debate the finer points of, say, lard vs. Crisco (lard), garlic powder or not (yes), when one of the women at the table piped up that her favorite part of the chicken happened to be the bones.
Now, I know we Southerners are famous for eating a lot of stuff most people don’t. Dirt, poke sallet, and Goo Goo Clusters are just a few things that come immediately to mind. But I had never heard of anyone not only eating but favoring the bones of a fried chicken.
“Bones?” I asked brightly, even though what I was thinking was “Are you out of your mind? The last time my dog ate chicken bones I had to take him to the vet.” But she looked at me as if I were the one who was crazy, as if I might be the only person in the world who didn’t know the secret of their goodness. “Yes,” she said, “the bones,” adding that she sucked the marrow out of them first. For the second time in less than a minute, I was floored. I am all about beef and veal marrow—in stews, spread on toast with a little sea salt, scooped out of a hunk of osso buco with a proper silver marrow spoon.
But I feel sure that if I had ever bothered to think about it, I would have assumed that the amount of marrow in a chicken’s skinny bones would be negligible. This is where I would be wrong. “You haven’t lived until you’ve sucked out the marrow, “ she told me with, I swear, a faintly glazed look in her eyes. And then she added the kicker: “And then of course there is the gristle, et cetera.”
I should point out here that this woman is not a figure out of a Walker Evans photograph. She is smart and attractive and funny and well off enough not to have to resort to bones and gristle to keep from going hungry. So when she uttered the words “gristle, et cetera,” my mouth must have dropped open, because she felt the need to reassure me that eating a chicken in its entirety, especially the “crispy wings,” is not a big deal. “It’s just like eating shrimp shells,” she said. I don’t eat those either, but in the end I had to admire the thoroughness and gusto with which this woman dispatched her bird. Plus, I came across a song lyric by an Austin-based singer/songwriter I like a lot named Bob Schneider that attests to the fact that the bones are fairly easy to eat. In “Come with Me Tonight,” there’s a line about “Larry,” who “Always gets it wrong/His heart’s as soft as chicken bone.”
Schneider’s is not the only song that mentions chicken—or bones, either, for that matter. There’s a great Danny Barker song, popularized by Johnny Mercer, called “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” in which “Henry don’t eat no meat.” My friend Jimmy Phillips has a song called “Gnawing Bone,” in which a guy gets a clue that his woman has left him when he comes home to an open door and an empty house: “The whole place smells like pork chops/But ain’t no pig meat on the stove/Just some cold grease in the skillet/And one low-down gnawing bone.”